My Carry-On Bag
By Loretta Downs
We are the best of friends. It began with a blind date that led to a period of ambivalence about the nature of our relationship before we decided to become “just friends.” We have grown closer as we’ve grown older, and after 45 years, we know each other well.
Bob is 72 and I am 63. We are in the late years of our lives with the unknown end approaching faster than ever. Though we are currently healthy, we are also single and without children of our own leaving no one to whom responsibility for our health care decisions, our deaths, and our estates would fall without some legal wrangling.
When the sudden illness and unexpected intensive care death of an unprepared friend caused a mountain of trouble for her loved ones, Bob decided to plan ahead. “I won’t put the people that care about me through the ordeal she put us through,” he vowed.
He created an estate plan that recognized family, friends and favorite not-for-profits. He asked a friend with a practical mind to be his Executor then carefully discussed his intentions with him.
Bob chose me to be his healthcare proxy in the event he is hospitalized and unable to speak for himself. “I like the way you hold my hand,” he said. We met at his house and poured over his Healthcare Power of Attorney and Living Will forms while slowly sipping wine. When he said, “Pull the plug,” I shuddered. “It can’t be like unplugging my computer or vacuum cleaner. I want clear directions.”
We kept talking until I understood what action he wanted me to take if he suffered a condition in which his survival depended on a ventilator for breathing or a tube for feeding. “Please, pull the plug,” he insisted. “If you’re uncertain as to how I might come out of it, trust your gut. I’d rather be living than only barely alive. Let me die. I mean it.”
I wrapped my arms around Bob, wanting to memorize the feel of him forever, feeling closer than we’d ever been. Tipping my glass to him, I toasted, “To a good life—and a good death! May it happen a long time from now!”
Soon after that he purchased a niche in a columbarium in San Francisco and invited me to be his guest on a trip to see where I would be taking his ashes after he died. “Oh,” I exclaimed with delight, “a practice run!”
The Columbarium is an 1898 architectural treasure that has over 8500 niches, or “inurnment spaces” as their sales literature calls them. The ornate, high-domed room where memorial services are held is circled by three balconies where glass-fronted cases in differing sizes line the walls like art in a museum.
Bob took my hand and led me to his own niche, marked “Reserved.” He smiled with the pride of ownership. My breath caught on the sign, and I understood the meaning of this precious moment. “You’ve inspired me,” I said with a sigh. “I’m going to work on my plans when I get home.”
I continued, “Our relationship is immortal, but we are not. One of us will die first. If you do, I will be sure you have the good death we’ve talked about, and that your body is cremated and put to rest here.”
I squeezed his hand and whispered, “You know, Bob, the next time we make this trip you’ll be in my carry-on bag.” Looking down at our tightly entwined hands he said, lovingly, “That’s why I picked you.”
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