Thursday, December 5, 2013

Butterfly Waltz

If ever there was a blog post that needed a preface, it would be this one. But I’ve made a promise not to preface so...onward...

My neighborhood is so much more than just a cluster of houses and I totally love it. I love everything about it, from the sounds of the football and soccer games at the high school field nearby to the tree that I think looks like a firework. I love that my kids walk in and out of our neighbors' houses like they live there, and that other kids do the same to us. I love that the games of baseball at our bus stop have given Teddy a reason to get dressed without me tackling him to the ground and I love that Annabel has already gotten in on the games and the older kids don't mind. I love that prior to moving to our house, a “neighborhood ladies party” to celebrate the holidays would have terrified me, yet just a few days ago I found myself meticulously shopping on Amazon for my grab gift for the upcoming get together. Given the “naughty or nice” theme, Brian's Amazon account is suggesting some pretty ridiculous things since I made my purchases but that's a story for another day.

When my sister comes to visit, she just shakes her head and smiles at all of the friendliness she sees around my neighborhood. Rachel's a city girl since she left our hometown to go to college in Washington DC and she gets a bit thrown off by a place where we help each other chase squirrels out of the house. Rachel says our neighborhood is like a movie, and it is, except that movies are fake and this is real, in an awesome way, at least, for suburban types like me. 

Last week while Brian was on the roof putting up the 38th set of Christmas lights, he saw an ambulance arrive at our neighbor’s house a few doors down. He told me about it later that night and we prayed that everyone was OK.

We barely know the couple that lives in the house, which is to say that we know the kinds of cars they drive and we had spoken with them briefly at our neighborhood block party this past fall. Mostly, we know the couple as the ones who live in “the perfect house.”

“The perfect house” isn’t particularly big—I’d guess it has three or four bedrooms and two baths—but from the outside (and probably the inside, too), it's absolutely immaculate. The man, who I will call “Saul,” was always outside caring for his lawn which, despite my husband’s best efforts, has always been the most manicured lawn on the street. Saul couldn’t have been more than 65 and yet he worked outside like a 20 year old. When a tree in his front yard fell a few years ago, he had the stump removed and a new tree planted within days, and when the plow trucks beat the heck out of his mailbox, he propped up a new one before anyone else’s pile of snow even melted. Despite that I've never really had the chance to get to know Saul or his wife, "Joan," I have always appreciated how nice it is to drive by a house that clearly reflects so much pride and hard work. 

My kids already know about the "perfect house" because it is always the first one in the neighborhood to boast bright Christmas lights and a picture-perfect tree in the front window. This year, before we had even decided on colored lights or white, the perfect house already looked totally perfect. I'd bet part of what got Brian on the roof last weekend despite his fear of heights was the sight of Saul and Joan's house shining in the distance.

But after the ambulance came last weekend, we didn’t see the couple's Christmas lights go back on. I realized that but it didn't really register until we heard the terrible news that Saul had passed away a few days later.

We heard of Saul's death via my neighborhood’s Facebook page, right before we went to bed. We were shocked and saddened, not in the way that deserves any sympathy, but rather, in the way that people feel when they know the deceased and his family only distantly. I lied awake for a while that night, wondering how Saul’s wife would ever find a way to sleep, and realizing once again that we are all so very vulnerable.

Last night as I drove by the perfect house on my way home from work I saw a few cars in the driveway, obviously family members’ who had gathered. My heart sunk at the thought of what was going on inside. And for some reason, I dwelled on the fact that Saul and Joan's Christmas lights were all still off.

*  *  *

Today at work our human resource staff came from the firm’s home office to talk to each of us about our benefits package for next year. I don’t generally enjoy forms, but every year, and particularly this one and last, I find these forms particularly painful. Even as a health care attorney, I still don't fully understand all of the details about the HMO or PPO choices and I hate making decisions on things like short-term disability or life insurance for my children.

The kind HR woman, "Kim," and I moved through my family’s health insurance and dental options quickly because I knew that whatever I had was working so I didn't ask any questions. I just figured, If it ain’t broke…

I paused, however, when I got to the life insurance part. I’ve already written about how I purchased life insurance after Teddy was born. I roughly did the math out back then and purchased enough so that Brian could pay off the house and put two kids through college if I wasn't around to contribute my income. I was healthy (supposedly) so it's not that much out of each paycheck (about $80, to be precise).

Faced with the blue sheet of paper today, however, I wondered if maybe I should purchase more life insurance. When Kim gave me the chart of what $60,000 of additional life insurance would cost (just $2 more per paycheck), I was ready to sign up. But as Kim started to check that box I asked if they would need to do a health screen like I had had when I purchased my main policy. She said yes, and that a nurse would come to my house. I told her to forget it.

“I’d never pass,” I smiled, but inside, that thought terrified me. I decided to forget the additional life insurance and we blew through the rest of the form. I headed back to my office a bit shaken, and with the disappointment that I still can't spot when I'm about to walk into what, at least for me, is a mental land mine. Luckily, I had work to do, so I did it, and when I sat down on the train on my ride home, this post flowed out of my fingertips like water.

The truth is, I have thought about the rest of this post for a while now, but I never felt the compulsion to complete it. This week, however, several factors converged and I can't stop myself.

