My husband died today. And then I did. And then one of my children…then my sister and brother-in-law…
“Sorry I keep killing off your family,” my lawyer said.
No, this was not the worst day ever. It was a hypothetical conversation that was long overdue. On that day, my husband and I finally sat down with an estate planning lawyer to make a will and a trust for our children, and assign each other as power of attorney and medical proxy in the unfortunate event of our early death. (There were some morbid jokes on my husband’s behalf about how “unfortunate” his early death would be. “Remember honey, when the insurance company calls you want a lump sum,” he advised.)
We are about 40 years old. Maybe you are thinking, it took her this long?! And maybe more of you are thinking, oh, uh…maybe that’s something I should…SQUIRREL!
According to an ABC poll, less than half of Americans have done proper estate planning. I get it. My husband and I tried to do this over a decade ago when we were relative newlyweds, new homeowners and new parents. It overwhelmed us. We couldn’t afford a lawyer, so after attempting a DIY job we gave up. In my defense, we did notarize a document that appointed a guardian for our new daughter, but that was it.
It took the recent death of a family member for us to realize how important it is to have a power of attorney and medical proxy. You think it will automatically be your spouse, or that your family members know what your wishes are. But the reality is, the medical and legal landscapes are so complicated these days that you will be handcuffing them if you become incapacitated—think Terri Schiavo. My lawyer pointed out that even people who were responsible with their estate planning 15 years ago have to think about HIPAA laws and medical procedures that didn’t exist back then that now negate their wishes. Gah. I’m glad I have her to think about this stuff for me.
And that’s the point: I don’t need to be an expert on all this (’cause I’m not). Truth be told, it was not as expensive as I thought it would be. Our first planning meeting was even free. I am so relieved that we have set our children up for a future that I hope never happens. It’s not fun to think about this stuff, but it’s less fun to live it when people haven’t done their due diligence. I was patting myself on the back for our level of adulting until I asked my partner a crucial question.
“Hon, can you name any of our kids’ doctors?”
I shouldn’t have been surprised. During the legal meeting, we discovered that I alone possessed every password for our financial institutions, because I pay the bills. Were I to die or be incapacitated, my spouse’s access to our banking information would be as good as yours. So we changed that. But because of our division of labor, here was yet another area where I needed to make sure he has access to critical information, should I be…sidelined.
This might seem like a familiar story to some of you, and bizarre to others. A parent who has never met their child’s doctor? Believe it. My husband works long corporate hours, which has allowed me to stay home. He frequently travels, so I am the one who has naturally fallen into the role of primary caretaker. He gives us a lot, but he misses a lot. The reality is, my children and I have a lot of doctors: We all have the same genetic syndrome and are seen by multiple specialists. In a perfect world, my spouse and I would sit at every doctor’s appointment, holding hands, asking thoughtful questions that we have written down, and comforting each other afterwards.
Cut to our reality: I run around with my hair on fire, going to physical therapy, doing errands, receiving calls from school nurses for injuries or medicine doses, or pulling one kid or another out of school for appointments. Not only are we not at the doctor’s office together, sometimes he isn’t aware that we have a doctor for something—there are so many. I’m not saying this is right or wrong, it just is. His head is buried in work all day, and when he comes home, two babbling children and one often-frazzled wife overwhelm him with a day’s worth of stuff. If he has been travelling—sometimes it’s several days—we try to bullet-point the important things. Our children’s illness have become “my thing.”
Providers are often vilified in movies as being aloof, remote and somehow at fault for choosing career over family—like it’s a binary choice. I’ve heard the ranting in moms groups and on Facebook. Though some people may be out of balance, I have raised my children to understand how much love it takes for their dad to work so hard for us, and what we have because of him. Should anything happen to me, or to the both of us, it will be near impossible for anyone taking care of my children to figure out who has been managing their medical care. But the solution was simple: I made a list of doctors and specialists to post on our fridge. Done. I don’t need to guilt my husband for not keeping up with me, I just need to give him the means to carry on.
I don’t believe that taking steps to manage a crisis is a reflection of paranoia or pessimism. By laying down my proverbial cape, and the mommy ‘tude that often goes with it, I am empowering my partner to know that we are a team, and should something happen to me, it will enable him to take up the reins.
I don’t like to think of life without him, or of him surviving without me, but I think if you love someone, you have to imagine it.
And then you leave them tools.
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