“If you were to die tomorrow, wouldn’t you want me to remarry?”
The question is directed at my husband, comfortably in bed, relaxed, and not in the mood for a deep conversation. At least not this one. He pulls the covers up to his chin for protection; he knows what’s coming.
“What if you were in a terrible accident and you were brain dead and the doctors said you had no chance of recovery. Could I pull the plug?” “Do you really like that traditional plain box, or would you like an upgrade?”
“Not again,” Mike groans, turning over and closing his eyes, “you know I hate to talk about this.” But I am relentless. I LOVE to talk about this, especially snuggled under the covers at night.
“You’re DEAD,” I say. “Don’t you want me to be happy?” He knows I won’t quit until I finally get him to say, “Yes, of course I’d like you to be happy.” That he does, and I’m satisfied for the moment. I don’t expect miracles.
Sometimes I like to get the kids involved in the conversation. “MOM, PLEEEEEEEZE!” they say, “Why do you have to always bring this up?” I’m not sure why. I don’t dwell on other “What Ifs.” I don’t ever ask: “What if we won the lottery tomorrow?” “What if we didn’t have to pay taxes?” “What if we lived forever?” Death, with all its trappings and nuances, interests me.
Luckily, my mother’s interest in the subject balances my husband’s reticence. We could talk about these things forever (well, obviously not forever….)
“Why would my friend, who is 80,” my mother wonders to me on the phone, “spend $15,000 getting her teeth fixed? Does she think she will live forever?” “Why do so many women deny that they are going to die?” she asks me, thinking about another, terminally ill friend. “They don’t ask the doctors the right questions; they don’t have the conversations they need to have with their children. They don’t say ‘I love you’ or ‘I’m proud of you’. They think their time is not limited. It’s weird.”
I know the realities of my mother’s blood disease, and I love that my mother is strong enough, honest enough, and direct enough to have informed me about everything she wants when it is her time. I know that she wants no extraordinary means to keep her alive. I know exactly what “having a life” really means to her. I know she wants the plain pine box (we picked it out together when we went to get my dad’s, and she even pre-paid.) I know she wants a graveside service (unless it will be cold or rainy–no need to make anyone uncomfortable). I know her feelings about an afterlife (when you’re dead, you’re dead). I know that if my mother has enough warning, there will be a brisket in the freezer, cooked and ready to serve at her shiva. My mother has always let us know that she loves us, but in recent years, she has been generously offering up, “I’m proud of you,” and I have been pleased to hear it.
Since my father passed away, my mother spends many of her free hours clearing out the house I grew up in, slowly making a dent in the piles of paper that have accumulated over the decades. Even though it leaves an awkward void in her own home, she gives her children some of the beautiful furnishings that she feels would be right for their homes. She doles out treasures (read: junk) from our past that she just can’t bear to throw away. I’m not exactly sure what I am supposed to do with my Bat Mitzvah invitation or my high school report cards, but she is doing what she needs to do.
Yet I don’t see any of this preparation for death as morbid; I see it as necessary, practical. As my dad used to say, there are only two things certain in life: death and taxes. Hopefully my mother has many more years to give us, but if not, she is happy and satisfied with her legacy. She is not scared of death, and she is not scared to talk about it. I want to be like that.
“So, if I die tomorrow,” I say to my husband, trying to extend the conversation a few minutes more. “I want you to remarry. I want you to be happy.”
“OK, honey, that’s nice.”
“But I want you to promise that I’ll be buried next to you, not her.”
“Ok, I promise that you can be buried next to me, not her” he says, sighing. He knows the drill.
“And, of course, you know there are some women you’re not allowed to marry.”
“Of course,” he responds sleepily. But then I proceed to name them again, just in case.
He can refuse to talk about it all he wants, but like my mother, I’m not leaving anything to chance.