So it’s been over TWO YEARS since I blogged last and I clearly have some explaining to do. I’m sorry, but this is long. I added an intermission for your convenience. Okay, here’s what happened:
My uncle died just after Thanksgiving 2016. Yes, that was sad. Also, I lost NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month Challenge). Neither event was a complete surprise. My uncle had an operation to address a health problem and it went sideways. I spent a lot of time worrying and chatting on the phone with him in the hospital and before to cheer him up. Things went from sideways to downhill, “oh this is bad,” “you might want to …,” done. That was all nicely morbid and mildly traumatic, but it happens, and it wasn’t the first time and won’t be the last that I deal with it. The drama happened later.
I was depressed by my uncle’s health concerns, then decline, and my writing suffered, but I could have actually pulled a rabbit out of the hat and made it on the NaNoWriMo challenge, I’ve done it before. Not this time. I blogged once after the dreaded event(s), but it was hard not letting personal darkness affect my writing. Then writing and blogging fell to the side as I slid down the rabbit hole.
Disclaimer: I take full and sole responsibility that I’m conflicted that I still associate my uncle passing with losing a writing challenge. It’s worse that I’m conflicted about being conflicted. Everything else I had help being traumatized by.
First, people, get your shit together and have a will, okay? Even if you don’t have much, have a will. Handling details is a nightmare for those you leave behind and, unless you hate everyone, it’s not a nice thing to do to. Your loved ones/friends/neighbors will not remember you fondly for the lapse.
That being said, this case was extra special because my uncle was nice to me, he spoiled me – and my kids as much as they would let him (they thought he was weird, and they were right), but he wasn’t nice to very many other people. I knew his few friends, either I met them, talked to them on the phone, or they at least knew all about me and my family. It was assumed by all that I would be the one that the onerous task of handling details fell to.
Well … no.
Legally, I didn’t have any authority to handle the estate, my mother and her brothers did. Which is nice (for me) except that the fairly caustic dearly departed wasn’t on speaking terms with any of them when he passed or, in fact, for years before. His friends didn’t know he had a sister, for example, because my mother told my uncle to never darken her doorstep, or phone, again in 1986. She was the first, but set the bar for her other brothers to strive for.
Okay, so the estate was being handled by people who hadn’t spoken to him in quite some time. Oddly, I was fine with that. His friends and caregiver weren’t. That began to prove problematic with small details such as a physical address instead of a mailing address being required. Huh. I knew he didn’t live at the address I had, but there was someone to sign for boxes of cookies, movies, and things so I didn’t care. I sort of knew where he lived, and had the phone numbers of his friends and caregiver so I could call them if I didn’t hear from him and couldn’t reach him. It was covered. Except his friends wouldn’t talk to anyone but me, and I couldn’t give directions to his house because “the spindly pine tree that bends like a pregnant lady but has so few branches you’ll be astounded it isn’t dead” doesn’t make a great landmark.
Okay, whatever, so I should take over handling the … no. I got to act as an intermediary between my family and his friends. Sigh. Fine. Let’s get this done.
I should mention that I live a couple states away and wasn’t up to travel at the time. I have MS and don’t travel well, but some times are worse than others and I need to be in good shape before I start at least and I wasn’t. Also, I had a mother, uncle, cousins, and my uncle’s cousins closer so it was determined I didn’t need to fly up to sift through the house.
I’ve seen his house and I was happy to pass on that. My uncle was a bibliophile (which is where I got my love of SciFi/fantasy) packrat: Floor to ceiling bookshelves on every wall, sometimes shorter ones in front of taller ones and covering the half of the patio door that doesn’t open. In the extra bedrooms there were bookshelves back to back freestanding in the middle of the room as well as around the sides. This is the result of decades of choosing to buy books rather than borrow from a library, never get rid of any, and insisting every book must be on a shelf. Also, hardback over paperback on favored authors, if you start a series you must collect all of them, and eBooks are of the devil because the smell of a book while you read it helps the brain organize the information – everyone knows the link between smells and memory.
