Sunday, April 25, 2010


In my eighth grade year I played Captain von Trapp in our school's version of the play The Sound of Music. Near the end of the play, just before they escape Nazi Austria, the Trapp Family children sing "So Long, Farewell." It's a long goodbye.

This blog was about my experience as the spouse of someone with cancer. Sue was diagnosed with multiple myeloma on May 1, 2009, and she died of complications from the cancer on March 29, 2010. Sue's eleven-month struggle with multiple myeloma was, it turns out, a form of long goodbye. My blog might have ended in March when Sue died, but I have been doing my own version of a long goodbye. To my way of thinking, some things relevant to the cancer experience of the non-cancer spouse have happened in the month since Sue died.

It seems that people who live through wars experience the horrors of war, but also often look back on the war years fondly. I'm not sure why that is, but I think it must be, in part, because such experiences are intense, and a lot of memorable living gets packed into a little time. During the Battle of Fredericksburg in December of 1862, Robert E. Lee said: "It is well that war is terrible - otherwise we would grow too fond of it." In some sense this past year with Sue's cancer was a little bit like that; It was terrible, and I wouldn't wish it on anybody; But at the same time it was intense, some of it was good, and a lot of living got packed into a short window of time.

I've enjoyed blogging this experience. It's been better than having a psychotherapist, and cheaper. I've appreciated your comments and prayers more than I can say. I've appreciated being community with you, and you being community with Sue and me. But as Harrison Ford told Gene Hackman in the movie "Witness," "It's over! It's over!"

There are a lot of ways to say goodbye. So long, farewell, aufwiedersehn, and audieu, among them. But adieu best expresses my sentiments here. Here, I bid you adieu in both the fond farewell sense, and the permanent farewell sense. But also, I bid you adieu in the sense that the French used to use it: "Adieu vous commant." [From the latin "ad" (to) and "deus" (God).] I commend you to God. (See


Anyone who cares to correspond with me is welcome to try, provided you understand the rules. Sometimes I'm slow to respond. Sometimes I don't respond. I'm mostly retired from active law practice, so I'm not soliciting legal business, nor will I be likely to accept it. If you correspond with legal questions your correspondence to me will be protected by attorney-client privilege, and I will protect your confidences. But merely corresponding to me with your legal questions will not obligate me to respond, nor will it create the kind of attorney-client relationship where I am under any obligation to respond to you or to advise you or to protect your legal interests. Such a relationship would require a written agreement between us signed by both of us.

With that disclaimer, the author of this blog, George E. Harper, can be reached by email at: for general correspondence, or at for legal correspondence.

Also, I did start another blog last November, the first time I thought I was through with this blog. The subject matters of my new blog are more scattershot and less compelling. Still, if you are interested my new blog can be found at

Thank you again. And again, adieu.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Practical and Legal Advice - Part III

5. Go Slow; Don't Make Any Major Decisions Too Quickly.

It rained hard today in our part of California, the central San Joaquin Valley. Notwithstanding what you non-Californian readers may think, California has an agriculture-based economy, and the San Joaquin Valley is the heart of California farm country. The center and east side of the Valley is mostly tree fruits and vineyards, and the west side of the Valley is mostly row crops; vegetables, cotton, alfalfa. (Northern California is where they grow California's largest cash crop -- marijuana.)

Tree fruit farmers and vineyard farmers generally have no pressing business outside on a rainy day. But the west side of the valley was abuzz today with farming activity. Those guys out there on the west side know the true meaning of farm-born expressions like "make hay while the sun shines." Except the sun wasn't shining today. The lettuce harvest was on today, and large crews of mostly hispanic farm workers and heavy machinery were out in the muddy fields, braving the pouring rain and hand-harvesting truckloads of the delicate green lettuce heads. On a dry day the paved roads on the west side of the Valley are brown with dust from the tractors and trucks coming out of the fields onto the pavement. On a wet day like today the paved roads are mudddy and slick; great lumpy trails of mud are tracked out of the rain-soaked fields on the wheels of the tractors and harvesters and trucks that facilitate the dirty work of feeding us.

These west-side farmers and farm workers know what it means to get dirty. Their trucks are so mud-splattered you sometimes can't even tell what color they are. Workers come into west-side restaurants and businesses with mud-caked boots and clothes. And the fields and dirt field roads are a muddy, rutted mess.

I drove from the east side of the Valley today to my property management company's new office in the west-side town of Coalinga. The muddy roads, and especially the ruts in the dirt roads of the west-side fields, reminded me of a story told by Tom Bodett on one of his read-by-the-author books on tape. Bodett is a great American story-teller. He mostly tells stories of Alaska, and in this vignette tells about how the roads in Alaska are mostly dirt roads, and how in the rainy season and again in spring when the roads thaw, the roads get wet and the cars make ruts in the road, and when the ruts get too deep another set of ruts will start up, and so on, until you have multiple sets of deep ruts in the road. Then, in the summer the ruts dry hard, and in the winter the ruts freeze up, and, because it's usually quite a long way between towns and places in Alaska, quite often when you are leaving a town on a dirt road you will see a sign that says "choose your ruts carefully, you're going to be in them for a while."

