Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
A friend called to say he had just been diagnosed with lymphoma and wanted me at the going-away party he was throwing for himself. I counseled against the premature burial ceremony and laid out reasons for optimism: This form of cancer has an excellent cure rate, there have been advances with chemotherapy, a positive attitude has been known to eradicate malignancies. Because our friendship spanned decades, he intuitively deciphered the subtext of my encouragementnamely, that I didn’t want to spring for the plane fare to Martha’s Vineyard, that I’d rather spend my weekend cavorting with some woman than reminiscing with him about the time in high school we found a thousand tranquilizers in his mother’s night table and debated for months about how many we could take from the bottle without her catching on. So then he reminded me of his friend the junkyard worker who had stolen an axle for my Volkswagen and brought it by the house later that night in his pizza-delivery truck. And he recalled how I’d once left him sitting drunk on a Manhattan street corner without bus money to get back to New Jersey. But when the guilt strategy proved useless, he said he thought of me as the brother he never had, and was therefore planning to leave me a substantial share of his estate. I hung up on him and called the airline.
The next night I spoke with another old friend who had also been blindsided by the news, and we struggled with some perplexing questions: If there really is a just God, why would someone so young be stricken with this disease? Could growing up drinking from Jersey’s notoriously mercury-laden Hackensack Reservoir have contributed to our friend’s condition, and if so, would one of us be next? And most important, what exactly did our terminal sidekick mean by a “substantial” piece of his estate? Plus, who’d get his Corvette?
This last question consumed most of this phone call and others that followed, since we both felt deserving of the car. We argued at length about who had been the better friend. We discussed a court challenge should someone else inherit the grand prize. We speculated about the odometer reading, the challenges of driving something with that much muscle under the hood, and whether a lifetime muffler guarantee would be transferable under such circumstances.
But it all proved moot, as we always knew it would: Our friend recovered, and thenno doubt to spite ustraded in the old Corvette for a new one. He likes to point out that I abandoned him during his time of need, that I never visited him during hospital stays even after being informed of my inclusion in his will. But I reminded him that I had lost 50 bucks on a semirefundable plane ticket after he so inconsiderately canceled the party. And since he never died, his offer was technically made under false pretenses. After pulling that kind of fast one, he’s lucky I didn’t sue him for breach of contract.
Of course, when it comes to matters of death, people do far worse things than threaten petty litigation. After all, expiration isn’t only about loss, it’s also about gain: It’s about wills and estates and inheritance-tax strategies, which among both designated and hopeful beneficiaries means it’s often about greed and probate challenges and the accumulation of land, legal tender, and even more worldly possessions.
But even when materialism isn’t the underlying motivation, staking claim to the departed’s property can be tricky. For me, the eeriest conundrum came with the sudden and unexpected death of my former next-door neighbor. She was generous and good-natured. She had been my friend for a decade. She had my chair in her apartment when it happened.
It was an expensive leather swiveler that I had lent her before taking off on extended travels. After her death, I agonized about how to retrieve it. Calling her family or fiancé seemed heartless, nor could I ask the landlord to intervene. As the weeks passed, I wondered whether my inability to afford a replacement or the discomfort of watching TV standing up gave me the moral latitude to try to reclaim my property. As more time went by I wondered whether anyone even knew the chair was mine, whether I could endure the humiliation if my claim of ownership was challenged, whether it was inappropriate to speculate about the existence of a probate clause that would allow me entry to her apartment if my chair’s leather needed oiling.
Then one night another friend booted up her newly installed WillMaker software and asked me which of her possessions I’d like to inherit. Her house, car, and money-market accounts came immediately to mind, but I figured that her husband and daughter probably had the inside track on those assets and not to push it. So I thought about laying claim to her very comfortable bedroom reclinera backhanded way of someday replacing the leather swiveler, which I had finally written off as unretrievable.
The idea of actually ending up with that chair made me squeamish, though, so I told her there was nothing I really wanted. But she had already added me to the short list of beneficiaries before us on the computer, and insisted that I identify something of hers that I’d one day want to own. I took a quick inventory of her possessions, only to come up empty. She pressed me for an answer, clearly unnerved that it had taken her decades to amass a houseful of possessions so utterly unappealing that she couldn’t give away even a single one. In desperation, I told her I’d be grateful for her America Online pseudonym. Because she had had the foresight to subscribe early, I said, she had a desirably pithy e-mail address rather than one of those interminable agglomerations of letters and numbers that defies recall.