I have a couple dozen boxes of books in my basement that he was scandalized by and kept nagging me to put up more bookshelves. He refused to listen to my argument that I liked windows and pictures on walls, and I believed in fire codes as seriously now as I did in Santa when I was five. I got him a Kindle several years ago and loaded it up with some new SciFi (only available as eBooks) to encourage him to actually use it. I showed him how I had hundreds of books in the same space one took up. He gave it away I think because no one ever found it in the house. On the bright side, I set up his Amazon account so I guess I can load it onto another Kindle and download all those SciFi books again.
Anyway, you’d think handling the details after a death would just be sad, and it is, but in this case it was more frustrating because all of the relevant parties wouldn’t talk to each other. Even the hospital was a nightmare because I was listed as next of kin so they could talk to me, ask about insurance, give me the mortuary information, and call to collect bills.
Since the mortuary got their information from the hospital, initially they insisted on only talking to me too. They wouldn’t talk to my uncles or Mom because I was the next of kin. I tried to get Mom to just pretend to be me but she’s old school and wouldn’t do it. Then the no will/no power of attorney issue came up and they slammed on the brakes and wanted everyone’s identification faxed (including mine for reasons I still don’t understand) and that was extra fun while they figured out who they could legally work with.
Meanwhile, one of his friends called to make sure I knew the proper burial instructions. Apparently he and my uncle discussed this and it was important to one of them.
“He wants to be cremated.”
“Got it. No problem.” That was actually already the plan and we had a burial site and –
“And his ashes need to be spread –”
“Yes. You have to, it’s important.”
“I have a cousin in England, it’s fine. But why Ireland?”
“Family is important,” I was told as if this was a great pronouncement. Really? Most of his wasn’t talking to him and he didn’t seem bothered by it when we spoke ten days earlier, so this was news.
“It is. But why Ireland? He’s mostly Germanic if you want to get into ancestry.”
“There’s some Irish and he was very close to his grandmother. He told me about it,” the old man insisted.
“Scottish, you mean.” To me, there is a world of difference between Scottish and Irish. But if you don’t have either in your heritage or don’t live near or with them, I can kind of see the confusion. I mean, British Isles. Geography can be confusing I suppose.
“No, Irish. He said Irish.”
“Listen, I was the one in the family with a passing interest in genealogy –”
“Family history, and I promise you he doesn’t have a drop of Irish blood in him. Nana was Scottish, and yes, they were close. I totally get why he might want to go back to, um, the homeland, although to be fair he’s a quarter Austrian and half German, plus we still have family in Innsbruck so I would have thought he’d go that direction. But Scotland is fine if that’s what he wanted. I’m surprised he didn’t mention it to me.”
“HE SAID IRELAND!” the old man growled at me.
“HE’S NOT IRISH!” I snapped back. This doesn’t matter. I should just say fine, we’ll bury him in Ireland and then go stick him in the ground beside Grandma like he wanted two decades ago and we originally planned. It’s not like the old man on the phone was going to fly to Ireland to make sure we scattered his buddy’s ashes to the wind in … wherever.
Although with my luck it’d come up at the wake. Not a drop of Irish blood in my family but we do appreciate wakes. We throw wakes instead of funerals whenever possible, it’s just more pleasant.
Sigh. Take a breath.
“Listen, I think there was some confusion here. He wants to return to his grandmother’s home, that’s a lovely thought. Nana was really nice and I’m sure she would be honored.” Let’s just leave aside the fact that while Nana may have been born in Scotland, she was raised in Nova Scotia and didn’t actually remember the home in question. “I promise you, he wasn’t Irish. Have you ever seen him drink?”
Okay, so that was a low blow and totally uncalled for. My uncle wouldn’t have touched alcohol if you held a gun to his head. Why? Because my family is comprised of alcoholics, and the much revered Nana pointed out no good came of it, and he was the only one who listened.
I used ageism to promote a cultural stereotype and prove a logical fallacy.
OMG I’m going to hell.
“Oh. Right,” he acknowledged.
It worked. Wow. I am so going to hell for that.