Bodett tells his "choose your ruts carefully" anectdote as a metaphor for making life choices. It's good advice for different stages of life: Sue and I have given this advice to our young-adult daughters in regard to choosing careers and life partners. I use it here to illustrate advice I have read in almost every informational publication on widowhood and grieving: "Common sense tells you to postpone making any permanent changes for a while." (from "Going On ... A Pathway Through Sorrow, by Jane Woods Shoemaker) and "During this time (of grieving) discourage yourself from making any critical decisions; such as selling your house or moving to another community." (from Toward an Understanding of the 'Going Crazy' Syndrome, Part I, author unknown, sent to me by Saint Agnes Hospice) The gist of the idea is that grieving muddies-up your ability to think rationally, and if you're not careful you may get yourself stuck in a bad set of ruts that you don't want to be in and that are hard to get out of.

In regard to new relationships, the Pathway Through Sorrow booklet says this: "A cautionary thought: It can be difficult to resist getting caught up in a new relationship because of the intense need to end your loneliness. Consider the fact that 52% of widowed men remarry within 18 months of their wife's death. It is estimated that, of those remarriages, over half end in divorce or abandonment." On the other hand, that divorce rate sounds like the divorce rate in the general population, so what's different? If you want to get into a new relationship, I say go for it. Life is short.

So generally, the advice of the experts (I don't claim to be an expert on this subject) is to go slow and don't make any major decisions too quickly.

6. Keep Working; Stay Active.

Even if you don't need the money, the grieving experts (this grief-counseling field is a specialty area for many counselors and authors) say it is advisable to keep working and stay invoved with the activities and people who you were involved with prior to your spouse's death. The world is still turning, and you need to turn with it. Isolation is not a good thing.

This advice notwithstanding, I mostly avoid people I know and I especially avoid wading into crowds of people who might all want to express their condolences. For a couple of Sundays after Sue died I arrived at Church late and left when the final song started so I could avoid talking to people. That's just me. Sue would have done the opposite. I have really appreciate all the condolence cards, though.

7. Bankruptcy Is An Option.

Sometimes when a spouse dies the survivor is left with a financial windfall, and sometimes the survivor is financially devastated. A typical scenario when a spouse dies without life insurance, particularly when the deceased spouse was employed and making a significant contribution to the income of the household, is that the household no longer has sufficient income to meet its debt obligations and monthly living expenses. This is particularly true where the deceased spouse saddled the surviving spouse with enormous medical bills. (Sue's medical bills ran well over a million dollars in a ten-month period!) In these cases it is sometimes necessary to jettison debt or at least to do a debt restructuring. Bankruptcy should be considered.

Many bankrupcty lawyers will do a free initial consultation. Even in cases where life insurance is in place, but the insurance is not going to be enough to sustain the pre-death lifestyle, debt restructuring is sometimes necessary. If you are uncomfortable with filing a bankruptcy, most creditors will negotiate a debt down rather than take a complete loss in a bankruptcy if that is your only other option. Almost all credit card companies will restructure debt, forgive some of the debt balance, and stop interest charges on learning that a spouse has died and bankruptcy is being considered. For distressed borrowers, allmost all major credit card companies will negotiate down to 35% of the original principal amount owed, and allow payment of that amount without interest, if you can pay that reduced balance within three months.

It is better to make inquiries about bankruptcy or debt restructuring early rather than to bleed down all your cash and then realize you shouldn't have paid some of the bills you paid.

One final thought on this subject. If you know you are dying and you haven't died yet, and you know your survivors are going to have to deal with debt problems after your death, it is possible to structure estate assets, estate gifts and life insurance pay-outs in what we refer to as "spend-thrift" trusts. These are trusts which hold assets for the trust beneficiary and which protect the beneficiary from recklessly spending the assets, but which also protect the assets from creditor claims. If you think that debts and debt restructuring are going to be issues, the earlier you get in for a legal consultation the more options are available to you.

8. Charity and the Welfare Safety Net.

If you haven't been raised with a welfare mindset, you may not even think about going down to the local welfare office and seeing what financial and practical help is available to you. I have been surprised over the years at the number of people who came to see me for legal advice and who clearly qualified for welfare assistance, but who had never even called the welfare office. You also may be embarrassed to ask for help from your local church and local non-profit social service agencies. But if you can not make financial ends meet after your spouse dies, you should at least consider making an appointment at the local welfare office and, at least inquiring what benefits, if any, you may qualify to receive. What harm is there in having the information?

Help is especially available to families with dependent children under the age of 22. In fact dependent children under the age of 22 also have their own claim to social security survivor's benefits, and can receive monthly social security payments.

You should also consider making an appointment with the pastor (priest, rabbi, imam) of your church (or, if you don't have a church, a local church of a friend or acquaintance) and/or local social service agencies and, if you can't ask for help, at least tell the pastor (priest, rabbi, imam) or agency worker what your needs are. A surprising number of people may be willing to help you if they know you need help. But people can't help you if they don't know what you need.

God probably knows what your needs are or will be before you do. But in my experience God tends to work through people in terms of meeting the needs of the needy; And those people through whom God works may not know what you need unless you tell someone. That applies both to physical needs as well as emotional and spiritual needs.

