“You should learn how to use the snow blower in case I’m not here one day,” my husband Howard mentioned over dinner last winter. No snow was predicted.
I put down my fork. “What do you mean not here? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. But maybe you need to learn a few house things, you know, just in case.”
“Just in case what . . . ? You die?” I reached for more wine.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere soon.”
But I do worry – far too often to be healthy.
Now that we’re in our sixties, I have this persistent fear: what if something happens and Howard isn’t around? What would my world be like without him? Surely, I’m not alone in thinking about losing a spouse. Am I? Any day we might be one symptom away from a bad diagnosis . . . or worse. Since both my father and oldest brother died suddenly – my father from a heart attack, my 63-year-old brother in a bicycle accident – I don’t take anything for granted. No wonder I check to see if Howard is breathing in the middle of the night. Our estate plan is in order, but what about all that other stuff – the house details I never pay attention to? With crushing grief and the overwhelming void in my life, would I just call a handyman?
I don’t know half of what Howard takes care of, but whatever needs to be fixed, he’s on it. Cleaning out the gutters is obvious, but what about the leak behind the toilet that I didn’t notice? The caulk he re-applied around the kitchen sink? Just last week he spent much of the day in the attic crawl space looking for the source of water damage on the ceiling. Twice a year, he replaces the filter in our air conditioner and schlepps home 40-pound bags of salt for our water softener. And when it snows, he’s out earlier than our neighbors are awake, clearing off our driveway with the snowblower.
On snowy days when he’s off early to teach skiing, I shovel the driveway, enjoying it, until my lower back goes into spasms. Even if I’m careful, convinced ‘this time will be different,’ I regret it for days.
A few weeks after our dinner discussion, we were both home during a heavy snowstorm. “Want to learn how to use the snow blower?” Howard asked as he laced up his boots. Instead of making my usual excuses about why I don’t want to use a loud machine to clear the driveway, I decided, what the hell. But there was a nagging feeling that if I do learn how to do this, then something will happen – like people who refuse to make a will because they think if they do, then they’ll die. But I put on my boots, zipped up my jacket and headed to the garage. He handed me a pair of ear plugs.
“Here’s the augur, the priming button, the starter,” he said. All this gadgetry – just give me a snow shovel. “Ready?” he asked.
He showed me how to prime the machine which seemed straightforward. “Now, pull the starter cord. Hard.” I pulled. Nothing happened. It went slack. “Harder.” I pulled again. Nothing. “Pull it waaay back with your arm.” I pulled harder and immediately felt a searing pain in my shoulder. Nothing again.
He reached down, yanked the cord, and of course, it started right up. Even with ear plugs, I felt like I was standing on an airport runway. He stepped aside and I grabbed onto the handles feeling the immense power. Immediately, the snowblower pulled me down the driveway. Unable to steer, I adjusted a random lever and snow spewed directly onto Howard. “Down!” he yelled. “Tilt it down!”
The machine dragged me toward the street as I hung on. I’m the one going to die today.
He ran over and cut the engine. I pulled out my ear plugs. “I can’t use this!”
“Well,” he said, “If something happens to me, you’ll either have to gain 50 pounds to steer this or move to assisted living.”
My only two choices?
What terrifies me most is how reliant and emotionally intertwined we’ve become. Once an independent career woman living in Manhattan, I owned my own apartment and handled everything myself. Over thirty years ago, I put together a desk and bookshelves following the Scandinavian instructions and set up my complicated “stereo system” including a state-of-the-art DVD and cassette player and giant floor speakers. Now, I can’t figure out how to sync my iPhone to my PC. I’ve ignored the maintenance issues around the house either because I have no idea what needs to be done, or I know Howard will take care of them.
However, I pay the bills, do the taxes, plan the details of our vacations and text often with our young-adult kids who live away from home. I’m the one who makes sure we don’t run out of olive oil or toilet paper.
But I worry that if I go first, Howard won’t separate the whites from the darks or he’ll forget where I keep my passwords. Recently, he asked me, “Where’s your Caesar salad dressing recipe?” and “what bills are on auto-pay?”
He’s worried, too.
A friend with a good sense of humor mentioned that her late husband had a file under “D” for Death Duties. Maybe that’s another way to go: “Debbie’s Death Duties” (wash rags separately and pay the quarterly taxes) or “Howard’s Home Hints.” But then that nagging feeling re-appears. Creating those files assures one of us will die. Doesn’t it?
Okay, I get it. My fear isn’t really about how to program our sprinkler system or how to use the snowblower – it’s about losing my best friend and soulmate, someone I love dearly and with whom I’ve created a life. But for now, I’ll be content knowing that our water softener is filled with salt and our smoke detectors are good for another six months. The other day, I took over one of Howard’s jobs – I changed the filter in our Britta pitcher.
My shoulder still hurts from that damn snow blower, so next winter when it’s dumping snow and Howard is off teaching skiing, I’ll just grab a snow shovel. Or not. I’ll deal with it when it happens.
A recent hiking trip in Big Sky Montana, where I blissfully ignored thoughts of my “To-Do” lists . . .
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