“Don’t worry about it. I’m sure he just misspoke.” Yeah, I just blamed the dead guy so the old man on the phone would feel better. Go big or go home, right?
“Anyway, cremated, ashes in Scotland, I’ll look up the family seat and get with my cousin. No problem.” I pretended to write that down as if this entire conversation wasn’t now burned into my memory for the trial for my eternal damnation later. I was going to have words with my uncle. If I was going to hell, I was dragging him down with me.
“But we already had the wake.” He sounded so confused and deflated.
“That’s okay. My grandfather did business with a lot of Irishmen,” he did actually but it’s irrelevant, “and the family long ago adopted wakes instead of funerals. I think that’s great. It’s what he would have wanted.” Except for the whole aversion to alcohol thing, that could have been an issue if it ever came up. “We’ll raise a glass, or five, later.”
“Oh, good.” He cheered up. Yay for me. I needed points.
So things dragged on, sort of like Vietnam. Everyone had their own separate remembrances because we talked on the phone so much and people kept trying to share stories then letting the words fall away as they remembered that the particular memory wasn’t actually a nice one after all and ended in an argument or thrown vase or something and it got terribly awkward. We had some good ones, but even those seemed awkward.
Like “remember the time I got grounded when I learned smoking gave you cancer and I repeatedly stole his pack of cigarettes and filled it with water?” Silence. Yeah. (I was a kid and it’s the kind of thing that kids do, but Mom smoked too, as did my step-father and uncles and I didn’t try to save them.) Um … awkward. He also spent a lot more time and money on me and later my kids than on my cousins – just something else that came up (a couple of times). We discovered I was the sole beneficiary of his life insurance policy, but he let it lapse (I decided I was relieved). Grade school pictures of me and my kids in the house but not my cousins or their kids. See? Awkward.
Also, I used to believe my uncle was a werewolf. No idea where that came from. Super weird because I didn’t like werewolves. As a kid it was the one thing I was actually afraid of and I wasn’t afraid of my uncle. Huh.
Finally there were fewer calls and everything seemed handled and I thought it was over. It’d been nearly a year.
Normal. Right. Time to maybe start writing again. It’s hard to start again when you haven’t in a long time. Don’t put yourself in that position.
Struggle, read over what I’d written. Umm … Notes. Hmm. Re-read the books I’m writing a sequel to. Re-read the notes to see if they made sense now. No. Rethink some things. Make a battle plan.
Okay, I can do this. Deep breath. Update software. Waiting ….
I received a call from Mom, “Do you know where your uncle is?”
My mind blanked for a moment. “Um, he’s dead.”
“I know that, smart aleck. I mean his ashes.”
What? Seriously? OMG, can this be instead of going to hell? I can’t do both.
“Okay,” I started tentatively, “The plan was to send him to Portland, then London, then –”
“You lost him? At what point?”
“Well, he might not have left the mortuary. We’re not sure.”
“What do you mean you’re not sure? Who was supposed to pick him up? Or mail him? Or whatever? I remember the mortuary people, they were extremely uptight about making sure they had every single detail documented, initialed, and itemized, and … everything … in triplicate. Plus copies for everyone he ever spoke to. I remember there was a section on what exactly was going to happen with the ashes, and they wanted to know the name of who would pick him up and the date and they’d have to show ID and sign for him and HOW DID THIS NOT COME UP BEFORE NOW?”
“I’m not sure. We’re trying to figure it out. I guess your cousin came back from her trip to Scotland, said it was lovely, and asked when we were going to send her the ashes so she could plan another trip and …” she let that drift off. Pause.
“So do you still have the mortuary people’s information?”
I am NOT going to hell alone. “Yeah, Mom, I have it. I’ll have to dig it out because I wrote it down in the book I was writing at the time this all happened. I’ll have to go through the files.”
“You wrote your uncle’s death into a book? That’s questionable.”
Yes, she was serious.