This last thought reminds me of the one about the man who prayed every day to God to help him win the lottery. Finally one day God responded to the man and told him it would be helpful to his case if he would at least buy a lottery ticket. I mention this only to illustrate that even getting God's intervention in your life may require something from you. However, it would not be my advice to you to buy lottery tickets to solve your financial problems.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Dead Woman Talking

Caution: If you don't believe in twilight zone experiences, and communication from the dead, don't read this post. I've debated with myself for four days whether to share this or not; finally I've decided that I will.


The recent road-trip I took with Sue's cousin Bruce, interim-minister Bruce, was a powerful time of healing and reflection. Bruce was a good sounding board, skilled at listening and asking the right questions, giving meaningful feedback, and also interested in the subject matter of many of our conversations, i.e. his late close cousin and my late wife, Sue.

The trip to Yosemite was Bruce's idea. He'd been there 20 years ago and was awed, and he wanted to go there again. It turned out to be a good idea.

We who live in Fresno, California, live practically in the morning shadow of three national parks: Kings Canyon National Park; Sequoia National Park; and Yosemite National Park. They're all worth seeing, of course, but Yosemite is the crown jewel. Over a thirty year time period Sue and I had been to Yosemite dozens of times. We went there often, in part because every out-of-state guest we ever hosted wanted to go there, in part because we just liked going there, and in recent years in part because we'd discovered and were exploring the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada's, over near Mammoth Mountain, and in the summer traversing Tioga Pass is the best way to pass between the western and the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains (that is, if you go by car). Tioga Pass is part of Yosemite National Park, and it is as scenic as any road on Earth.

My emotions were raw the two days Bruce and I spent in Yosemite. I was internally processing questions about moving on. Questions like, can I get rid of some of Sue's things without feeling guilty? She hated it when I would even move her stuff; God save me if I ever got rid of any of it. Some of the questions were more difficult, especially for a monogamous widower. Thirty years of marital fidelity takes a certain kind of emotional and spiritual discipline and a lot of commitment and hard work. That kind of life training isn't easily undone. How could I ever move on to another relationship without feeling guilty? How long should I wear my ring? Stuff like that.

Bruce and I spent Thursday hiking to several spots in and around Yosemite Valley, talking intermittently about various subjects of interest, among them Sue. After we checked in to our room we hiked from the Ahwahnee along the canyon rim trail to the lower Yosemite Falls observation area and back. We had six-o-clock dinner reservations (the only other option was nine, but Bruce was still operating on east coast time and that wasn't a good option).

The dining room at the Ahwahnee is a cavernous lodge of heavy timber and granite and glass, elegantly appointed, as all the Ahwahnee is, with art and architecture evoking Native American designs. We were seated at a small table next to a south-facing window. The window was wider than our table and easily 20 feet high, and we had a wonderful evening view of the south rim of Yosemite Valley. An accomplished pianist was playing familiar but oddly syncopated tunes on one of the Ahwahnee's three Steinway pianos. Bruce ordered Sea Bass, which seemed like a curious choice to me in that mountain environment. I ordered Moroccan lamb. I spent the better part of a month in Morocco as part of a six-month travel adventure the year before I proposed to Sue. I like Moroccan food, but I ordered lamb because I recalled reading that John Muir hated the sheep he used to tend in Yosemite, and that he believed they were destroying that sacred place. So it seemed appropriate to eat some lamb.

After we ordered, Bruce excused himself to call Beverly, and I was left alone for a few moments with my thoughts. I had the compelling thought that I should be sharing this experience with Sue. And I sipped my cabernet, looked out at the canyon, and stiffled a great sorrow tinged with guilt.

The dinner was excellent. We went whole hog with salad, main course, dessert and coffee. We'd intended to kill some time and then go to a movie at the visitor center, but we were both tired and changed our mind. We stayed in the room and retired early.

We'd left the curtains open on our huge picture window. It was a moonless night with the kind of night sky only seen in the mountains or places like Montana. We had a nice view of lower Yosemite Falls, and I could see the gleaming white stream of water cascading over the cliffs even in the starlight. I slept about four hours from around 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. and then awoke and couldn't sleep. I was awake until almost 4 a.m., thinking and watching the night sky and the waterfall. Then I fell back to sleep, and had two vivid dreams.

All healthy people dream. I do dream, and occasionally I can recall my dreams. But I've never had two back-to-back vivid dreams that I could recall so clearly as this.

In the first dream I was at a resort or hotel of some kind in the middle of the day, and I was standing outside a room with a screen door. The inside door was not closed, and the screen door was not locked. It wasn't my room, but I was curious to go inside and look around. I opened the screen door and walked into the room. It was a large but unremarkable room with two twin beds on the wall to the right of the room. Both beds were made up, with light yellow bedspreads, but the bed on the right had a slightly lumpy appearance. I walked over to check it out, and when I tried to smooth the lumps out a body in the bed started to stir. I had a moment of panic when I realized someone was in there, and decided I'd better get the heck out of there as quickly as I could, but before I could move the person pulled the bedspread down and sat up and looked at me. It was Sue in a full night gown but her face had an alabaster and bluish appearance, and it was clear to me that she was dead. But she looked right at me and in a calm but insistent voice she said "What are you doing here? You're not supposed to be here. Go away." And she laid back down and pulled the bedspread back up over her head.

