Passing On

I started this years ago on a blog and let it rest while I finished two books. I’ll post updated versions and new topics in a new newsletter that you’ll receive if and only if you subscribe to it (it’s free). Don’t subscribe out of obligation, but note that it’s not just for old people. The first post is below. Subscribe here <> if you wish to receive the Passing On newsletter.

Passing On, an Introduction

Making life easier for those you leave behind includes both the simple and the complicated, both the painless and the unsettling. To illustrate, I’ll start with an example of these extremes. First the simple:

A couple of years ago, I injured my elbow tendon badly enough that it took months to heal. Not only could I not work out, I couldn’t even wrestle the lid off a jar, which took away one of the few reasons my wife keeps me around. Feeling the pressure, I looked for a surrogate jar opener, and the ladies at the local kitchen store introduced me to this tool that loosens lids by cracking the vacuum seal.

Now for the complicated and unsettling one:

A few years ago, my mother had a stroke that, a week later, ended her life. She had lived a rich full life, and was physically and mentally capable all her 91 years. While her last week of life was uncomfortable, most of us would be pleased to have our lives end like hers, and most of us would be pleased to have our loved ones’ lives end like hers. Nevertheless, that last week could have gone easier for my mother and was emotionally bruising for my wife and me.

Because of the stroke, my mother could not swallow and would need a feeder tube to survive. As it had been determined, by that point, that her physical infirmities would be permanent, she would need an artificial apparatus to feed her, and she would neither be able to walk again nor talk well enough to be understood.

People adapt surprisingly well, physically and emotionally, to physical ailments if they develop gradually, but not so well when they come on at once. In short, she had gone from living as full a life as could be expected by a 91-year-old (attractive to the end, she had three male suitors), to facing what would be a miserable final months.

Now my mother was gradually starving, and a decision had to be made whether to put a tube down her throat, as well as to install a permanent feeding apparatus.

Many years ago, both my parents had living wills drawn by a lawyer, but only my father signed his. My mother was never able to admit that she would die and (I suppose) was superstitious about a living will. Because my mother never signed the living will, a drama played out in her hospital room over a couple of days. We had to make it clear to her what it would take to keep her alive for the time being, and what would happen if she did not have a feeding tube installed permanently into her stomach.

Because of her stroke, and the morphine to allay the pain, my mother was only conscious for short periods, mostly to tell us she wanted more morphine. And as I said, she could barely make herself understood. During the moments of consciousness, we had to explain her situation and ask her consent to withhold the means to artificially keep her alive. Eventually, my mother signaled that she understood that she would die if she didn’t get the feeding tube, and she consented to let nature take its course. We arranged for hospice, and she died a couple of days later, comfortably unconscious most of that time.

Following my mother’s death, I spent many months unraveling her financial situation. Records, which were once carefully filed in numerous folders (my mother was a bookkeeper), were now haphazardly filed or stacked. Her list of assets, scratched on a yellow pad, were out of date by several years.

If you lived in a well-populated urban area, especially, on a coast, and bought a house right after World War II, there’s a good chance that you retired with the means to live out your last years comfortably if you cashed in your house equity, especially, if you upscaled several times. My mother fit that description.

After my father’s death, theirteen years earlier, my mother sold her house and scattered her assets with several investment groups, small CDs in this bank and that, and so on. More research and follow-up became necessary when I found a three-inch stack of plastic credit cards (some as I found out still in service, some not), and additional checking and savings accounts, some, still in service, some not. Unfortunately, none of the accounts had an extra 100-million in them. My dream of being a venture capitalist, down the drain.

It took me months, and the help of a a probate lawyer, to deal with my mother’s finances—demonstrating that you don’t have to be wealthy to leave a complicated and confusing estate.

The good news in all this is that my brother was the only other heir, neither of us are greedy, and we trust each other. My brother, the college professor, prefers to hide in his ivory tower and tend to the dragons in his moat; he generously let me spend months doing all the probate work.

Which brings me to the point: I don’t want to leave a mess behind for my wife (I expect my wife to outlast me by many years) and children. Large amounts of money won’t be waiting for them, but I can make up for that a bit if large amounts of hassle aren’t waiting for them either. And I win, too. Getting rid of complications will make my life easier—whether it’s through simplifying our finances, or finding a simple tool to open jars.

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