The Trust

April 26, 2021

Death. We see grim news of it every day. Day after day. But when do you think about your own death? Who wants to? No one I know. But on rare occasions, perhaps in a sink of depression, thoughts of our own mortality come to us. Some experience conversion, epiphany, resolve to change their lives. Others decide to create a living trust.

We did just that. Not because of depression or epiphany; like almost everything I do, I did it, or we did it, because we heard about it from someone else. It may have been our daughter and son-in-law, who set one up. Or it may have been one of those late-night cable TV lawyers with an 888 number, the ones who also will get you out of jail.

A trust is a legal entity that, when the trustees pass on, manages the trust’s assets without tangling with the probate court which, if it steps in, can mean long delays and legal expenses. My mother’s will took months to resolve. My brothers, still in our hometown, did all the work. I didn’t pay much attention, but it amounted to a huge distraction in their lives. Sandy’s mom’s will, which involved the sale of her modest home, turned into a year-long slog, handled bravely by another son-in-law. Almost weekly we got baffling letters from a law firm overseeing her “estate.” That inches-thick sheaf of papers, in a box somewhere in the garage, is getting recycled as soon as I find it.

The concept of a trust was obscure to me. The term summoned thoughts of Gilded Age robber barons, railroads, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, people with money to burn or hide. I guess Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos have trusts. Still, the argument about cutting paperwork and avoiding legal bills prompted us to call the attorney we had met with awhile back to see if our Virginia wills conformed to South Carolina law. For that chore, we sat with him at a beautifully polished table in the library of a lovely antebellum home. He looked them over, said they were okay and, to our amazement, didn’t charge us anything.

So a month ago we visited him again. He explained that a trust is more expensive and way more complicated than a will. It essentially becomes the repository of your assets even before you pass from the scene. The lawyer gives you the legalese, you listen, ask him to translate it into elementary-school language, you listen again, then ask again. We squinted, but said we’ll go with it. He took our check. I gritted my teeth as I wrote it, recalling the $1,000 for breaking our apartment lease, another surprise cost.

We came back three weeks later. His polished table was covered with forms and a thick blue three-ring binder that contained our wills, powers of attorney, “certification of trust,” and the trust document, which runs to 50—that’s right, 50 pages. For us? My jaw sagged. We signed away, form after form. I thumbed through the binder—never had I dreamed my demise would rate so much legal lingo. The trust consists of 26 (XXVI) articles, each with multiple sections and subsections, printed on glossy, probably fireproof paper. I paused at Article IV, “Administration of My Trust During My Incapacity.” It lays out how our bills keep getting paid after I’ve become decrepit. In everyday English, things keep humming along.

Then the hard part began. We had homework. The trust only works if the people who hold your assets know it exists. We started with a trip to the nearest branch of Bank of America, where we had obtained the check we needed for the closing on our house. For that errand we were shown into the office of the manager, who doubles as a Merrill Lynch salesman. He welcomed us to South Carolina, then gave his Merrill pitch. “Stocks? Bonds? A BOA credit card? Think of the points you’ll earn!” We stared at our watches until he gave up.

To record the trust as designee on the bank signature cards, we got a repeat performance of the Merrill briefing until our eyes turned glassy. He’s probably got some good deals and advice. But when you’re ears-deep in abstract financial talk, who cares?

Finally we got out of there. I started on the phone calls to Fidelity and our old faithful, USAA, where we have tiny accounts. It would have been easier to cash ‘em in than to fill out the forms, but I have trouble grasping the big financial picture. I finished the forms. I didn’t scan and email them or save them to a web “portal.” I licked stamps and mailed them.

We’re still thrashing about with this. I set the big blue binder aside without reading to the end. The attorney urged us to stick it in a fireproof safe or safe-deposit box, that’s still on the to-do list. But the spunk I felt last month to focus on death, which, bottom line, is what the trust is all about, has ebbed a bit. It can be exhausting. It does keep you jogging, going to the gym, watching the calories and the desserts, as you go through the motions of postponing the inevitable. But I looked over Section 1.01 of the trust: “… for the purpose of transferring property to my Trust or identifying my beneficiary, or pay-on-death designation …”

Every so often I browse through the financial pages checking the stock market (up or down?) wondering what the fine print of the trust will really mean to our beneficiaries when the time comes.  The market is beyond our control. At least we’ve checked the heavyweight legal document box—both of us, as “trustees,” along with the Vanderbilts.

The Smile

April 19, 2021

The radiation oncologist was impressed when I told him about entering (although dropping from) the Black Rock mountain run in North Carolina a few weeks ago (see March 29 post). I said he might enjoy that kind of thing. He laughed. “I don’t think so. I’d rather stay home and drink beer,” he answered. I said that sounded good, too.