In the second dream I was in the driveway of a house in an ordinary neighborhood that wasn't my neighborhood, and I didn't know who lived in the house. But there was an old van in the driveway that somehow I knew other people had been putting old junk into, and I was putting stuff I wanted to get rid of into the van. It was in the middle of the day, but I was feeling guilty about putting my stuff into someone else's van. I had this sense that what I was doing was wrong and and I wanted to finish up and get out of there before someone who lived in the neighborhood and who knew I wasn't supposed to be there came along and saw me. As I was almost finished putting my discards into the van a car pulled into the driveway on the other side of the street, and a woman got out. It was Sue. She waved and acknowledged me, but it was like the wave and greeting you might give someone you don't really know too well. She didn't seem concerned about what I was doing, and she spoke to me (I did not write down what she said when I woke up and I can't remember it exactly) saying words to the effect that it was o.k. for me to be there and to be doing what I was doing. Then she went into the house.

I woke up and pondered these shaman-like dreams. Was God sending me a message? Was Sue? Was my mind just working to resolve my own internal conflicts? Bruce woke up shortly afterward, at 5 a.m. (8 a.m. his usual time zone) and we discussed the dreams a bit. I have an idea what I think about them, but would be interested to hear what some of you think.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Practical and Legal Advice - Part II

Today I got my first, and quite possibly last, social security check. The word "security" in social security is one of those glaring oxymorons for U.S. citizens approaching retirement age.

The check is the whopping $255 survivor's benefit I got as a result of Sue's passing. I'm sure I pay more than that into the system every month. However, the good news is that, at age 62, assuming I live that long and assuming I quit working and assuming I don't remarry by then, I may qualify for a monthly income, as a surviving spouse of Sue, in the approximate amount of $550 per month. That beats a sharp stick in the eye, but it's certainly not enough income to retire on, and comes nowhere close to giving a 62 year old surviving spouse a sense of security.

Practical and Legal Advice (PLA) Part II (today's blog) will explore the subjects of social security, disability insurance, life insurance and financial security, retirement income, health insurance, and what to do and what not to do before and after a spouse dies (and some of this discussion applies before and after anyone close to you dies). Sometimes it is necessary for this discussion to include the subjects of bankruptcy, welfare, and medicare/medicaid, so in my PLA Part III blog I will briefly touch on those topics, as well.

1.a. Life Insurance and Beneficiary Designations.

Once you are diagnosed with cancer, or any other serious disease or other medical conundrum, getting life insurance becomes more difficult, if not impossible. So I hope you had the good sense or good luck to purchase life insurance some time ago when you were still healthy and you thought you and your spouse would live forever. And I hope you had the good sense and tenacity to not cancel it or let it lapse. I had an associate and church friend who died at age 50 this past year. He had a massive heart attack. He'd been unemployed for a while, and, because of financial hardship, had let his life insurance lapse a few months before he died. Never never never let your life insurance lapse.

Some employers have life insurance for their employees which the employees and/or the surviving spouse may or may not know about. Be sure to check with your employer (or your spouse's) to see if that's the case. In my case my wife worked for a local school district, and they had a $50,000 life insurance policy on every teacher which was supplemental to the life insurance we had purchased.

Also, many businessmen who are in businesses with other people have buy-out agreements which require the business or the other partners/shareholders to buy out the decedent's ownership share on death. These buy-out agreements often require the business to carry life insurance on key owners (in the old days it was called "key-man" life insurance, but today I'm sure it's more p.c. to say "key person"). The life insurance proceeds typically are paid to the business, but the purpose of the insurance is so the business has the money to buy out the deceased owner; So the practical effect is the spouse of the deceased shareholder (or his/her heirs) get the money, and the other business owners get the business.

If I could advise those of you who can still buy insurance, particularly those under age 40, my advice would be to buy 15 or 20 year level term insurance that is convertible at any time to whole life insurance without a new qualification or approval. The insurance company will make you sign a beneficiary designation at the time you apply for insurance. That's the form that says who will get paid the life insurance when you die.

Beneficiary designations are extremely important. Let me advise you now, check all your beneficary designation forms for every insurance account, retirement account, bank account, etc. that you can possibly think of, and when you are done doing that, call and make appointments with your employer's human resources and benefits department(s) and make sure you know all the benefits available for disability, health insurance, and retirement (and life insurance if the employer has it) and be sure that you have signed all the forms necessary or advisable -- including all beneficiary designation forms. Retirement plans (disability plans)that pay money to a retired (disabled) employee and, on the death (disability) of the retired (disabled) employee will pay money to the surviving spouse or someone else, also have beneficiary designation forms. Lots of people never get around to signing them. Get them signed! Check and double check. This is important for those plans that have different pay-out options like: A. Pay all the money to me for as long as I live but then don't pay money to anyone else; or B. Pay me a little bit less every month for as long as I live, and then pay that amount, or a little less, to my surviving spouse for as long as he/she lives.

Sue's retirement/disability plan had five different options. She chose the 75% plan, which pays me, as her surviving spouse, 75% of what she was getting.

Remember: If you don't have a signed beneficiary form designating the person you want to get the money when you die, they probably won't get the money, or, if they do, they'll have to jump through extraordinary hoops to get it.

1.b. Life Insurance Pay Outs.

