One messy little detail about dying is what to do about the body. Not making known your Final Wishes can leave family members baffled, hissing at each other, desperately scrambling to do something meaningful to honor the deceased while settling their own souls. A Will informs loved ones about what you want to have happen with your stuff after you die. But your Final Wishes is a separate document that addresses what you want done with your dead body.
If you don’t share your wishes, anything could happen to your remains. The first apartment I ever moved into came with an urn on the mantle. No one knew whose ashes were inside or what to do with it. The urn stayed put throughout my short tenancy. For all I know, the ashes are still sitting among strangers in that dingy little apartment, half a century later.
My father, ten years ago, had prepaid for his cremation but didn’t specify what his daughters should do with the ashes. We three sisters considered burying Dad’s remains outside his favorite restaurant, but then convinced his old flying buddy to drop the ashes from his airplane over the Long Island Sound.
My daughter wasn’t even dead yet when family members discussed burying her body in a nearby cemetery. Days after she died, her last wishes were found in a shoebox under her bed, in the apartment she shared with friends. “In the Event of my Death,” Marika had written by hand four months earlier, in a document simple and short, like her life, “…I would like my remains to be cremated and scattered in Australia, as that is where I would be if I were alive (If possible).” A year after she died I set off, alone and terrified, to make it “possible.” Fulfilling that wish was the last thing I could do for her.
“You girls will have to figure it out for yourselves,” my mother always said, unable to discuss anything about dying, “Everything you’ll need is somewhere in my files.” When she died, we scavenged through her things to find: Take me to October Mountain and scatter my ashes to the winds, that I may soar the Universe and observe eternity.
I’m changing my own Final Wishes. After a lifetime of beating my body inside-out and upside-down, and regularly poisoning the earth with environmentally unsound products and practices, I want to finally come clean and give back to the land. I’d like a green burial in a natural cemetery. With as little impact on the earth as possible, just shove my corpse into a potato-sack shroud, and bury me quietly. No funeral, no fuss. I’ll even prepay.
What do you want done with your body when you no longer need it?
After my daughter died I didn’t want to love a single person or thing ever again. But Marika left me her dog. That was 8 ½ years ago. In the midst of my grieving, Suki became the sweetness and light in my life. Even now, when I look at this poochie-girl, the oxytocin in my brain bubbles over, melting all moodiness and moving me to plant multiple kisses on the fuzzy bridge of her nose. I’m a total mush pot over this dog.
Most of the time at home, when I’m not talking to my dead daughter, I’m talking to her dog. I worry about every little lump I find on her—is it cancer, is she going to stay healthy and have a good life? Is she too warm? Is she too cold? Driven to sew polar fleece blank-ees and construct plush featherbeds in every corner of the house for my baby-dog, I have a sneaking suspicion that Suki has turned into a replacement child.
Last week, Suki turned ten. And I wondered what I could possibly give her for a birthday present. She already had an abundance of squeaky toys and chew-sticks. And multiple puffer coats for cold-weather hiking. A card offering 20% off on a Dog DNA test arrived in the mail, and for a brief time I considered making a doggie birthday party but these ideas made me want to barf. Instead, I decided to spend a ton of time with her.
On the big day I put a bowtie necklace around her neck and fed her lots of roast beef. We hiked with friends, chased frogs around the pond, and played fetch. She got several belly-rubs. We spent the whole day together and I almost took her to the meeting of bereaved parents that evening knowing they’d understand my not wanting to leave her behind on her birthday. But Suki seemed worn out from all the attention. She crawled up on her new pillow perch in the window by the front door and pretty much told me she’d had enough.
Am I crazy for treating my dog like my child?
Well. Life is too short to worry about such things. And it’s too hard to go through life without love. So I’m just gonna keep doing anything I can to make sure my inherited dog has the best life possible.
On the morning I was struggling with being daughter-less for the back-to-school shopping season, a good friend phoned me stymied about how to survive the wedding of her deceased child’s best friend. How did you do it, she asked, reminding me of my similar wedding experience last summer. How do you go on living, she asked as well.
