Essay by Sue Fagalde Lick
My father-in-law is dying. As my husband and I sit with my mother-
in-law at a Portland hospital, waiting for Dad’s heart to stop beating, all she
can think about is money.
“I’ll have to declare bankruptcy,” she says over and over throughout
that long, awful day when doctors keep coming out of ICU to explain again
why her husband is not going to survive and to ask when she wants to unplug
the respirator. Don’t worry about money, Mom, we tell her. We’ll work it
But how? When Dad dies, his pension will stop. They have no
savings or life insurance, they owe thousands of dollars from having just
moved across two states to be closer to us, and Medicare will not cover all
of the hospital bills. In the last 24 hours, Dad has been an intensive care
patient at two hospitals, ridden three different ambulances, and flown by
private plane from Newport to Portland with two doctors aboard. Add a
dozen more doctors, plus nurses, high-tech equipment, drugs, and the
services of the Portland hospital’s chaplain and grief counselors. The total is
sure to be more than anyone can afford.
Mom will have $1,200 a month from Social Security. Period. Her
rent is $850. That leaves $350 for food, utilities, insurance, her own doctor
bills, keeping up an old car that leaks and has a big dent in the side, and extra
expenses like fixing the washing machine or the TV when it breaks. Forget
new clothes, adding to her ceramic lighthouse collection, or renting videos to
while away the lonely days. At age 80, she can’t go back to work to up the
ante. She has to live on what she has.
In her purse, Mom carries an advertisement for inexpensive cremation
services—$400. There will be no casket, no funeral service, just a plastic
box of ashes. She will probably put those ashes in a niche in Las Vegas, far
from where she lives now, because the niche is already paid for.
She may have to move to a smaller, cheaper house, only two months
after moving into the one she lives in now. She borrowed $5,000 to move 62
years of accumulated furniture, books, records, clothing, and housewares.
She can’t afford to move all her stuff again, but what will she do with it? She
does not want to take in a boarder. She refuses to move in with us; she wants
Just the day before, when no one knew her husband would die the next
day, they toured a new retirement residence with plush carpets, mahogany
furniture, cheery apartments with ocean views, three meals a day, maid and
laundry services, and a nurse on duty all the time. Dad wandered. She joked
about putting him on a leash. Since the elevator wasn’t working, he gamely
climbed the stairs to the second floor to tour the rooms. It would have been
an ideal place for them to live, except that they couldn’t afford the $1,900 a
month it would cost for both of them to rent a one-bedroom unit. Mom took
home a stack of free donuts to eat for breakfast the next day. That night
Dad sat in his recliner by the TV and couldn’t get up. Mom called 911.
This morning she tossed the retirement home brochures in the trash. It
would cost $1,325 for her to live alone in one of their studio apartments, but
she doesn’t have it.
After a lifetime of working and scrimping, here she sits worrying about
bankruptcy as her husband lies in a coma in intensive care. It’s hard to hate
the husband now for buying cameras, stereo equipment, VCRs, and other
gadgets. She doesn’t regret the vacations they took to Hawaii, Alaska, the
Cayman Islands, and Acapulco instead of stashing the money in the bank.
You do the best you can. Seven years ago, they bought a house with
their youngest son and thought they were set. Three years later, the son was
killed. A few months ago, with Dad growing more and more frail and
confused, Mom put their house on the market. The sale fell through.
Anxious to be close to her oldest son before something happened, she leased
it instead, borrowing the money to pay the moving company. The monthly
check from her renters barely covers the mortgage payments.
Now the worst has come to pass. They have no assets and Dad is
dying. Mom is looking at bankruptcy.
When the bills arrive, all the sympathetic hospital personnel will be
gone. The bills and the computers that turn them out will keep shoving the
same numbers in her face until she pays them or dies.
The hospital chaplain asks how he can help. But Mom is not religious.
How do we get our parking ticket validated so we don’t have to pay $5 an
hour? she asks. She’s not being funny.
Mom waits all day, scarcely touching the hospital cafeteria lunch we
buy for her at 3:30 p.m. She talks with doctors and the hospital’s grief
counselors, signs forms to donate Dad’s eyes, says farewell to his lifeless
body. “I can’t,” she sobs, covering his forehead with kisses and tears. But
she must. “I’ll see you again sometime,” she tells him.
Does she want to talk to the doctors again? “No, I want to go home.”
Sitting in the dark back seat for the three-hour drive, she tries to sleep,
but she can’t stop thinking about what has just happened and what will
Well-meaning relatives converge on her house, eating her food, calling
long distance on her telephone, watching her TV day and night. The landlord
pays his respects. She eyes him. Would he be willing to reduce her rent?
She can’t ask him today.
She looks around the cluttered house. What can she give away?
What can she sell? What if she has to move?
Her husband has died and she is terrified of going broke.
Friends and near-strangers ask what they can do. She hasn’t the
courage to ask for what she really needs: money. “I’m okay, thanks.” She
takes comfort in the flowers, the cards, the contributions to the heart fund.
How much will it cost to send thank-you notes?
She stares at the portrait they had made on their last anniversary.
“Why did you do this to me?” she demands of her late husband, but he
doesn’t answer. In the silence, the heater kicks on, burning up more dollars
she doesn’t have.
Sue Fagalde Lick’s work has recently appeared in Prime Number,
Diverse Voices Quarterly, Still Crazy, and Bellingham Review, among
others. Her most recent book is Childless by Marriage. Before earning
her MFA at Antioch University Los Angeles, Lick spent many years as a
On “How Much Will It Cost?”:
My father-in-law was dying, and all my mother-in-law, Helen Lick,
could think about was that she would have no money after he was
gone. How would she survive? Witnessing the events of that day, I
was shocked by Helen’s emphasis on money. How could she even
think about that when her husband of more than sixty years was
dying? Afterwards, I began to realize what she already knew, that
widows are often left with little or no money when their husbands
die. Helen cut her expenses to almost nothing. No long-distance
telephone, heat in only one room of the house, no subscriptions, no
new clothes, no travel, nothing that wasn’t absolutely necessary.
It was tough, but she survived. By the time she died, all of her bills
were paid, and she had a little money in the bank. I wrote this
piece several years ago. Now, my own husband has died. Although
I’m better off financially than Helen was, I feel the pinch, and I
understand now. When her husband dies, a widow loses more than
just the man she loves.
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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Volume 8, Number 2
Copyright © 2013
by Leah Browning, Editor.
All future rights to
in the Apple Valley
Review are retained by
the individual authors