If a spouse just died and you need to collect the life insurance, start by calling the insurance company. Once they confirm that there is a policy in effect and you are the named beneficiary, they'll send you a claim form, and they'll tell you they will need a certified copy of the death certificate as well as a completed claim form. Some life insurance companies also require certified copies of marriage certificates. When they get those from you, they'll either send you a check or wire the money to your bank. Of course, they'll try to sell you their own investment accounts too, but just wait on that. (See section 5 below titled "Go Slow; Don't Make Any Major Decisions Too Quickly)

So you just got paid the big money. Now that you're rich, don't blow it. Seriously, don't spend it. You have to invest it and make it work for you. Spend the income, but try to avoid spending a bunch of the principal. Unless you are an experienced investor, please, please, please get some professional investment advice from a reputable financial planner or investment advisor. Widow/Widower fraud is a major concern. Be careful who you do business with.

2. Disability Insurance and SSDI.

If your cancer (or other illness) puts you in a situation of disability such that you can no longer work, check to see if your employer has disability insurance. California employees are usually covered by a state disability insurance plan. In the absence of employer coverage or self-insurance for disability, or state disability, -- actually in addition to those, you should call or visit the social security administration office nearest you and request to apply for social security disability (SSDI). In Sue's case, she had disability insurance through her employer's independent retirement plan administrator (State Teachers' Retirement Systems - STRS) that pays out like a retirement plan, where the payments were made to her for as long as she was disabled, and now the payments will be made to me in a lesser amount (we chose the 75% option) for as long as I live. Remember to submit an option beneficiary designation.

For more information about SSDI, go online to

3. Health Insurance, COBRA, and the Medicare/Medicaid Option.

Generally when you can't work anymore, you lose your company-paid health insurance benefits. For the self employed or self insured, and those whose companies don't carry health insurance, this is less of an issue; You've always paid your health insurance premiums anyway, so what's new? If you can't work anymore and you quit or are fired, you should be able to continue your health insurance through your company's health plan for up to 24 months under the Federal COBRA continuation of health benefits act, however, you will have to pay the premiums.

But if you do work for a company or employer that has benefits, get a copy of your company's benefits plan(s), including the health benefits plan booklet. I got a copy of all the several plan booklets from Sue's employer, and read them all. Also make an appointment to meet with the benefits people at your employer. They are a wealth of information, and if continuing health coverage becomes an issue, they should be able to tell you what your options are. I found the benefits people at Sue's employer very helpful and good to work with.

However, don't assume that even the most knowledgable benefits personnel will know everything that applies to you. In reading the plan booklets I was surprised to learn several things that even Sue's employer's benefits people did not know. For example I learned that "if you become totally disabled while insured" then the plan has a waiver of premium for the life insurance plan "for as long as the disabling condition continues." What that meant for me was that, even though Sue was going to stop working, her employer's life insurance premiums would be paid and the employer's $50,000 of life insurance would still be in effect for as long as she had cancer. When the doctors told Sue she had multiple myeloma, that was a disabling-condition life sentence.

If you are destitute and without health insurance, or if you qualify for Social Security Disability (SSDI) benefits, you will probably also qualify for Medicaid or Medicare. Medicaid used to be an automatic qualification for anyone granted SSDI but I am not sure if that's still the case.

4. Retirement Income and Social Security.

Whether and when you get survivor's benefits from your spouse's retirement or social security depends on several things, including: A. Whether there was a beneficiary option in the spouse's retirement plan and whether or not an option beneficiary form was completed and submitted; B. Your age, and your spouse's age, and whether the plan benefits had vested.

I recommend calling the employer and/or the employer's retirement plan administrator and the social security administration office directly, before this becomes a pressing issue, to ask about these questions. For more information about social security, go online to the social security information website at:

In regard to social security, I learned that, aside from the one-time survivor's pay-out of $255, I might qualify for additional monthly survivor's benefits (approximately $550/month) at age 60 if I stop working. Sue would have qualified for a significantly higher monthly benefit at age 60 if I was the decedent and she was the surviving spouse. That has to do with the amount of money contributed to the social security system; in our state teachers contribute to a teacher's retirement fund and are mostly exempt from social security withholding. Ask all these questions when you call or visit your social security administration office; But don't be intimidated if you don't think you know the right questions to ask, because they will ask you a lot of questions and, based on your responses, they should be able to tell you what benefits you qualify for now, and what benefits you might qualify for later.


I intend to cover the following topics in PLA Part III:

5. Go Slow; Don't Make Any Major Decisions Too Quickly.

6. Keep Working; Stay Active.

7. Bankruptcy Is An Option.

8. Charity and the Welfare Safety Net.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Canto Della Terra (Song of the Earth)

This week one of Sue's cousins from Massachusetts, Bruce MacLeod, came to visit. He had scheduled the visit shortly after he learned that Sue was going to come home to enter into hospice care. Bruce and Sue were both born in 1956, and had a special bond formed over years of coast-to-coast family visits. Bruce had hoped to have one final west-coast visit with Sue, but it was not to be. He kept his travel plans, nonetheless, and I took some time off and traveled about southern and central California with him.

