Death and Taxes

We bumped into each other as I rushed through the door at iShop. She was on the other side waiting to leave. I took advantage of the contact to share a delicious hug with Victoria Schmidt, editor of El Ojo. Unfolding our arms, she stepped back and said, “A lot of people are dying here, and they are dying unprepared.” I know that to be true.

Even though it’s been 200 years since Ben Franklin reminded us that “Nothing is certain except death and taxes,” we continue to procrastinate on preparing for both, although we have no choice about either. We owe our government and we pay. We live and we die.

Despite vocal promises in the past not to delay, I just filed for an extension for filing my taxes, and they will get filed before the next deadline. I have no choice. I have no choice about dying, but as of now, I have no deadline.

This fact of life hit me the Thanksgiving after my mother died with twelve of my closest family members gathered around a table. My 22-year-old godson, who was on his way to Afghanistan with his Marine troop, and my mother’s 91-year-old sister, who was losing her memory, were there. Thoughts of their mortality crouched like a tiger in everyone’s mind.

My cousin Ted said grace. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” As he finished, I had the startling awareness that one of us at that table will be the first to die and one will be the last. That cannot be changed. It’s a fact.

I panicked at the thought, but was able to return to the moment, that precious moment with loved ones that may not repeat the next year. To comfort myself, I filled my plate . . . twice.

What if I were the first of us to die? While driving home I contemplated my mortality and my responsibility to those I love. Fatal accidents happen all the time. I was 57, and my sister Dolores was 72. I was single and have no children so she would be the one person upon whose shoulders the responsibilities of my unexpected death would fall. 

She would be the one person to stand next to me in a hospital ICU being asked to make decisions about critical medical treatments, the hardest kinds of decisions. Not only would she be grieving terribly, but she would also be tortured by the fear of making the wrong decision. I decided to take care of my legal end-of-life business and protect my beloved sister.

I set Valentine’s Day as a deadline to complete a Power of Attorney (POA) for healthcare form, living will, and financial will. When I called Dolores and asked if she would be my healthcare agent, she replied with a gasp, “You’re my baby sister. I don’t want you to ever die.”

I answered, Then you cannot have my POA. I need a person who will refuse futile treatments and allow me to die under certain conditions I choose. I will add your name as a subordinate in case the friend I choose cannot fulfill her responsibility.” She accepted that, though I could hear the emotion in her voice.

In my experience, it is often those who love us most who will prolong our dying long after we would choose to leave our bodies. Like my sister, they love us so much they don’t want us to ever die. Too often we hear about situations where a loved one insists on another treatment, invasive test, or surgery while the patient cannot tell them, “Stop! I’ve had enough. I’m ready to leave this life.”

I knew it was essential that I have regular conversations with my sister, the friend I chose to give my POA to, and one more friend I chose as an alternate in case my POA was unavailable or could not execute my wishes.

I invited them all to my house one night. I ordered a pizza, opened a bottle of wine, and talked about what matters most to me when my life is at its end. This opened a door for them to talk about what was important to them. We laughed a lot. we cried a little. Mostly, we grew closer because of the intimacy created by putting death out in the open without being afraid.

It was a “Death Over Dinner” kind of event. Yes, there is an organization of that name that has a guide for hosting dinners where talk of death is on the menu. Check out their website “The Conversation Project” is another organization that offers a toolkit for talking to your loved ones, and another toolkit for talking to your doctor.

Doctors are trained to prolong life at all costs. When you are diagnosed with a life-limiting condition—we all will be one day—be vocal about what matters most to you at the end and be sure it’s in your chart. You can make changes along your lifespan, and keep the conversation going.

As soon as my advance healthcare directives were written and discussed, I moved on to my financial will making decisions about bequests as if I would die the next day. I set my July birthday as a deadline and got it done almost on time. It was deeply gratifying to know I had enough assets to spread around, and that I could give money to the people and the charities that mean the most to me. The feeling of relief for taking care of my end-of-life business—and my sister’s loving heart—was enormous. 

Since that Thanksgiving Day, my godson returned home safely, went back, and returned again. My aunt died. My beloved sister died. Ted survived a debilitating stroke a few months ago and everything changed for him and his family in one minute. I’ve revised my will twice.

One day death will come to lead us to where we came from. Why not do the work of preparing and getting friendly with her? Then we can go about the business of living well and being happy without creating a painful burden on the family and friends who are left behind.

This is your one precious life. Give it a good ending. 

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Loretta Downs
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3 thoughts on “Death and Taxes”

  1. Great title, beautifully written Loretta!!! Loved the analogy about waiting to file taxes and procrastinating about making EOL plans. EOL plans = peace of mind for loved ones, our neighbors, and ourselves.

  2. This beautifully written article is both touching and inspiring. Loretta has boldly and sensitively shared her personal thoughts and experiences that motivated her to consider and plan for matters of her own health and death. It was her honesty about death (quoting the Serenity prayer’s “accepting what we cannot change”: yes, death) and the great love she has for her family that was the compelling force that moved her to action.

    This wonderful article not only inspires us to act, but gives ready resources to guide us using the links provided. Thank you!

    In contemplating this article, I realize part of my hesitancy to deal with my own end-of-life possibilities and death is fear; however, if I am honest and act, as Loretta did, surely life can be lived more fully with new-found freedom.

    One more thing: I have never reacted to the term “Deadline” like I did while reading this article and am still amused — and even somewhat tickled by it.

    Bravo, Loretta, and thank you for your inspiration to go on this journey, for sharing yours with such caring and honesty, and for giving a way forward.

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