He had good news, my new CT scan showed “no evidence of metastatic or recurrent disease.” He pressed on my chest and seemed satisfied. We bumped fists and I was out of there. A couple of days later I was back to see the medical oncologist, who gave me the same upbeat report. “Couldn’t be more pleased,” he said. Me, too. I’ll be back for the next scan in August, then follow-ups with both docs at the Prisma Eastside Cancer Institute. Then the same drill three months later, and so on.

The Eastside Institute here is a graceful two-story place, surrounded by woods and set away nicely from other medical offices. Just off the parking lot is a lovely memorial to those who came to fight the disease, a monument to the sacredness of their lives. The doctors and nurses stepped up for them, staying with the mission through the worst of the pandemic.

They don’t exactly slap your back. With cancer, everything is a maybe, a conditional, an unknown. You can call it remission if you want, but not recovery. My thymic carcinoma, in the recent recurrence that followed loss of a kidney 18 months ago, has a peculiar genetic constitution, not treatable by immunotherapy drugs. “If we see anything on the next scan we’ve got options,” the med-onc added. The genetic analysis he ordered recommended a drug used to treat bladder cancer. “You don’t have bladder cancer,” he added with a smile. I nodded okay.

All cancer patients have their not-great moments, but all I’ve met will give you a smile. I’ve met so many, sentenced to surgery, chemo, radiation, drugs. They all smile, some with a bit of a grimace, but all determined, persevering. Angry, maybe—hard to tell. I met them here and at the chemo and radiation therapy facilities in Woodbridge, Va., waiting to go in or finishing up. Almost always you get the nod and grin, the “hang in there,” as they toss their treatment gowns in the hamper. Nobody complains. Nobody’s got the woebegone look or manner of feeling put upon.

When you’re in that world, you’re researching the problem, constantly. You start with “chemo class” given by a senior staff member to new chemo patients. You sit with others around a table and listen to a lecture on the processes and goals of the treatment, recommended diet, etc. Radiation therapists make sure everyone is well-briefed. All of this is useful, clarifying. Chemo and radiation work together to kill cancer cells as they reproduce. The complication is they also kill healthy cells, producing the sometimes ugly side effects.

The docs now have work-arounds for some side effects. Chemo patients typically get a dose of medicines before the chemo drip kicks in. The medicines put me to sleep for the full five hours. The rad-oncs offer various salves and creams to treat the skin irritation—that is, skin burns. My first rad session, toward the end, was like sitting shirtless at noon in Death Valley. The cream didn’t help.

Staying upbeat was a kind of numbness. Here you are, you didn’t ask for this, but—no wiggle room, get through it. The numbness gets in the way of fear or anger. But in so many others I saw something else: courage.

Eastside Memorial

Two years ago, in Virginia, a young woman had the early morning radiation slot, just ahead of me. When I arrived she was on her way out. She was thin, frail-looking. Breast cancer, she said. There was a quiet smile, every day. She was finishing her month-long stint, but then starting chemo at another facility, showing no fear. You can call it acceptance, going along with the medical conglomerate because, really, there’s no alternative. On her last day she smiled one last time, said “good luck,” and disappeared. It was the same in chemo. Folks took their seats, rolled up their sleeves, started their IVs, and smiled.

Here at Eastside, rad patients flowed in steadily, the schedule was tight. Folks may have been frightened, but they always chatted. I saw old guys like me, elderly ladies, middle-aged people, young, good-looking guys and girls. I saw a woman in a wheelchair, pushed by her daughter, not smiling. She has dementia, the daughter said. She smiled as if for her mom. I saw a guy built like a football player. He grinned and talked football.

They—we—may have picked it up to some degree from the staff. They tried to make us comfortable. But the patients all seemed to have something that led them to smile at and kid with each other. For some it’s a kind of mystery, the sense that I’m here at the brink, I didn’t chose this, but there’s no turning back. Nothing to do but fight. So get on with it. For others, it acknowledges the nearness of God in their lives.

We looked around at each other, knowing what we’re all going through, but that we’re not alone. Cancer is everywhere in America, a scourge of children, teens, young adults, and oldsters. Despite the millions spent on research annually by the best medical institutions in the world, cancer still baffles the professionals.  They achieve miracles, except when they don’t. My younger brother went to Sloan-Kettering for a consult. Months later he was gone. U.S. cancer deaths have declined in recent years. Yet in 2020 some 1,600 people died of cancer every day in the United States.