This was something of a full circle visit. Sue and I had met up with Bruce in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in August of 1980, about 3 months before Sue and I got married. We were on a trip to visit some of Sue's relatives, including her mother's sister, Polly, who lived in Colorado Springs. Cousin Bruce is the son of Sue's mother's other sister, Nancy, and he met up with us in Colorado Springs at Polly and Bill's house. Following our visit with their Aunt Polly, Sue, Bruce and I had a series of little road trip adventures to places like Cripple Creek, Pike's Peak, and Kansas City.

Sue and I met up with Bruce on four other occasions in the intervening 30 years. In 1987 Sue and I attended the 100th annual reunion picnic of the Davidson clan near Worcester, Massachusetts. Davidson is the family name of Sue's grandmother who was Sue's mother's mother. Our daughter, Jessica, was six weeks old at the time. Bruce brought pictures to California showing tiny Jessica being held by the oldest Davidson at the reunion, a lady who was (as I recall it) ninety-some years old.

In 1986 Bruce came to California and Sue went camping with him up at Lake Tahoe. In 1990 Bruce came to California again, and, among other things, went to Yosemite National Park with Sue's dad, Don, who'd worked for several summers during college at Yosemite. Bruce shared the love Sue and I had for nature and the mountains.

In 1998 Sue and I planned another trip back to Massachusetts with our two pre-teen daughters, ostensibly to attend Bruce's wedding to his long-time love, Beverly. About a week before our departure we were notified the wedding was called off. Darn! We already had our tickets and our travel plans. What the heck? We went anyway, as did all the other relatives. It was a great time of family gathering.

Bruce is a United Church of Christ minister with masters and doctoral degrees in theology. He currently specializes in being an interim pastor to churches in transition. What that means is that Bruce helps churches through times of grieving for beloved pastors who've moved on, and helps them re-define their identity and ministry objectives, and then helps them move on to new things. Bruce and I have connected not only as related through Sue, but also as brothers in Christ who, like Sue, love the wilderness and who love to experience and ponder and marvel at the beauty and magnificence and grandeur of God's creation, and also as two intellectual wanderers who hold comfortably to the truths we know of God through experience, and who live comfortably with the unresolvable dichotomies and ambiguities that truthful seekers identify and acknowledge.

About two weeks before Bruce was scheduled to come out to California I emailed him to inform him of Sue's passing. Darn! But Bruce already had his tickets and his travel plans. What the heck? Bruce came out to California anyway, even though Sue had passed away, just as we kept our travel plans to Massachusetts after we learned that Bruce and Beverly's wedding had been canceled. Life is funny that way. But what I didn't know was that Bruce, the interim pastor, was coming to California on a different sort of interim ministry assignment; And quite possibly Bruce didn't know it either.

And so Bruce and I had a re-connecting California road trip. We didn't take Sue's ashes along with us, but she was with us in Spirit. Thursday, April 15, tax day, we drove to Yosemite to stay in the famed (and not inexpensive) Ahwahnee Hotel, which neither Bruce nor I would likely have booked for this trip except that Sue had instructed me in the week before she died that Bruce and I should extravagantly enjoy our time together compliments of her and her life insurance.

Thursday was a sunny day, blue skies with patchy clouds, about 65% F. As we came into Yosemite Valley along Highway 140 via Mariposa and the Merced River canyon, the foothills were still green from recent rains, and the wildflowers were beginning their resplendent spring bloom. And as we progressed up the Merced River to Yosemite, the famous granite canyon walls began to soar above us to the right and left, and, as had become Sue's and my custom on entering Yosemite Valley, or when driving it's incomparably scenic Tioga Pass road, we played soaring tenor opera music at 3/4 volume with the windows rolled down and the sun-roof rolled back. Bruce had selected Adrea Bocelli's Sogno C.D., and as we listened to Bocelli sing Canto Della Terra (Song of the Earth) in Italian, I thought of Sue, and the tears flowed and streaked my face below my sunglasses and whipped away in the brisk incoming road wind.

"Yes I know
My love, that you and me
Are together briefly
For just a few moments
In silence
As we look out of our windows
And listen
To the sky
And to a world
That's awakening ..."

"Look at this world
Turning around, with us
Even in the dark
Look at this world
Turning around, for us
Giving us hope, and some sun, sun, sun"

Bruce and I drove the few miles up to the tunnel view overlook for a fantastic mid-day view of Yosemite Valley from above, the familiar Half Dome gleaming and snow-capped in the distance and all the canyon rimmed with snow. We then visited Bridal Veil Falls, full-falling with fresh rain and snow melt, with the sunlight pouring through the mist created by a great wall of water falling a thousand feet and being dashed against granite boulders. The bruised water then collects itself in a roiling turmoil and moves on -- surging downhill to find a destination and purpose as-yet unknown to it.

And as Yosemite itself shed tears in streaks down its granite cheeks, Bruce and I moved on toward another destination and purpose as Bocelli and Celine Dion sang "The Prayer."

"I pray you'll be our eyes, and watch us where we go
And help us to be wise, in times when we don't know
Let this be our prayer, when we lose our way
Lead us to the place, guide us with your grace
To a place where we'll be safe."

