Sunday, April 17, 2011

Rock, paper

When we first lived together, we took a summer in her sister’s cabin on the Delaware River. Visiting a stone-carver’s studio one day, we impulsively paid to have our names carved together into a hunk of rough granite, sort of like love, but also, we joked, somewhat like a gravestone. She reached into her purse as I reached into my wallet. The whole thing unnerved her. What would she do with the rock after her younger man left?

When she said, I’m moving to Montana, I packed a van and drove two thousand miles, and we moved in together to a small yellow house hard against a gasoline station. We tucked the Venema Downs stone into a small garden near the front porch steps. We cooked chicken and beans together, slept together on a fold-out futon, walked the dog together – but we kept separate checking accounts. Sheri worked part time, and I worked full time, and she didn’t want to owe her younger man anything. We shared dreams sooner than money.

Then we got married, and we moved our rough granite to Arkansas where I could learn about literature and barbecue. We bought a house together and put the stone in the front yard. We cooked together, slept together, walked the dogs, Ozark and Tinker, each of us with a leash. Eventually she said, “We own a house together. It’s silly to keep separate checking accounts.”

Now, the Venema Downs stone sits in front of our house in Baltimore. Our names are on the house where we live, on our checks, and, for the first time, on advance directives, powers of attorney, wills. What’s hers is mine, what’s mine is hers – permanence in rock now as well in paper, so we know what will happen after one of us leaves.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Last Will & Testament

Color is coming back to gardens all over Baltimore – the bright magenta of tulip trees, the lush yellow of daffodil beds along the highways, the soft orange of the robin’s breast. And we chose this time of year, when life emerges once again from soil and bark, to talk about death.

It was time to create our wills. Actually, it was long past time for me to write a will. For Michael, too, a little late.  When  should you write a will? Advice varies, but you probably want to start thinking about it when the stuff you own is valuable. A house, let’s say (we bought our first together 15 years ago). Or, when you get married (almost 18 years). Or when you have children (not). Or when you get sick (not yet, knock on wood).

I’ve been thinking about wills for a while.  But we breezed through the decades of  his 20s, my 40s, then our 30s/50s without acknowledging that either of us would die. 

When I think about why we put off creating a will for so long , here’s what I come up with: Actually putting it on the table seemed like, well, acquiescing to age.  Married to a younger man, I don’t need to remind him that I’ve lived longer than he has.  He sees it every day in the wrinkles that won’t go away despite what Clinique promises, or the thumb that can’t open a new jar of mayonnaise. I avoided talking about death and wills and bequeathments because it seemed easier to pretend that really, at heart, we’re the same age.  The same young age.

But that pretense couldn’t last. I’ve just made an appointment for my first colonoscopy and celebrated my sister’s 65th birthday. Meanwhile, although Michael’s still got game on the basketball court, we both put prescription orthotics in our boots when we take the dogs out for their morning hike.

So last month, with years and the accumulation of stuff weighing more heavily on both of us,  we called a lawyer. Then we opened our windows and breathed deeply of the spring air, and asked the other: What if I die first; what if you do? What if we die together?

Now that I’ve acknowledged I’ll likely die before he does, it’s clear that he, of course, has known that all along. And what we both discovered is this: More important than who gets our stuff is this:  Who gets the dogs?