I walked out of the rad-onc’s office and waved at Daisy, the admin assistant. She smiled her own dynamite smile. “I’ve got you coming back on August 10, right after the scan. Take care!”

Those waiting room smiles say something: I know what you’re dealing with when you walk into that lead-lined treatment chamber and lie down on the slab under that giant, scary machine. I know what you’re thinking when you feel that warm rush of drugs flow into your body. We’re doing this with you. So we whisper, “Hang in there.” And keep smiling.    

Grass

April 12, 2021

The sun now rises high and warm nearly everywhere, making the flowers and plants explode from the soil to paint the land with the brilliance of the season. As I’m sure some poet has said, Spring breathes life into the living. Walking through parks, any parks, or driving through towns and cities, any town or city, and inhaling the delicate aromas of Spring lightens the heart of every human person. The sensations may seem superficial or trivial in the face of deeper concerns, they may be short-lived, but they are real and undeniable.

What also is undeniable is the work about it. Spring in its loveliness is a signal to the suburbanites, or many of them, to head to Home Depot and Lowe’s and stand in line to buy new tools, seed, nursery-raised plants, and fertilizer, and deploy for the lawn wars. A lush spread of grass outside your front door is why you moved to the burbs, isn’t it?

I resigned from most lawn duty a couple of years ago. Other than mowing my modest front-yard plot to keep the neighbors happy, I gave up caring what it looked like. For years earlier I laid down new seed in the spring and straw on top of the seed to keep it from washing away, then watched the crabgrass and other stuff devour it by mid-July.

You can avoid that by hiring a lawn-care company to tend your patch of green, meaning seed, fertilize, mow, and snip it. Our Virginia neighbor across the street does just that. Once a week for half the year, around 8 AM, a team of lawn manicurists arrives in a pickup truck, wheel out their giant sit-down mowers, and inside of 15 minutes blast neat new swaths in her lawn. Then they head to the next customer. It’s a volume business, after all. We understood. I never asked her what it cost, whatever it was, it was more than I wanted to pay. Her lawn was beautiful. Ours resembled a World War I battlefield.

Every man who slaves away at his lawn knows what those who don’t also know: lawn care can be addictive, like sugar or caffeine or worse things. Nightmares are made of the sums of money otherwise sane adults allocate to seed, “pre-emergent” herbicides, lime, and the various seasonal strains of fertilizer. Isn’t it necessary, the homeowner asks himself, to use all of them? In their season? Scott, Vigoro, Pennington, and other corporate giants rule their own aisles of the hardware stores. That’s the software, then there’s hardware: the spreaders, mowers, sprinklers (or in-ground sprinkler systems), and wheelbarrels; the power tools—blowers, vacuums, clippers, trimmers; and the hand tools: grass rakes, thatch rakes, leaf rakes, hoses, edgers, weeders, hoes, spades, shovels, pitchforks.

I owned all those things.

A homeowner’s desire to keep his place presentable exerts powerful pressure to acquire a lawn-care warehouse. The thick green lawn is a component of everything else. You have to spend money, after all, on painting, powerwashing, repairing brick facings, vinyl siding, and shutters, cleaning windows and replacing broken ones, cleaning gutters, and so on, with the understandable goal of not letting your house look run down or abandoned. Because the grass or other vegetation that fills the space between the front door and the sidewalk is alive, it requires constant attention. The lawn-care compulsion grows (heh-heh) from that. Hence the lawnmower, for starters. Then the rest.

My recovery started with failure. The soil on our property was naturally poor. Without commercial fertilizer and hours of watering—positioning a sprinkler or spraying with a hose—the expensive grass seed I planted grew feebly, then died. Eventually I decided the weeds that replaced it were green enough. Mowing gave us a minimalist level of suburban acceptability. That was the front. The backyard I surrendered completely. Because it was a steep hill and not visible from the street, when I got sick I quit even occasionally trimming it and handed it over to the weeds. Here, nature was kind. The chickweed, etc., grew sparsely and slowly, giving us the gentle, calming look of a meadow or pasture.

I braced myself for lawn care here, at the new place. We now face a new enemy, a Homeowners Association (HOA) which, in its rulebook, demands lawn accountability. The seller, Miss Jean, bequeathed us a rake, a hoe, a couple of spades. But since we gave away our entire lawn-care arsenal, including the mower, we’re unarmed.

Then I noticed something. All the lawns in the neighborhood look brown and neglected. Unlike our Virginia neighbors, nobody here, even in mid-April, was frantically fertilizing, seeding, aerating, trimming. The thick, heat-resistant zoysia that predominates in local lawns has not yet stirred to green. Its tough, wirelike clumps seem to limit weed growth to dandelions, which dapple our front lawn with their yellow flowers and fluffy seed pods. Once established, they never go away short of a massive herbicide assault.