“No, Mom. It’s just I needed somewhere to take notes, and Scrivener was open because I was writing, or trying to. Anyway, it was a convenient place to take notes. So it’s not part of the book, but I’m writing a genie does this and that, and my uncle dies and the hospital calls, and call the caregiver, and the mortuary’s info will be there as well as the rest of this shit show.”
“You’ve seen what I write and you’re lecturing me now? For that matter, I’ve seen what you write. By the way, Mom, ‘damn’ has an ‘n’ on the end when you’re swearing. Also, ‘its’ only has an apostrophe if it’s a contraction, not possessive.”
“Apostrophe-s is possessive so ‘its’ will always have an apostrophe, kid.”
“They changed the rules. English is irregular AF, go with it.” Yes, I lie to my parents, and I firmly believe I do not lose heaven points for that because every kid does to some extent. It’s fine, parents lie to kids too.
“Never mind, go with it. I’ll find the information and text you.”
“Okay, thanks. We’ll get it all taken care of. I hope they still have him.”
“Probably on a shelf waiting for someone to pick him up. Or maybe they were supposed to mail him and just forgot, let’s hope. Maybe. I doubt they can just toss him.”
“They can’t store him indefinitely. At some point they have to do something with the remains.”
“Yes, but they billed someone for the cremation, right? So they have someone’s contact info. Actually, they have my contact info. They can pick up the phone before they toss him in the garden.”
“Good point. Okay, don’t worry about then.”
Right. Okay, so time passes. I called Mom.
“Is it sorted?”
“I assume. I gave the information to my big brother.”
“I’ll ask him.”
Email said uncle (we’re not a close family). No answer. Email again. No answer. Right, much more of this and our family will need our own subdivision in Hell. Dig into my phone, find four phone numbers for him. No. Look at old phone bills, find the correct number, and call him solely to ask if he sent his brother to his daughter for her next family vacation. Simple question.
“Is it sorted?”
“Well, we were going to ship him but then she was going to come back for a visit with the kids. Have you seen how much they’ve grown?”
“No. Way cute?”
“Aww, send me pictures. So then just thinking you’ll pass him along for her to fly across the country then internationally with human remains?”
“I should look into that.”
You haven’t? Whatever. “Maybe. Listen, here’s my thinking: You’ll probably take the kids to the beach when they visit, right?”
“Naturally. Well, the Pacific connects to the Atlantic, and that connects to the North Sea, and she was thinking Edinburgh, right? And you know how everyone says it’s a small world and all that?”
“Your mother isn’t that easygoing,” he said. I swear he sounded suspicious.
“Yeah well, there’s probably a reason I’m the only one who was still talking to him, you know. And I’m only half Mom’s when you get down to it. The mellow gene probably came from the other side.”
“That’s a good point. Your dad’s pretty laid back.”
“Yeah. And it’s been almost two years.”
“Another good point.”
“And I haven’t seen many of my cousins in a while, but I wouldn’t wish customs with human remains on them. Especially with little kids, they get cranky about delays. It’s not nice.”
He chuckled. “I’ll handle it.”
Now there are several takeaways here:
- This happened. Old man, Ireland, lost ashes, it happened. Well, people had names but you don’t need to know them. The creative license is in the tone – the original interactions were much darker I assure you and it’s probably good I didn’t try to chronicle the events before I was past them enough to look back and laugh.
- Have a F’ing will. Details. Leave it somewhere it will be found – quickly and easily. Also, don’t play favorites like this, seriously not cool.
- Don’t stop writing, at least a little bit. Daily if possible, at least a couple times a week. It’s so hard to start again, as bad as starting the first time. Better in some ways, worse in others.
- Your writing is tied to your emotions, but your emotions are also tied to your writing. Recognize that, use it if you can. If I’d been just a bit more on my game while I was going through the dark crap in this, I’d have taken advantage of that mindset to write darker scenes. OR force myself to write intentionally lighter scenes to help alleviate some of my darker moods. I’ve done both in the past but did neither in the past two years.
- I didn’t ask for details, but yes, I’m assured it’s taken care of.
- Learn to laugh at life, at least at some point. It may take time, that’s fine, but don’t live bitter.