*  *  *

I know that it's not fun to talk about death and this is not a blog about it. I don't know much about the deep and ever-present grief that I have read about and seen other people experience when they lose someone who was so central to their lives. But I do know about planning and despite that I love the quote, Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans, I still like to plan. So this post is about planning. 

I don't usually like to use this space as a soapbox, but tonight, I will. I believe that as adults, we have a responsibility to plan for our death. I don't mean that we need to sit down and plan the music we want played at our funeral (although for me, definitely include "Butterfly Waltz" on the's amazing). I just mean that we need to address issues that, if not addressed, could harm those we love when we're not around anymore. 

The problem is, there is never a good time for these conversations. They aren't easy before one has a reason to have them and I'd imagine they'd be exponentially harder once one did. I can just see the look on Brian's face if, on the dinner date we get with each other about once every six months, I asked him if he'd like to be cremated or not. As if he needs another reason to think I'm nuts. But seriously, as his wife, I should know this. 

I admit, one time, I blurted out two questions to him that were perhaps so wildly inappropriate, at least, considering the time that I blurted them out. We had just exited his Grandma's funeral in South Boston and we were waiting in the car for the procession to head to the cemetery in Dorchester. All of the sudden, I had a question I couldn't contain. I asked Brian, "If you died, would you want a wake?" He laughed at me, hesitated, and answered. Then I asked, "And would you want the services in South Boston (where he grew up) or in Canton?" I honestly had no idea what he would say. But I knew that he should be the one to decide that. So he told me, and we drove on. 

With kids, the responsibility to plan gets even more significant. Did I enjoy sitting down with a lawyer to draft a will? Not especially. Did I enjoy the quirky guy from Prudential who stuck around way too long to discuss life insurance? Definitely not. But I know those are things that my children deserve, and they are things that bring me peace, cancer or no cancer. 

Every person is different and some people may want to do more planning than others. I'm kind of in the middle, meaning, I have some general thoughts, which (of course) I will share. Not to preface, but these things do not necessarily concern cancer. They have to do with the fragility of life and with how much I would want to make a painful time for my family as easy as it could possibly be.  

First, yes, when the time comes, cremate my body. My spirit or soul or whatever that too-big-to-comprehend-thing-that-is-life that makes me me will have moved on, so my body will just be taking up space. And I hate clutter. 

Then, yes, I suppose there will need to be some sort of gathering. I would choose to have it at my church in Canton because that's a beautiful and special space and because I don't want anyone to have to clean the house. People can read a few nice poems, say a few nice words that make me sound better than I really was, and then have some snacks (sweet ones, please). I will not allow family debates about "what she would have wanted." I just want everyone to keep it simple and be together. 

As for my ashes, I'd like them thrown in the ocean at whatever time and spot is easy and convenient for whoever has the horrid job of taking me home in a vase. No one has to make it a big event. Just toss that dust in (not near the shore though, that's gross) and be done with it.

As for carrying on my memory...this is the one and only thing I am adamant about (besides the Butterfly Waltz). Do not, and I mean, do NOT, feel any pressure to have any sort of anything "in memory" of me. No golf tournament (I'd rather everyone focus on the Scott Herr tournament) and no special walk or run (please do the Jimmy Fund Walk instead!). No scholarship funds that my family would have to keep up, no nothing that would make anything more difficult for those I love. 

Of course, I know that for many families, running a golf tournament or a scholarship fund helps them, and these families are truly, Schwartz family?!? (just to name one). If that's the case with my family, swing or fund away. But in all honesty, don't feel obligated to do anything "in memory" of me. 

Don't get lazy, however, because I am most certainly not letting anyone off the hook. I have even bigger things that my loved ones most certainly are obligated to do. They must take care of each other, make time for each other, and not only love each other, but show it. They must laugh and cry together and listen to each other when they fight. They must remain a family; even when lots of shit complicates that. (And as my cousin Tara likes to joke when she talks about her husband not being allowed to remarry if she kicks the bucket, If you don't do what I say, so help me God, I will haunt you like a ghost!) I know, a scholarship fund may just be easier than this whole lovey-dovey listening to each other thing, but this is my list, not yours. 

I know that this post is outside the scope of normal social etiquette. Death is tragic, whether it comes suddenly or whether it is preceded by years of a courageous battle, and I am certainly not making light of that. All I am saying is that I believe we all have an obligation to plan. I know it's not fun or easy and I'm sure more than one person in the room when we bring it up will think we're nuts. But that's OK. I'd rather be nuts with a plan than "normal" without one.

On my ride past the perfect house tonight, I noticed that the Christmas lights were back on. Part of me felt so relieved, and then so selfish that I felt relief over lights despite the grief that huddled inside.

I don't know the first thing about Saul or Joan or about went on inside their perfect house before those lights got flipped on. Joan and her family have every right to keep those lights off or rip them down and stomp on them. We all should let people grieve how they must.

I have no idea what sort of plans Saul had or had not made, whether he had life insurance, whether Joan even needs it. All I know is that I don't want my family struggling more than they need to with my absence. And I don't want them wondering if they should switch the Christmas lights on even if I died the day before. On this point, please forget my "grieve how you must" statement because I'm making my wishes clear. Switch the lights on. Because even though it may not make you feel better, there's a little kid down the road, and maybe even a young mom and dad, who thinks your house looks perfect when it shines so pretty. 

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