Lowe’s is teeming with anxious customers who know the territory better than me.  But I called off shopping for lawn tools.

When I moved from Jersey to Nashville in 1975, I took some time getting used to certain Southern peculiarities, even after marrying into a Southern family. The “Lost Cause” thing never worked for me, although it’s still alive and well in Tennessee and in South Carolina. But the slower, more genteel pace hereabouts is okay for us now, as we figure out things more complicated than lawn care. But lawn care will still matter. Ask the HOA.

Triduum

April 5, 2021

Winter hung on. We stumbled through the move from the apartment to the new house with fewer troubles than some people experience, nothing valuable was wrecked, the power was turned on as scheduled, the neighbors didn’t stand on the sidewalk staring. Not that I’d mind. But then we have no sidewalk. Suddenly it was Easter Week. 

We “attended” Mass on Palm Sunday by watching it on the internet. Easter called us to show up. Last year the churches were shut by covid-19. We tried to set aside the dark memory of the year of pandemic agony. We turned to the eternal Easter message: love, humility, compassion, mercy, hope, the weapons that will defeat evil that returns again and again: 550,000 souls lost to a microbe, a season of political mendacity, spasms of incomprehensible violence.

Hope is the beginning. We pressed forward tinkering with our new living space, prospecting through the garageful of boxes we hauled from the apartment, and before that to the apartment from the Virginia house. We met the neighbor across the street, who welcomed us in her soothing, lilting, regional twang. She grew up near here, she said. She mentioned she long has admired the Japanese maple in our front yard. I turned and looked at it, the branches were bare, but I thought I could see tiny buds. That’s something, I thought.

I kept puttering. The light bulbs in the three-lamp bathroom fixture had been mysteriously snapped off at their sockets; the home inspection missed it. I was able to extract them with pliers after getting a scary electrical jolt that made me yell and throw the pliers up in the air. I realized then I should have turned off the switch.

I looked at the neighbors’ yards to the east, west, and south, saw no one. Not a soul. I hung a few pictures and raked the backyard weeds. I tried hooking up the internet, it didn’t work. I called the company, the fellow checked the account and found the internet had not been connected in the house since 2013. Another message from our seller, the enigmatic Miss Jean. She had decided she didn’t need it. Didn’t need it, so didn’t want it.

Then we left the chores on Holy Thursday, start of the Triduum. We struggled to grasp the truth of the miracle, perhaps this year as much mystery as miracle.  Easter and Passover lift us from grief. The Gospel writers stand against the onslaught of human tragedy, advancing the message of the Resurrection, the central event of history. This year, from John:

“Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first; he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in. When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place. Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed. For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead.”

We settled in, along with the complicated memories. I owned up to it: we left good people and places that still hold me. On moving day last week I stood in the empty apartment where we lay our heads for five rootless months and wondered again at the choices that landed us in this compact little house with the squared-off property lines in a two-street subdivision, on the fringe of a city we barely know. Then I shook my head and dropped the retrospectives, which now come so easily. We pushed forward to the next things, the things that matter now.  

We worked at anchoring ourselves: changing addresses, visiting the tax office and the Motor Vehicle Department. Sickness took over: appointments, tests, surgery and recovery, more appointments, more tests. In November, in an auditorium at the downtown parish, we watched Mass on a video screen. We visited the pastor before the operation, he helped me through it. A Pentecostal minister stopped by my hospital room for a chat and a prayer, he submitted a report on his visit to the hospital chiefs. I hoped they approved.  

The evangelical Christian church next door to the apartment sported giant banners: “Overcome the Past,” and “You Belong Here.” The first presumably alluded to South Carolina’s segregationist history. The second was a pitch. They, like their competitors, planned major services this weekend, visitors welcome.

People raced back to the churches, as they stampede back to bars and restaurants. Masks are disappearing, hugs and backslaps are everywhere, celebrating the Savior’s hard work in making things “normal” again. It looks that way. Millions now can brag of having at least one vaccine shot. Chocolate bunnies and jellybeans are back on the shelves. Easter once again brought out the pretty dresses and stylish hats.

Dark clouds rushed in on us midweek, bringing chill and a hard rain. The feds are warning of the spread of covid variants. People are getting sick again.

We showed up for Mass with masks. We thought about those half-million now gone, their families, and all the rest: the victims of cancer and mass shootings.  The choir wasn’t there but the prayers were those of past years, of every year. We knelt and witnessed the recreation of the sacrifice, the prayers of the faithful, the solemnity of the Season, the return of hope. We looked ahead to Spring.