Our room at the Ahwahnee had a fantastic view of Yosemite Falls. And for two days Bruce and I became like the Ahwahneechi Indians who once lived in Yosemite Valley, and we listened to the Song of the Earth as we trekked around in what John Muir described as God's most beautiful Cathedral; And we enjoyed the succulent bounty of the Earth as much as Solomon ever did; And we rested under the watchful stars and the eyes of God, and, perhaps, those of Sue, as we each sought something, as-yet unknown to us, which would be our next destination and purpose.
As I dropped Bruce off at the airport this afternoon I was glad for the time we'd shared. But driving away I had the sense that we were like two snowflakes who'd just drifted down and landed briefly, side-by-side, at the very peak of the continental divide along the spine of the Rocky Mountains west of Colorado Springs. And Bruce had fallen just next to me on the eastern edge of the watershed, and I had fallen on the western slope. And though we'd fallen close enough to touch each other, as we melted and resumed our journeys, he coursed eastward and I coursed westward, and once again we became different voices of the great Canto Della Terra. And I wondered if we'd ever meet again.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Practical and Legal Advice - Part I

We learned a lot from our journey through multiple myeloma. We knew absolutely nothing about multiple myeloma as of April 30, 2009. Now, not quite a year later, we know an awful lot about this awful cancer. We got thrown head-first into the world of multiple myeloma on May 1, 2009, and now we know a lot of things we never wanted to know, and a lot of things we wished we had known sooner. Our knowledge is based on personal experiences and hundreds of hours of research and information from doctors and conferences we attended and from talking to many myeloma brothers and sisters and from reading your blogs. I am leaning toward writing a book based on the best of these blog entries, incorporating some of the most current multiple myeloma information, and incorporating my perspectives as a lawyer, as a spouse and care-giver, and as a multiple myeloma widower.

Some may find this information and its presentation a little fatalistic. I am a hopeful person. When Sue was diagnosed with multiple myeloma we entered into her treatments with high hopes and reasonable expectations of a good outcome. But I am realistic, as well. The statistics are sobering: approximately 33% of people diagnosed with multiple myeloma will die within a year of the diagnosis; approximately another 33% will die within one to five years; and the other 33% will pass the five year mark with indefinite life spans. According to the American Cancer Society, in 2009 approximately 20,580 people will be diagnosed with multiple myeloma and approximately 10,580 people will die from it.

This blog entry (or these next several) on practical and legal advice could be a book in itself. As a matter of fact, my insurance company, USAA, sent me three practical booklets after I notified them of Sue's passing: "When A Loved One Dies: Coping With Grief"; "When A Loved One Dies: Legal and Financial Concerns"; and "Going On ... A Pathway Through Sorrow." I imagine you can get similar free booklets from your own insurance company.

In a nutshell, here is some free advice from one who knows:

1. Buy a Costco-sized shrink-wrapped case of Kleenex. And really, I do mean Kleenex and not tissue. The cheap tissues they give you for "free" in hospitals is so course it will make the end of your nose raw. Other varieties of generics are also like sandpaper. Anyway, buy a case of whatever you want to use. You will need them for yourself and you will need them for your family and guests who stop by to reminisce with you. Come to think of it, you might as well get them immediately after the diagnosis, because you and all connected with you will experience loss and grieving in degrees over the course of time.

2. Don't wait until your loved one (or you) is near death to prepare estate documents. Talk openly about these things as soon as the diagnosis is in. Shoot, why wait? We should all do it before we know we have a serious and life-threatening disease. There are three documents I recommend as a minimum, and a fourth for those with significant assets. The three minimum documents are: (1) A Will; (2) A Power of Attorney For Health Care Decisions; and (3) A General Durable Power of Attorney for managing financial affairs. For those with significant assets, I recommend you create a Living Trust and transfer your assets into the trust. Did I mention you should do these things now? It doesn't get easier if you wait, and sometimes people wait too long.
3. Don't wait until your loved one (or you) is near death to talk about death, and funerals, and final wishes, and faith, and plan B. We started our discussions on these subjects almost as soon as Sue was diagnosed. (See my May 18, 2009, post What I'll Do After You're Gone and my June 3, 2009, post Decisions Decisions. ) These are discussions which can bring you closer together and help give all the discussion participants a sense of certainty and closure so that you are prepared for whatever tomorrow may bring. Susan and I did not limit these discussions to just us; we included our friends and our kids. This was beneficial because, when the end came for Sue, we were all already on the same sheet of music.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Ashes to Ashes

If you haven't priced funerals lately and you happen to need to put one on, you can be in for a bit of a shock. You could easily spend over $10,000, not counting any money you spend hosting your relatives and friends. If you are Michael Jackson, you could spend a $million.

Sue and I decided a long time ago that big-bucks funerals were a waste of money. We agreed to each be cremated. But even there you need to shop around. I discovered that cremation in Fresno, California can be had for as much as $2,500 and for as little as $795. No real difference in the final product. We are comparing ashes to ashes, here.

We bought the $795 job from Bob Bergthold at Farewell Funeral Service, and now Sue is back with us, albeit in a small (but surprisingly heavy) box on the fireplace mantle. It's a rectangular brown plastic box about the size of a half gallon container of ice cream. We have to wait for the snow to melt to put her in her final resting place at 7,000 foot elevation in the Sierra Nevada mountains. We also have, affixed to the box, an official Permit for Disposition of the cremated remains of Susan Freeman Harper, cremation number 19818, issued by the State of California Health and Human Services Agency. The permit has this ominous warning: "IMPORTANT: The law requires that this permit accompany the cremated remains to the final place of disposition." I never did price cemetary burial plots. There's a lot of earth left where nobody will try to stop you from digging a hole and mixing a little ash with the dirt. Earth to earth. Dust to dust. It's all very natural.