She dismissed my request as ludicrous, but I claimed that there’s a special responsibility that goes along with the appropriation of someone’s Internet identity, that the use of her moniker would be recognized by her online acquaintances as perhaps the ultimate tribute, and that they, in turn, would undoubtedly become my friends. Her memory, I insisted, would live on through me via a steady stream of “Welcome, you’ve got mail” announcements. She seemed unconvinced, but the bequest was nonetheless made official.
But there will be no cherry-picking with my mother’s estate; like it or not, her possessions will all pass to me. This means I’ll one day get a white leather recliner with pop-up footresta more than adequate replacement for my lost property. As part of the deal, however, I’ll also inherit an anthology of Zero Mostel recordings, an ancient mink stole with head and paws, and an art collection typified by Impressionist-type posters that as best I can tell seem to commemorate either secular ethics in Julia Childs’ kitchen or notable biblical plagues.
I’m not sure what I’ll do with any of it. I could hold an estate sale, but that would mean fending off bargain-hunters who will haggle until I sell them the TV and toaster oven for a quarter each. I could donate everything to charity, but I’d be forced to cart it to some musty thrift shop that will undoubtedly be more depressing than one of those old Woolworth’s with the sagging wooden floors and marshmallow-sundae prices crammed inside balloons that lunch-counter patrons break with a dart.
It’s possible, I guess, that being orphaned will not only finally get me a chair but also bring the sort of financial independence otherwise attainable only via Powerball or other extra-career fluke. Or the will might bring ugly or mystifying surprises. Maybe my mother will direct that her estate be split between me and Guru MaharaJiI get the sterling silver and the My Fair Lady playbill that Rex Harrison autographed after that theater outing in celebration of my Cub Scout lion badge, while the perennially 15-year-old perfect master gets everything else. Or maybe there will be a provision in the will insisting that although the growth on my neck looks harmless it could still become a tumor, so my mother has arranged to have her doctor look at it again on the Wednesday following her death and monthly thereafter, subsequent installments of my inheritance to be withheld should I miss an examination. Or maybe there will be a codicil to her bequest prohibiting me from removing the shrinkwrap from the recliner.
What’s certain is that the idea of possessing someone else’s post-mortem belongings makes me apprehensive. And the more I think about it, the less I want others scavenging through my own material remains.
It’s bad enough that I’m destined to go out of here a nobody. I’ve at last come to grips with the realization that my face will not flash by on the networks’ year-end review of notable deaths. There will be no moment of silence at Dodgers Stadium, no bond-market gyrations, no Internet chat-room deliberations about my legacy or the consequences of my demise. Word of my passing will not come via the daily obituaries or even the less prestigious Deaths column, but likely in two lines of minuscule type grudgingly paid for by my legally bound executor.
I imagine neighbors proclaiming my death a real surprise, even though the only ones to have seen me in the last year of life were Meals on Wheels volunteers and the medical-supplies guy who delivered oxygen tanks. I imagine mourners being offered an opportunity to pay me tribute, and after an uncomfortable silence the floor captain of my condo association rising in place and saying, “When we wanted to send in a plumber because his toilet was overflowing into the apartment below and leaving water marks on the lovely wallpaper, he didn’t make a fuss.” I envision mourners becoming bored at the grave site and walking across the lawn to another funeral that looks more promising. I picture many of the bereavedpallbearers among themskipping out early and racing to my apartment so they’ll arrive before the pickled herring is gone. And I imagine my beneficiaries scrutinizing an inventory of my possessions and then collectively plotting a legal strategy to ensure that none of my assets is transferred to them. Maybe the organ bank will refuse my kidneys. Maybe a school of mortuary science will return me to sender. Maybe no one will want even a single remnant of my life.
Or maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe the Today show will preempt its Martha Stewart segment on orange juice-carton furniture for a retrospective of my achievements, and maybe my cousins will sue one another in hopes of being awarded my high-school wrestling letters. All I know is that I’ve always thought the greatest tribute that can be paid someone is a lengthy funeral processiona blocks-long parade of headlights that snakes its way through city streets and forces motorists to wait impatiently at intersections. But lately I envision only a single car following my hearse: I peer out of the long, black limo and see a new Corvette with a leather chair strapped to its luggage rack. Beside the driver is a woman who looks vaguely familiar. She asks his feelings about the deceased, and he thinks for a while before saying: “As friends go, he’s gone.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Robert Meganck.