There’s a document in my life that is so important, so useful, that I have multiple copies of it stashed away. There’s a printed version in the bag I carry to work every day, and another copy on my desk at home. I have it saved on my laptop, and on a little jump drive that I keep in my purse, in case I need to refer to it while I’m on the run. I also have it backed up on an external hard drive that we keep in our safe deposit box. You see, this document was a gift, and I’m not exaggerating when I tell you it’s the single most loving gesture anyone has ever made for me.
I’ve told you about the last conversation I ever had with my mother, but those weren’t actually her final words to me. Her last words are in underlined, bold, all-caps font at the top of the document I’m describing.
Her font choice makes me smile. Mom was a gentle soul in many ways — strong in her faith, terrified of confrontation — but she had a brash, emphatic way of communicating. I’ll just say it: Mom was bossy.
It kind of looks like she’s yelling, but to me, underlined, bold, all-caps fits her perfectly.
LAURA, I DID MY BEST; IF SOME OF THIS IS CONFUSING OR IN ERROR/OUT OF DATE, I AM VERY SORRY!!! I HOPE THIS HELPS DURING THIS DIFFICULT TIME.
I LOVE YOU MORE THAN WORDS CAN SAY, MOM
The rest goes on for sixteen single-spaced pages. It outlines the following:
- Basic Identification Information
- Dates of Birth
- Social Security Numbers
- Driver’s License Numbers
- Contact Information (Name, Address, Email, Phone Numbers) for:
- Financial Planners / Accountants
- Insurance Agents
- Medical Information
- Prior surgeries and complications
- Blood Types
- Locations of all copies of their legal documents, including passports, birth certificates, marriage certificate, wills, living wills, durable powers of attorney, and medical powers of attorney
- Location of their safe deposit box and keys, and list of the contents
- A basic balance sheet, showing what they own, what they owe, and any amounts owed to them
- Instructions on where to find a separate list of passwords to their online banking and other important websites
- Basic operational information about Mom’s small business
- List of all real estate owned, including legal descriptions and location of deeds
- Their wishes regarding organ donation
- Warranty information on their vehicles
- Account numbers and PINs for all their bank accounts and credit cards
- Location of their pre-purchased burial plots, and whom to contact about them
- Basic overview of their pension and retirement benefits
- Basic overview of all insurance policies, including agent names, contact information, company name, policy numbers, premiums paid, potential refunds, expected benefits
- This list includes personal policies like life, medical, accidental death and dismemberment, and long term care, but also homeowners insurance, auto insurance, flood insurance, etc.
- A list of their bills, due dates, payment methods, and account numbers
- Contact information for their neighbors, friends, family, and clergy
- A complete plan for their funerals, including suggestions for ministers, pall bearers, lectors, choir members, hymns, prayers, and Bible readings. She even suggested the engraving for their tombstone.
- A list of instructions/requests regarding certain personal items (who should receive certain pieces of jewelry, for example)
If you’re like me, just reading that list makes you tired. It’s overwhelming. But I can’t tell you the amount of stress and grief my mother saved me by preparing this information before she died.
Dad was the first to admit that Mom ran the household. She spoiled me, he told me after she died, while we reviewed everything at the kitchen table. She spoiled me, and I let her. We liked it that way.
He was apologizing, but he needn’t have, because Mom put her playbook into my hands. She knew that without it, I would be the equivalent of a Pee Wee League quarterback trying to play in the Super Bowl.
While she suffered and we knew she was dying, the days and hours seemed to stretch on forever. The world was in slow motion, underwater. I couldn’t breathe.
The moment she was actually gone, the world changed gears and went into warp speed. There wasn’t enough time to think of all the details. Everything was swirling and whirring and clicking around me; the phone wouldn’t stop ringing. I held on to Daddy, which was the only way I could be sure we were both okay. I couldn’t breathe.
But it could have been worse. Much worse. Mom’s playbook eliminated untold measures of worry and guesswork.
I didn’t have to stress, for example, about how to reach all of her friends — even the ones from decades ago that I barely knew. Without her breadcrumb trail, I would have had to figure out last names and addresses for “Pat and Jesse” (Didn’t they live in Port Arthur? Or was it Port Aransas? Or Aransas Pass?) and “red-headed Nancy” (She moved out of state, right? Wasn’t she remarried?).
I also didn’t have decide the details of her funeral. I guarantee I would have forgotten at least one major component, and I would have been crushed later, when I happened to hear her favorite hymn, or the psalm she loved so much.
Perhaps most importantly, Dad and I didn’t have to wonder if there was a bank account we didn’t know about, or whether a bill was due, or how to pay the property taxes. It was all right there.
It’s not the most uplifting topic in the world, but the fact is that we’re all going to die one day. When we do, someone is to have to pick up the pieces of our legal and financial lives. If we have young children, someone is going to have to raise them and educate them. Someone will plan our funerals. Someone will bury us, or scatter our ashes, or keep us in a lovely urn on their mantle.
Do you know who that someone is? Will they have the information they need to do the job?
I can tell you from experience that being someone’s “someone” is a badge of honor, an act of service, a labor of love. It’s also overwhelming and very difficult.
But you know what makes me feel warm and loved in the midst of it all? Knowing for a fact that my mother did everything she possibly could to lighten my load. From her own experience, she knew that grief is painful enough without the chaos, confusion, and anxiety of trying to handle someone else’s affairs blindly. She loved me enough to straighten my path.
It’s an act of love that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
MOM, I DID MY BEST; IF SOMETHING SLIPPED THROUGH THE CRACKS, I AM VERY SORRY!!! I HOPE I MET YOUR EXPECTATIONS DURING THIS DIFFICULT TIME.
I LOVE YOU MORE THAN WORDS CAN SAY, LAURA
With Tax Day still a very recent memory, a lot of the pertinent information for a project like this is still on the top layer of your desk. If you’re interested, you can start by looking here and here. For additional help, find a lawyer or financial professional that you trust and have them guide you.
Or perhaps you already have your affairs in order, and you’ve given your loved ones the gift of their future peace of mind. In that case, you deserve a cookie!
Here’s a classic chocolate chip cookie, which I adapted from Joy of Cooking. They are thin and chewy, just the way I personally prefer.
Classic Chocolate Chip Cookies
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar (light brown sugar can also be used)
1 large egg, room temperature
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
Milk, for serving
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper. Stash a drinking glass into the freezer.
Whisk the flour and soda together thoroughly; set aside. In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter and two sugars on medium to medium-high speed until very well blended, at least two full minutes. (The longer you mix them, the more air you incorporate into the batter, which makes for a lighter, more tender cookie.) Add the egg, salt and vanilla, and beat well until combined.
Add the flour mixture and the chocolate chips; stir just until smooth and well incorporated.
Drop rounded teaspoonfuls onto the parchment lined sheets, spacing a full two inches apart. (The more consistent the sizes of the dropped cookies are, the more evenly they will cook.)
Bake (only one sheet at a time!), until the cookies are barely done — slightly colored on top and a little brown at the edges, 8 to 10 minutes. Rotate the sheet 180 degrees halfway through cooking, to ensure even browning.
Remove the sheet to a cooking rack and let stand until the cookies are firm enough to handle, about 3 minutes.
Remove the drinking glass from the freezer and fill with cold milk. Put your feet up, eat a just-baked cookie; wash it down with milk.
Transfer the cookies you didn’t eat directly to the cooling rack to finish cooling.
The cookies will keep in an airtight container for about two days. (To keep them longer, add a slice of fresh bread to the container — the bread will dry out, but the cookies will stay moist.)