We talked for a while. And then I thought of little else the whole rest of the day, trying to come up with an honest answer to share with people who tell me there’s nothing left to live for.
For me, this thing called living falls somewhere between just-surviving and almost-thriving, depending if you ask me on a good day or a bad day. Living is so much more do-able if I’m doing it for someone else. It is no longer about me, or my happiness. I need to feel needed. I live in the hope of being helpful, supportive, especially to others whose lives have been shredded by loss.
Mostly, however, I keep going on for my daughter, Marika, who died. I keep going because she can’t. And I’m probably the only one saving a seat for her on this planet.
Like her friend’s wedding last year: Marika would have gone cheering, dancing, drinking and partying up a fireball. My attending the event was the only way some small part of her could be there. So I went—For Her. And whenever I’m at a party or a shimmering blue ocean, under a star-riddled sky, before a great wine or a sheet of un-popped bubble-wrap … I’m thinking of Marika. I talk to her. I consume every magnificent thing like she would have. For Her, I drag myself out of the house to partake of the world’s offerings. All the things she loved or would have loved, I will find and love for her. Continuing bonds. That’s the way I keep going.
The September shopping spree is an old end-of-summer ritual. At TJMax, hangers shuffled in the dressing room next to mine, and I imagined Marika there rummaging through dozens of jeans. She always walked out of a store wearing her new clothes, making sure she had someplace to go in them. Marika, how do you wear jeans this tight, I wondered as I wriggled into and zipped up the new jegging jeans that would take us to a campfire by a pond that evening, and onward into the next season.
How do you go on living?
There are so many ways to be conned. Especially if you’re a senior citizen. I used to worry that my mother would lose all of her little fortune to some cruel predator. Living alone, in her nineties, and hard of hearing, my mom was the perfect target for Medicare scams, fake charities, cyber-stalking, con artists selling counterfeit prescription drugs or anti-aging products, and phony grandkid-in-trouble-send-money messages. I had nightmares that she’d be a victim of identity theft or credit-card fraud. She was always getting calls from telemarketers and various organizations asking for donations. And who knows what phishing and financial hoaxes plagued her emails.
Mom loved sweepstakes and lotteries. You’re the lucky winner, they’d announce: just pay a couple-hundred for shipping and handling. Buy or donate and you’ll have a chance to win… they’d lure her in. My mother had a hard time saying no to any of these, as witnessed now by the piles of her junk mail still being forwarded daily to my house.
“She’s in a better place now,” people said when Mom died last winter, “May she rest in peace.” But there was no resting in peace for me. I went crazy phoning to pay the bills and close all her accounts. Banks, Medicare, Department of Motor Vehicles…. At every institution, I was repeatedly asked for her birth date, her passwords and mother’s maiden name, her “social” and address. For months I felt queasy spewing out her private information to these strangers over the phone. But not as nauseous as last week when my sister told me of the alert from one of the medical providers: they’d been hacked and Mom’s personal data had been breached.
It felt like I, myself as much as my dead mother, had been invaded. Robbed. Violated. I avoided leaving home and didn’t answer the phone. Had I somehow contributed to that cyber crime? I stayed off Facebook for days.
My friend emailed me a photo she’d snapped. Me. In “a rare relaxing moment,” she wrote. This might be the last time you see me resting because OMG, I’m the vulnerable senior now. And I’m horrified that I won’t even be safe from hackers when I’m dead.
Have you checked your credit rating lately? What do you do to protect your identity, your money, your peace?
Can’t sit still. Can’t stay inside. It’s beautiful outside and the summer is almost over. So I’m going to grab my fill of campfires, pond swims, watermelon, gardening, and sitting outside to listen to frogs. My Super Sweet 100 tomato plant is still producing. Over a hundred cherry tomatoes to add to this summer of small pleasures.
I’m wishing you much sweetness in these last days of summer.