Aging has its advantages—say what’s on your mind, no need to impress others, enjoying, laughing, crying, at sweet memories.
Aging has its disadvantages—unfamiliar aches and pains each morning, living alone and making an effort to be social, confronting mortality.
Now that I’m an octogenarian, determined to go on for twenty more years to make my kids miserable, it’s necessary to make end of life decisions.
My own parents died young—my father at age 53. He left behind a 49 year old widow, a pregnant daughter, and a son about to be married, a successful business and advice for a lifetime. My brother’s wedding went off as planned three weeks after Dad’s passing, since Jewish tradition mandates that joy overrides sadness. My mother and her six siblings joined in the festivities, though without the raucous loud cheers that usually occurred on such occasions.
Mom, who had jointly run the grocery business with my father, assigned my brother has her partner in running it. In a bumbling way Mom settled Dad’s estate seven years after his death. By then, settled in California, with four young children, far away from the hubbub of Brooklyn, and no interest in the business, she asked me to sign away my share of the business to my brother.
Before I put my Janice Alper on the form, I consulted an attorney, “Do you trust your mother?” he asked.
“I trust my mother, but I don’t trust my brother,” I answered.
Mom sulked around our home in Palos Verdes reminding me over and over again that I had left her behind in Brooklyn to fend for herself and obviously had no interest in the store. She barked, “And why did you have to ask a lawyer for advice?”
“You’re jealous,” I said, “I had the courage to move away and you always told me Daddy wanted to move to California, so here I am.”
I didn’t tell her that secretly the move had saved my marriage. I was away from her sharp tongue and interference. The day before she left for her return to New York I signed away my share.
In hindsight—which of course is 20-20—I didn’t do my mother any favors. The business went under. Mom secured a job as a bookkeeper in a private school and existed on her small salary and eventually social security income. Had I retained my interest, the business would have been dissolved, Mom’s share could have been invested to provide her a comfortable income for years to come with no need to work if chose not to.
She died of breast cancer shortly before her 68th birthday. The proceeds from the sale of her home, jewelry my father had bestowed upon her, and tempered memories, were left to me.
My own children, of course, are wiser than me. Daddy always said, “Children are smarter than their parents. They learn what they learn, and they learn what their parents learn.” My two sons embody this—they are distinguished in their respective professions, demonstrate compassion for people, and have managed money better than their parents. Even my marginally functional daughter is thriving and independent. Yet, having an aging mother is a concern for all of them.
Recently, my local son came over, mask and all. We reviewed my trust and made sure my will was up to date. When done, he said, “Let’s see what else we need to know.”
I removed a battered brown loose leaf from the shelf, a notebook I’d started shortly after my husband died in 2013, with ‘vital information.’ I showed him a dated list of passwords. “You need to update this, write down the numbers of all your credit cards, your bank accounts, your financial advisor, your attorney, and the password to your computer. And by the way, make a call list,” he answered.
“Yes, who to call first, second, etc. and while you’re at it what are your wishes for a funeral?
“I have an insurance policy for burial, so you won’t have to worry about that,” I answered.
“That’s not what I mean, what kind of funeral do you want, traditional, gravesite, what?”
“Oh yeah,” I answered, “I’ve thought about, so now I’ll write it down.”
“Get everything together, print it out and put it in this notebook, and better yet, put everything onto a thumb drive and tuck it into the book as well.”
“How did you get so smart?” I asked.
He laughed, “You’ve got your work cut out for you.”
We air hugged goodbye and I went to work.
The banal task of listing concrete things, such as credit cards, bank accounts, names of my attorney and financial planner, wasn’t overwhelming. The ‘call list’ started out easily enough: Louis, Steven, Julie, Rabbi Weiss in Cleveland, Rabbi Bernstein in San Diego, with a red caution to have her coordinate with Rabbi Weiss. Next came my love daughter, Sheerli, Chuck, my boyfriend, a cousin in New York, who I knew would let others know; a close friend here, who’s aware of my community connections. Then the wheels started to spin—how to let my writing community know and what about the life-long friends who are disconnected from each other, but might want to know, and what about my cousins from the ‘other side of the family?’ There are instructions to call my Australian friend, Phyllis, on whatsapp and do the same for my Israeli family and friends. After a whilie I typed, “Just scroll down the contact list on my phone and send out a group text. That will save time and lots of talk.”
Next I turned to funeral arrangements. Not so easy. The only things that occurred right away—a traditional Jewish funeral, dressed in a shroud (I can’t believe I’ll give up my jeans;) quick, as required by Jewish law; John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Road,” as people come in, and suggesting mourners and well-wishers wear their brightest colors, smile when they think of me, tell funny stories about how I like to control things, and have a party in my honor.
I created a new file on my computer labeled “Vital Information,” with everything so far. It’s not quite finished, but just like me it’s a work in progress. After all I have nineteen years and eleven months to think about it. Stay tuned…
Dad at his best, finishing the food he prepared for Steven’s bris, July 1966, four months before he died.
My favorite picture of Marv and me on my birthday in Julian, September 18, 2012, seven months before he died.