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first person

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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

“I’m sorry, I can’t pay this bill.” The teller looks apologetic, but firm.

“Why not?” I ask. “There is enough in the account.”

“Our records say that you and your brother are co-executors. You both need to be present to do anything with the estate account.”

“But a few months ago, someone from this very branch was able to work with only one signature?” My voice rises.

The teller looks unconvinced.

Don’t cry. I take a deep breath.

“The chequing account is still open,” I try. “That’s how the payment went through in the first place.”

“That account is frozen. It can still accept deposits, but not withdrawals,” the teller says.

Why is going to the bank to settle even the simplest things – months after her death – always so hard? Now, I’ll need to make an appointment for my brother and me to come in together. No small feat given that we are both working full-time with different schedules, we both have kids, and I’ve already taken time off work to deal with the banking this morning.

But we’ll have to make time because we are: “the Estate of.”

When someone passes away, you have to keep telling people they’re dead, over and over and over.

When my wife died, I knew I had to build her casket

I’d rather lampoon my age-related memory loss, not worry about it

At first, it’s expected. You write and publish obituaries. You dig through address books and e-mail accounts. You ask her neighbour to inform the rest of the neighbourhood. You ask the choirmaster to tell everyone at the church. You put out tendrils of communication to make sure everyone is aware of the when and where of the memorial service.

People ask about flowers. What kind will you have? It’s a raging pandemic and you haven’t thought of that. You’ll be showing the flowers through a screen anyhow. You’ve never liked cut flowers. They’re dead. Then again, maybe that’s fitting. You can’t ignore the flowers. Your work sent a beautiful arrangement of traditional white flowers. They have a “pray for me” smell. They have the bouquet of death. Your neighbour sent a simpler arrangement with more colours and a fragrance like a meadow in high summer. You combine the bouquets and the result looks nice positioned behind the urn. The deceased would have liked them. You’re “the Estate of”; you take care of it.

Once the memorial is finished, you think you are done with telling people.

You’re not.

There will be someone you missed. Months later someone will send a Christmas card or they’ll call and you’ll have to tell the story all over again.

As you talk, you’ll live it all over again. In your mind, you’ll hear the fatigue in the voice of the overworked nurse who facilitated the phone calls because visits weren’t allowed because of COVID-19. You’ll remember the complaints about pain, through a bad phone connection, when you couldn’t do anything about it. You’ll feel the guilt. Of course, you won’t talk about that to the person who you missed, the person who didn’t know. They are in the freshness of grief. You’ll say she died peacefully on her own terms. But you’ll remember what death looked like. You’ll remember what death smelled like when they decided she was palliative, and you finally got to see her.

Every time you have to say it: “She passed away.” Every time someone reacts with shock and disbelief, you’ll be triggered. Sure, you wrote cathartically about forgiveness and imperfect love. But when you’re triggered, because you need to tell yet another person about the death, you won’t remember that. You’ll remember the time you lost your cool and made her cry, then looked in her eyes and realized that she was dying. You’ll remember all the days you could have done more, except you couldn’t, you just really couldn’t.

Every time someone cries, you’ll cry with them.

But it still isn’t over, not if you are the Estate of. You spend hours mailing out death certificates. Even if you dutifully inform banks, government agencies and various offices within the tax and benefits machine, it won’t be over.

Months later, the cheques in her name will keep coming and you’ll keep writing letters asking that the cheques be stopped.

Telling bureaucracies – over and over – is the worst because you know they know. You know this because even as they issue the payment – on the same damned day – they issue a letter, addressed to the Estate of, stating that repayment is required.

You have to keep saying: “She has died. Please stop sending her benefit payments.”

They’ll say, “We need the Will notarized.” Or: “The witness needs to sign Exhibit A in front of a lawyer.” Or: “Our hands are tied, we’re very sorry.”

You’ll want to say, “Please stop making me say it.” Because every time the scab is ripped off, you’ll need to grow a new one.

The bank doesn’t care. Maybe the teller does, but not the financial institution. The tax department doesn’t care. Maybe the person on the phone does, but not the whole bureaucracy. Somewhere in a machine of good people doing their jobs – people who do care – caring is lost.

But you don’t want to ruin the teller’s day.

I gather my papers, my hands shaking.

“I’ll make an appointment for my brother and me when I know his schedule.”

I walk into a wet morning and I let the tears come.

I remember how complex the relationship with my mother was and how much was left unsaid. I remember that by the time I was finally able to visit, she was unconscious. I remember speaking to her anyhow, saying what I needed to say, letting her go. I remember her papery, swollen skin when I could finally hold her hand. I remember my head buried in her thin chest as I hugged her one last time. Her breathing ragged and irregular.

The wound is bleeding again. I’ll need to grow another scab.

I put one foot in front of the other and pull out my phone.

“Hey, we both have to be there,” I say to my brother.” He swears. He says the things I wanted to say to the teller.

Then we work out a schedule. We’re talking more now than we have in years. We have years of memories to talk about. We’ll start with the bank though. We have to. We are the Estate of.

Deborah M. Buehler lives in Collingwood, Ont.

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