And caskets. My goodness. Thousands of dollars to purchase one, or only $1,000 to rent a nice one for a day. If you rent one, you also pay an additional $300 for the cardboard inset which gets removed and buried. Instead of an open-casket viewing, we opted for a nice picture mounted on photoboard for about $50. The picture harkens back to a happier time, anyway. It's hard to make corpses smile. In addition to the picture, we spent about $400 to print a four-page (a folded 8 1/2 by 11 page, printed on both sides) color program which Dave, Debbie and Matt Friesen put together. I'm an old advertising guy, so four-color is the only way to go. Besides, you can't see those pretty blue-green eyes so well in black and white.

Then you have the newspaper obituary to consider. The Fresno Bee has a free announcement that everyone gets into which most of the pertinent information can be put. For $468 we did a small "display ad" with Sue's picture and a bit more information than the free announcement. The larger obituaries with life stories and accomplishments run into the thousands of dollars.

In addition to the $795 for cremation the funeral home was willing to coordinate the memorial service for a fee. Our friends and our church came through for us here. We have a lot of thank you letters to write and owe a great debt of gratitude to a lot of people who volunteered time. There is a $200 fee to use the church and social hall (though an anonymous donor paid this fee for us), and I have yet to get the bill from the church for the pie, ice cream and gorp (trail mix) Sue wanted served at the reception. I also learned that it is appropriate to give a small amount of money to the preacher and the musicians (ranging from $50 to $200, depending, I guess, on your importance and ability, and/or their importance and ability).

Don't forget death certificates. I ordered 15 certified certificates because I learned a long time ago in my law practice that this is the best and easiest time to get them. If you need just one more than you have when you are trying to settle the estate matters, you will rue the day you didn't order five extra when you had this chance. It takes about three to four weeks to get them, so I don't have them yet. My recollection is that they cost $12 each. Every bank, financial institution, insurance company etc. will want one and you will need to record one with an affidavit of death of joint tenant to transfer jointly-held real property into your name.

I haven't done a final tally yet. Come to think of it I probably never will. But anyway with the cremation ($795); additional funeral services and death certificates (about $300); obituary ($468); church and social hall rental and food (under $1,000?); printing ($450); and hosting and travel expenses (I picked up about $2,000) this inexpensive funeral cost around $5,000. (If you think that's a lot, try putting on a wedding.)

Sue was appropriately remembered by what was done. We would not feel better about what was done if we had spent another $5,000. Personally, I would feel worse if we had.

We have yet to finish our job, putting Sue's ashes in the ground in the appointed place, at which time we will recite these famous words from the Book of Common Prayer, based on Genesis 3:19:

"In sure and certain hope of the resurection to eternal life through our Lord, Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our sister, Susan Freeman Harper; and we commit her body to the ground; earth to earth; ashes to ashes; dust to dust. The Lord bless her and keep her. The Lord make his face to shine upon her, and be gracious unto her, and give her peace. Amen."

Friday, April 9, 2010

She Is Risen

About 500 people joined us for Sue's memorial service on Good Friday. It was a good service, planned by Sue together with three of her close friends, Cindy, Maggie and Debbie. We have appreciated all the outpouring of support and love by cards, calls, letters, emails, comments posted on this blog, visits, food, flowers, memorium gifts to Camp Keola and Mennonite Central Committee, and your participation in or attendance at the memorial. And we have appreciated your prayers.

If you missed the memorial service, here's a copy of the slide show put together by computer genius, Doug Martin. (Turn your sound on to hear "For Good" from Wicked The Musical.)

One amusing story I neglected to pass along happened on Sunday, March 21. That was the last time Sue went to church. I got her dressed and trundled in the wheelchair and off we went. A lot of people who were aware of her condition were surprised to see her there at church. Unknown to me, two of my sisters, Cyndi and Maggie, went by our house about five minutes after Sue and I left for Church. Our friend and neighbor, Cindy, also went to our house at the same time for the same reason, and encountered my sisters there outside our front door. They were all going to offer to stay with Sue while I went to church.

They rang the doorbell and knocked to no avail, and then began to panic wondering if something was wrong inside. So Cindy, our neighbor, ran home to get her key to our house and when she got back they let themselves in only to find Sue was gone! She was not in her hospital bed or anywhere to be found. Then they wondered if she had died, so Cindy (the neighbor/friend) called her husband, Mark, who was running sound at the church and who had already seen Sue and me sitting in the sanctuary, and told him they couldn't find Sue and what did he think that meant? He replied to her that: "She is risen." Cindy was flustered at Mark's response, and so he told her that Sue was sitting in church with me and he repeated that "she is risen." Cindy then replied, "she is risen, indeed!"

One week later Sue really did die, and now she is risen in the Biblical "made new" sense of the word. The world is still turning, as we knew it would, and we are slowly adjusting to life without her.

I'll have a few more posts on this blog to wrap up my thoughts about Sue's passing, recount a few more stories, and to give general and specific advice, both practical and legal, about pre- and post-death planning.