Sadly, our time of life can be punctuated by the death of spouses and partners. If there is a long illness, we find ourselves facing the abyss with them, pitched head first on the down side of a roller coaster. Amid the roil of emotions accompanying the realization that life is not an amusement fair any more, we need to have care and compassion for our own precious selves, along with practical forethought about our futures.
Even today I know women who hold only joint accounts—both checking and credit card—with their husbands. The storm is coming, friend. Now is the time to batten down the hatches, which means sealing every chink in our personal finances where the water might come pouring in.
If you don’t have a lawyer, get one. Check that everything in your joint bank account will be available to you immediately after your partner’s death. Although we had a trust, our lawyer asked me not to use any joint funds for four months. With probate, it might be even longer. It's a good idea to put enough money in your personal checking account to get through at least half a year, which will involve working out what your monthly expenses will be. You need at least one credit card account entirely in your name so that your credit is established. How about your partner’s pension? Are you signed in as the beneficiary? Will it keep coming in without interruption?
If your partner doesn’t die suddenly, you think you’ve had time to adjust, but death always comes as a total shock to your system. After that, grief begins. It was at this point that I, who had never taken an interest in these matters, suddenly started reading the small print on everything that crossed my desk. It’s a good thing that I did. One week before stocks started to tank I discovered that my spouse’s pension was almost entirely invested in high flyers. I had time to put everything into a conservative portfolio before many of my friends lost their shirts.
And then, there are the chores that you’ve never had to confront before. Ours was the most feminist of marriages, with housekeeping divided right down the middle. He did everything below the waist—sweeping, mopping, vacuuming—while I attended to cooking, dishwashing, and laundry.
A friend dropped in when he was in the hospital to find me weeping, mop in hand and bucket slopping onto the kitchen floor.
“Oh you poor thing! How awful you must be feeling,” she commiserated, putting her arm around me.
“I don’t know what to do,” I sobbed. “I haven’t mopped a floor in thirty-eight years!”
There is nothing that stiffens your spine like the major household crises and attendant workmen he always used to deal with, who sometimes succumb to the temptation to take advantage of you as a newly vulnerable widow.
There is a reputable roofer we’d used for years, but when I needed work done he had just retired, and it was his son who turned up. The father had been a short, wiry, scientific and rational man who used to run a little instrument along our ceilings and figure out where the leak was with unerring accuracy. The son was a huge, football player sized lout who leaned over me, barking out facts.
Pretty soon, amid much cursing from him and grumbles from his workmen, my shingles were off and replaced by a flapping blue tarp.
Weeks passed. I called, asked him to call, told him to call, all to no avail. Finally, I left a message saying that if I didn’t hear from him that week, I was contacting the Better Business Bureau. That led to the screeching of tires of his humongous truck in my driveway, banging on the door, leaning in my face, and shouts about what he thought about “The BBB,” with declarations that he didn’t give a bleep about them, accompanied by flecks of spit.
I had done my homework, having called a local television channel that promised to bring “Ruth to the Rescue,” with attendant cameras and documentary reproval, so I stood right up to him and told him so.
That did it, and the roof was repaired.
Fortunately, this was the only game of “intimidate the widow” I ran into, but these types are out there, looking to take advantage of you when you are at your weakest.
In the chore department, there were other surprises. I am perfectly comfortable around furnaces, though my spouse had always changed the filters. No problem, I told myself, removing one from its box and unscrewing the steel panel. I should have remembered that I had never seen my father’s eyebrows when he worked for the gas company. I had opened the wrong panel, and flames darted out. Hastily replacing it, I called the furnace people.
The trouble was, I had earned the supercilious look that the owner gave me when he opened an entirely different panel at the back of the furnace and brandished the filter.
“This isn’t even dirty,” he insisted, “Why did you call me?”
“If it isn’t dirty,” I was quite pleased to reply, “why is there a mouse’s tail hanging out of the side?”
In the midst of all this, I had some pleasant discoveries about my own competence. I made the rather creative decision to hire a local fireman to clean my gutters, on the theory that he would be comfortable walking around up there. I hired a loud-mouthed painter who gave himself a concussion standing up under a kitchen cabinet, but after I patched him up we were the best of chums. The electrician we had always used continued to treat me respectfully, and the man I hired to mow the lawn and plough the snow turned up when asked and behaved himself fairly well, except that he was given to frequent and fatuous endearments.
My spouse, born in Detroit with a stick shift in his mouth, had been the expert on cars in our marriage, good at bargaining with dealers and doing all of the driving on long road trips. I, having grown up in Manhattan during the war when private cars were not permitted, had always found driving or even being driven extremely nerve wracking, an unnatural function (where were the subways?) and likely to lead to a crash at any moment.
So here I am, getting myself wherever I need to go these days, having mastered the “Michigan Left” and no longer the least bit intimidated by Woodward Avenue. Not only that, having competently bargained for and purchased a vehicle on my own, entirely out of ecological conviction, you can see me these days tooling everywhere around town in my little blue car, and also—would you believe it?— roaring Up North and back Down State in Michigan all of the time, doing 70 miles an hour and getting fifty-one miles to the gallon.