Till Death Do Us Part

Love, Heartbreak

You never know what you have until it's gone.

As I read an article today about Robert and Nora Viands, a Rockford, Illinois couple who were married for 71 years and died only a few hours apart, I was deeply touched. Few couples these days live together as long and successfully as they reportedly did, though they weathered health challenges in the end.

My parents were married for over 60 years and spent their last few together in nursing homes. My mother had a stroke in 1999 that incapacitated her until her death in 2009. My father seemingly had Alzheimer's, at least that's what his doctors thought. But it turned out he had a series of small strokes over many years which impaired his congition until a big stroke in 2002 that was his last.

My husband Glenn and I met in 1977—36 years ago this week—and seem to have bonded for life as well. We've weathered ups and downs like most married couples, including our respective parents illnesses and eventual deaths. We raised a terrific daughter, now 33-years-old who married a terrific husband of her own. Our lives have been rich with friends, experiences and satisfaction. We look forward to another 35 years together.

But as our parents became ill and subsequently died over the past decade, we had to think about how we want to be taken care of near the end of our lives plus where and how we want to be buried. We've since made choices about these issues so our daughter won't need to go through what we did in our parents final years.

To make our estates easy to manage, we created a living trust for our mutual assets. We compiled our pertinent life. Information into a huge binder, with guidance from a friend who does this with people of all ages, including medical, insurance, financial and memorial details. This binder proved useful when Glenn (who's 70 but feels 40) broke his leg last year while trimming a neighbor's tree and learned he's not invulnerable after all. I was grateful to have his insurance, social security and medical history in the info-binder when he was rushed to the hospital and I suddenly became his medical advocate. Now I know what info I'll need to know if (more likely when) another emergency occurs.

This process made us think about how we want our ashes to be "disposed of" since we both plan to be cremated. So we bought Neptune Society memberships to make this decision easy for our daughter. A spiritual teacher and writer, Glenn believes in the Native American concept of "Place of Emergence" which he says is, "A point on Earth where one's soul touches down before entering its next body." This enables the soul to carry the energy of that Earth-point wherever it goes in that lifetime. Glenn believes his Place is in rural upstate New York as he always felt deeply connected to an area in the mountains near the small town where he grew up. He wants to be scattered there by our daughter and took her to see it so she'll know what to do and where to do it when the time comes.

I like this concept as well but feel that my Place of Emergence is likely near a waterfall on the Big Island of Hawaii. I tried to find it when I visited in 2003 after doing a walking marathon as a memorial for my dad who died in 2002. But I wasn't able to connect with a particular waterfall or even a specific area the way Glenn has. So I'm now opting to "become a tree" on land owned by our daughter and her family. Fortunately, she and her husband have recently bought their first house in Montana overlooking a huge lake and gorgeous mountains. I will be glad to become part of that majestic scenery. 

While researching urns, I discovered one called The Spiritree. It has space for cremains between a ceramic shell on top and an organic bottom that will gradually biodegrade. As it does, the "calcium-rich cremains" inside will feed "the pre-selected seeds, seedling or small tree of your choice," according to their website. Eventually the tree will grow through a hole in the ceramic top and become the embodiment of my energy as a beautiful part of nature. I love the idea that my daughter and her children will watch my Spiritree grow and it will be there to shade and comfort future generations. Since my daughter's also an environmental educator and activist, this suits her style as well as mine.

Nora and Robert's story also deeply touched me because Robert had Parkinson's Disease, which also preceded the death of Gene Bua, a man I knew and admired. Gene's love for his amazing wife Toni rivaled that of Robert for Nora. Toni and Gene met decades ago when they were both soap opera stars and their "children" are the many acting students they've nurtured for years in their Acting for Life Program in Burbank, CA. Toni gave Gene a "Hollywood send-off" in the form of a stage production about his life—including scenes from musical productions they co-wrote—which was staged by their grateful students, many of them now well-known performers.

But the somewhat timely deaths of Robert and Nora stand out for me above all others. They met before WWII, eloped and raised five kids who gave them 18 grandchildren. The article about them reports that their children worried about what would happen to the survivor if one of them died first. Since they now share the same death day, their children feel sad but relieved, knowing "this is the only way they would have wanted it."

I have come to see that how we live together shapes how we may honor each other through and beyond our deaths. Regardless of who goes first, me or Glenn, I hope our final years together will be healthy, happy and filled with creating "new memories" through our travels, writing (we're both authors and teachers), and a grandchild or two.

We've weathered enough storms to know we are partners for life and I'm delighted to share the path with Glenn as long as he'll have me. I hope you feel, or will feel, the same about your life-partner and will honor each other when the time inevitably comes.

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