The Boomers Guide to Dying

3 09 2008

“You’ve reached the Social Security Benefits administration…Your approximate wait is six minutes.  Please choose from the following options to better direct your call – to report a death…push or say “one”…”please hold for the next available representative…”  

I hear a sound, brace myself and yes – the geniuses in the “how-to-make-people-feel-better-while-they-wait-to-report-the-death-of-a-loved-one” department have chosen appropriate musak.

“Oh Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are playing,

From glen to glen and down the mountainside,    

The summer’s gone, and all the flowers are dying.  ‘

Tis you, ’tis you must go and I must bide…”

Do they figure that every other caller is going to be Irish American?  Is it celtic coded by the numbers of his social security number I had to key in to start?  My throat tightens and I lock my jaw…Thus starts my adventure at 7 a.m. yesterday in “The Boomers Guide to Dying”.

Now I had been preparing for this mid-life SAT type exam for almost a year.  I’d known my parents to be pretty organized when it came to saving anything that even looked remotely important.  The problem with that – is that in the later years – even the Publisher’s Clearinghouse “certificates” could be interpreted as a stock option.  

I knew he had his stash and she had hers.  Slowly by surely, I would make my weekly treks to and from Michigan with pirate paper booty in the trunk of my car.  I’d get home and turn my dining room table into a sorting station.  Piles and piles of papers – I’d make executive decisions to shred the gas bills from 1987-2000, etc.  Slowly but surely I could make sense of where the “keepers” really were.

But this business of dying is really complicated.  They seem to want real documents to prove that you’ve been who you claimed you were for the last 85 years you’d been walking on the earth.  Then they expect that you prove who you were again for the years and years and years of checks you’ve already received, cashed and spent eons ago.  And should you name your spouse as a beneficary – then it doesn’t stand to reason that the 60 years you’ve claimed to be legally married truly means you were.

No- the government that doesn’t have anything better to do than to ask us to turn in more and more papers that they don’t know what to do with and will probably lose…they want ANOTHER COPY of the real, signed, sealed and delivered original document THAT THEY ALREADY have on file in a court house.  

And in the last 365 days of document research that I could tell you exactly what the increases in trash hauling have been over the last 20 years or where the “quit-deeds” were to 15 graves of relatives dead 35 years…there are some serious missing links.  No birth certificates and no marriage license.

What I’m able to tell you with some certainty is that those born in the 20’s believed anything written with an ink nib and a flare was in fact “official”.  But folks, I’m here to tell you – calligraphy doesn’t make it so.  I had in hand the little white booklet that the pastor had used to read the ceremony word for word.  That’s what they signed at the church.  Then I had the receipt from the marriage license they’d applied for and purchased 3 days before the wedding.  But the certified copy of the one filed with the authorities – NO WAY, NO WHERE,NO HOW.  And here they’d thought they’d been married for 60 years – silly kids.  So I put on my research brain and went to work.  Fortunately, I was only 40 minutes from the county seat where they were married.  Forget the birth part – no one was asking for those documents YET and I can’t drive to Memphis in a morning.  

It took me about 3 seconds to realize I was in a special place.  The Lake County government building houses all the offices you’d expect to find, plus the courts…so why wouldn’t you have huge signs posted IN the parking lot and on the door asking me to remember that I wasn’t allowed to take weapons inside.  This is the county seat for Gary afterall.  Weapons seem to be standard fare and you have to be reminded to NOT take them certain places.  

I got a little nervous when I remember that I was still carrying my dad’s old key fob and on it a pen knife that was his weapon of choice.  But the yawning 20 something security guard didn’t do a thorough enough job rifling through my purse.  Then I was sent on my way – to discover the labryinth of underground halls that after a 10 minute walk lead me to the clerk’s office – the marriage clerk to be specific.

More papers to fill out, a visitor’s badge to “rent” for a dollar, copies of my MI state license, sign in, and I was led through room upon room of documents that made me feel like I was back helping the Dr. with his research in Northwestern’s famous Towers surrounded by stacks that I wondered if anyone had ever or would ever touch.  In a far back aisle I was introduced to Book 137 – a tome that weighed nothing less than 15 pounds…”there you go…”, she said as she disappeared.  “If you know the date they were married, it should be fairly easy…”  Duh! – I thought to myself…

Each page had three entries – hand written in that loopy stuff. But I couldn’t figure out the entry system…then I figured it out – it was random.  I disciplined myself to stick to the task and not sit there writing imaginary stories about each him & her…I could have been there for days.  With my research request paper properly filled out and double, no triple checked for accuracy – I got lost on my way back to where I’d come from.  All I needed now was 5 certified copies.  

As I waited two couples came in to be married…right there – on the spot – 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday in September by whatever judge the assistant could rustle up…”they’d like to be married in the wedding room…” – as opposed to the bathroom, I wondered?  He’d only been divorced a few months and the clerk had to verify all the documents so they wouldn’t be prosecuted for polygamy like four other couples this last month.  I could have stood there all day inventing scenes for those screenplays.

But 15 minutes later – I had 5 copies of a document that I could have produced on any computer…except that it had that bumpy embossed seal – again, something I could have replicated even if it said, “From the Library of …” on it.  Will anyone EVER check?


So the moral of the story is this…next time you are enduring that bi-annual visit to your folks…take a morning and go get copies of their OFFICIAL marriage certificate…IF they still live near where they were married.  Afterall it might save you a day’s work when you’d rather have your head buried under a pillow grieving the reason you’re making these phone calls anyway.