I’ve been contemplating mortality recently. We’re all immortal. Until we aren’t. My husband and I have talked about immortality – it’s sort of inevitable, given that I write science fiction and fantasy, and those are common tropes in the fiction we read. I also read science papers that deal with combating aging – finding the switch that we can throw, defeating the inevitable decline of our bodies into senescence. Mitochondria are the latest subject of intense study, where telomeres were the main suspect not too long ago.
My husband insists that the last thing he wants is immortality. It already hurts to get out of bed in the morning, he points out. What would it feel like after four hundred years? But what, I counter, if we really can conquer aging through science and technology? If we could maintain our homeostasis, recover our endurance, and get that spring back in our step. It’s too late for me, he says gloomily, and I have to come up with a way to remind him he’s still young at heart.
But beyond that speculation, we’ve been talking about the unexpected. Either of us on an early morning commute could encounter a sudden deer, and never find out what comes next. No amount of mitochondrial engineering could stop that. The human body is a fascinating machine, but not unbreakable. So we’ve been planning for that, too.
It’s a case of not letting our emotions get in the way. Planning for any scenario prevents a tragedy from being amplified. If that encounter with a deer leaves me injured, let’s say, but not dead, will my husband know how to access all the bank accounts, which bills are on auto-pay, which aren’t, and where are the insurance papers? Planning for sudden death is no more than a longer-term transfer of roles. While it can be terribly difficult to face, the same procedures for injury or long-term illness will keep you going if you lose your partner forever.
Here in the US, we live our lives divorced from death. History tells us that the summary of ‘nasty, brutish, and short’ is not too far off, but we tend to lose sight of it. We’re wrapped up in cotton wool, tended with the best care available, and the concept that we’re dying is ignored widely. Culturally, we are so averse to the idea of dying that we pretend it’s never going to happen. We’re all going to live, laugh, and love forever. It makes planning for an end – or even a severe setback like injury or illness – very difficult to do. It hurts, and we don’t like to hurt. That’s very human.
My husband is quite a bit older than I am. We have known from the beginning that odds are, I’ll lose him. Far sooner than I am ready to. But on the other hand, if something happens to me – and it could – then he needs to be able to cope with that. Taking care of the household bills is a small thing, but it could be a big thing in the long run. We’re working on creating a list – a book, really – of accounts, paperwork, and wills. I have a small publishing house. He needs to know what to do about that. If I ever publish someone other than myself it will complicate that exponentially (I have no current plans to do so…) and even more important than the legacy of my books, I have children.
Everyone’s situation is different, and more or less complex. The important part is to look honestly at it, at the possibilities, and game out every scenario. Preparation now, while you are invincible and immortal, will help ease the pain when you are broken and on your knees facing death. We all react oddly to facing the reality of that end. It’s easy to pretend there is only now, the daily grind. You go to work, come home, sleep, get up, drink coffee and do it all over again. We think we have time to make those plans, that the end won’t come in the blink of an eye.
You can’t just do this once and forget about it, however. My last will was made when I was a single mother. Life has changed in just a few short years, and in a big way. I need to remake that, plan for the new reality, and then when things change again – the kids grow up, launch successfully, the business takes off, change is inevitable – I need to change the plans again. It might be a little like picking at an open wound, but the more routine you make it, the less it will hurt.
The conversation needs to extend beyond just you and your spouse, as well. Other members of the family need to know about some decisions. Not to get all in your business, but say you’ve made plans for disposal of your earthly husk that don’t coincide with expectations. If you want to donate your body to science, and you predecease your parents, for instance, your spouse might be onboard but they may be horrified and fight it. They probably won’t win, but they can make it ugly. We’re trying to avoid ugly, here. Hard times shouldn’t be made harder. What happens if you have a DNR and your family doesn’t know?
Children that are older than mine – the adult children – should be a part of the plans, too. Even my teens will be a little part of the planning. They need to know what to expect in different scenarios. Any time of change or crisis is difficult, but we can make it easier on them. And we should. As parents, we can support them and care from them even when we are gone.
I love my family. I will do anything for them – and that means that I must face that I am not invincible or immortal.