Some Friendly Advice
For the Man of the House
Okay, so you're dead. Now what? I'll tell you what. In about a year your wife will be remarried to your son's soccer coach. The one with the English accent. The one who played for the Blackburn Rovers after he graduated Oxford with honors but before he became a self-made millionaire and then retired to mentor young people. He speaks four languages and has a ski house in Alta. He is teaching your children cricket. He and your wife, I mean his wife, have sex all the time, and like Stuart on L.A. Law, he knows some sort of secret sexual something or other, a famous move passed down through the hallowed halls of Eton, rescuing generations of pasty, aloof Englishmen from eternal bachelorhood. Except he's not pasty, like Charles; he's ruddy, like Beckham.
Or, or, she spent the past year trying to sort out your disastrous business and financial affairs, arguing with your family over the will you wrote in the margin of the Mets' 2003 schedule, and looking for a smaller place because she can't meet the mortgage payments. Which means she'll probably have to get rid of the dog.
Many women have a widow fantasy. I'd tell you mine except I just did, and it wasn't the one where the dog takes a hike. I'm not proud of it, but, as I said, it's a fantasy, and I guess I just don't see myself as an adulteress. (I can't imagine cheating on him but I can imagine him dead. How sick is that?) The truth is, though, it's never my real husband that dies, it's more of an abstract idea of a husband. Although once, long ago, we were driving home from a weekend in Vermont, listening to the radio, when we heard news of a terrible plane crash in China. David was due to leave for China that week, and suddenly I became so hysterical that I had to pull over to the side of the road. I sobbed inconsolably for several minutes and then ate two Reece's Peanut Butter Cups and half a Kit Kat.
Preparing for your untimely demise may not seem like a particularly appealing activity, but, to state the obvious, it has gained enormously in popularity since September 11th. The war, too, has given it a little boost. If you are one of the happy-go-lucky few who have managed to avoid the subject so far and you have a wife/lover/life partner and kids/dogs/hangers on, that's fine, it's good to be philosophical about things, but you may want to pull your head out of your ass (you might need some help with this; ask your spouse) just for a moment and take a look at the big picture. Or the small screen. Imagine you're a television character named Jim. You are, needless to say, too young to die, but you just had to play that third set of singles despite the fact that you haven't picked up a racquet since the reign of Bush I. However, this being TV (or a repeat of the movie Ghost), you don't really die. You float around as Invisible Jim, and watch your family get on with their lives. Over the course of the thirteen episodes the network ordered, you overhear your family and friends evaluate your marriage and your character, variously praising and trashing you. And maybe your best still-not-married buddy who's been indispensable through all of this, as he'd promised, steps in to take your place. I mean, the kids already think he's a cool dude, and hey, he's puh-retty sure you'd be glad for them. You're probably smiling down on them right now. Oh, wait, you're not? You're completely freaked out and will spend all of, what, eternity wondering whether there was some undercurrent there all the time, or worse, an over current?
Season two opens with the episode where the kids decide what to call the new guy. Obviously, if it's "Dad" you're going to have to smite him.
Does David wonder what my life might be like without him? Does he worry? He'd better. I could support myself and maybe half a child on what I make as a writer, that is, if we moved into a hovel. Now, I know David's purchased some life insurance, the smarty, hopefully from a reputable outfit, and he has some investments for which I am the beneficiary, or so he claims. He has his own thankless business—Lord knows I don't want to have to run it—and as far as I can see he hasn't left a tract entitled "Exit Strategy" on my bedside table, which is worrisome. He has written his will, and I believe I get everything (Did I mention that I'd be so so so sad?) although, of course, there's always the chance that, what with all the traveling he does, he has another family stashed somewhere—Shanghai, perhaps. Or, like the architect Louis Kahn, a little closer to home, say, West End Avenue.
But these are piddling, practical concerns. What about the rest of the stuff, stuff like, who I'd be sleeping with and how soon after? Was that too harsh? I conducted an informal poll of some married male friends, and about half of them were seriously disturbed by the prospect of leaving their wife and kids to their own devices. Not that they didn't trust them—that wasn't it at all. It was more that a kind of existential paranoia surfaced, described best by one of my pollees: "It was like all these years with me were just a diversion from her true course in life—a wrong turn on her journey to soulmatehood. In fact, she is a whole lot happier now than she was with the old husband. Funny sometimes how things turn out for the better, even if they seem tragic at first."
Also among my male friends there seem to be several psychosis inducing conundrums mucking up the works. There's the "I just want them to be happy, although no one will ever be as good for them as I was" perplexity; the "What I don't know won't hurt me but it still does" paradox; and the "I have a will but I can't remember what it says" confusion. Of course, divorced men (and women) come face to face with these issues all the time, but missing from the mix is the extreme grief. It's easier to answer the hard questions when nobody has died. Unless you are unhappily married—then death may come as a relief. If you divorce your wife or she you, you may be bummed out but you'll still see your kids, sooner or later you're going to get laid, and someday you may even fall in love. When you're dead, nuts to you.
I have never even thought about what David's life would be like were I to meet an untimely end. This is partly because for some inexplicable reason I've assumed that if I go, he's a-goin' with me, and partly because I really can't imagine him with anyone else, he was so lucky to just get me, and I'm no prize. My friend Chris says his wife sees him with the Olsen Twins. Anyway, sometimes, late at night, when I've nothing better to do, I try to envision our orphaned children living with their cousins.
But what if I do bite the big one while David's somewhere else, like in the bathroom? How will I want to be remembered? Who will I leave my children to? Just kidding. You know what? I'm not going first. I just decided. It's unthinkable. Well, that's a lie. I think about my death all the time. I just don't think much about after my death. I'm all about the dramatic wind up. Anyway, the statistics are on my side. So what I say to you guys is this, and really, it goes for everyone: Get wills, for goodness sake, and do the best you can with your finances, whatever they are. If you can afford it, get a little life insurance. If you've hidden investments, unhide them; although, if you're that big a dick, get a divorce and free her up now. Ask your family to be nice to her when you're not around. Don't allocate money for "Lizzy's College" when the children your wife bore are named Scotty and Jane. Don't join your wife's and your best friend's hands as they stand over your deathbed unless you really mean it. Don't leave a letter apologizing for something she doesn't know you did. Don't make a farewell video tape unless you expect to be murdered and want to reveal the identity of your killer.
You can, as one friend has done, make an "ethical will," which is basically a letter to your children in which you express your future hopes for them and impart any sage advice you think they might need—a little like God giving Moses the Ten Commandments. If you can pull this excersize off without expiring from the heartache it will induce, you deserve to live.
Finally, for the love of Mike, get a physical once a year. Take care of yourself and come home for dinner once in a while. Turn off your Crackberry. Don't be an jerk if you can help it and let your family know that you love them, on a regular basis, so if, God forbid, your left arm starts to throb ominously during your weekly pick-up basketball game, you'll be comforted in the knowledge that you have been the standard bearer for all who follow. And who knows who that'll be? Met's third baseman David Wright? Daniel Day Lewis dressed as Hawkeye, the adopted Mohican? Could be anyone.
Try not to worry about it, though. What you don't know won't hurt you. Much.