Kathy tugged her robe tighter as she entered the kitchen. Her husband of forty years, Eric, stood staring out the sliding doors, a mug of coffee clasped in both hands.

“Eric? What’s wrong?”

He turned. His face was drawn. “Tom’s dead.” His face took on a stricken and frightened look. The mug began to shake. “We just met yesterday about a project.”

She took the shaking mug from him, setting it on the counter. Then, she pulled him to her. “Hey. It’s okay.”

Pulling away, he gripped her arms so tightly that she winced. “No! It’s not okay. He’s five years younger than me.”

Kathy winced. “Eric! You’re hurting me. What happened?”

As suddenly as the terror had struck, it broke and he let go, his shoulders sagging. “I don’t know. I got an email from Mike Barton about an hour ago that said Tom dropped dead on his way home. Mike’s called a meeting.”

She rubbed her arms where he had held her. “Does Millie know?”

His eyes widened. “I don’t know.” His eyes widened. “I need to call Mike. Where’s my phone?”

Grabbing his elbows, she shook them. “Hey! Don’t get all spun up again. It’s not your job. Go to the meeting. If Millie needs anything, call me.”

The dam burst. “Kathy! He was my best friend.” His stoicism failing, he sobbed. “And he’s dead.”


Kathy glanced at her chiming cell phone, then looked to see if the noise had awakened Eric. He stirred and rolled away; exhausted. Her heart chilled when she saw Millie’s name displayed on the screen. She left the room, pulling the bedroom door closed behind her.  Her voice low, she answered. “Millie?”

“Hey, Kathy. Yeah. I needed someone to talk to that wouldn’t start with, ‘Are you okay?’ You’re the least emotional friend I’ve got.”

Surprised, Kathy almost missed Millie’s next question. “You’ve heard?”

Swallowing hard, and avoiding the trigger question, she responded. “I’m so sorry. Eric told me about the email from Barton.”

She heard a derisive snort. “Barton is such an insensitive ass. He sent out that senior-staff email message. The subject line said Important, and Tom wasn’t home, so I read it. You probably got that same email. Imagine finding out your husband is dead, from an email. He was so concerned with the company that he didn’t even think about me.” Her voice rose like a wave and then crashed on the beach.

Kathy’s heart froze. “Jesus! I can’t even imagine. Are you okay?” Realizing what she had said, she tried to recover. “I’m sorry, Millie. I just said what you didn’t want to hear.”

The answering sigh was long. “Yeah. But you meant it the right way.” Kathy listened to her friend choke back a sob. “I just left the hospital. The doctor said it was a massive coronary. Tom was dead before he hit the concrete platform. Kathy, it’s scary weird. One second, I have a husband and a future. The next, I have a corpse, a paper bag of possessions, and an empty void. He never knew what hit him, and I get an email. Ain’t life a bitch?”

Tearing up, Kathy asked, “What can I do?”

She heard a chuckle from her friend. “Funny you should ask. This is where I test our friendship.”

Kathy waited while the time display progressed, second by second, on her cell.

“I’m numb. I don’t have any idea what’s coming. Tom was the husband every woman dreamed of. He was a good man. He took care of everything. He said that it was his job. Foolish me, I let him take care of everything. I thought of it as freedom and security.” She snorted. “In the cold light of the morning after, that was a mistake. He’s gone and I don’t even know where the key to the safe deposit box is – or if we even have one. I need a friend to hold my hand, to help me wade through the quicksand. I know there’s a will – I think. I know the name of his lawyer – I think. I’ve seen envelopes from banks in the mail, but where are they?”

“The rest is smoke and mirrors, Kathy. I could be a rich widow tomorrow, or a penniless old lady living on the streets.” Her voice rose. “I just don’t know!” Her voice reached a panic sound. “Right now, I don’t even know where to find his Social Security Number.”


The sound of Kathy’s hair dryer finally broke through Eric’s sleep. He yawned, stretched, and rolled over. The clock displayed 6:45 and he had to be at a staff meeting at 8.

Kathy walked out of the bathroom. “Good morning. Feel better? You’d better hurry if you’re going to make that meeting. I’ll put on coffee and put out some toast. If you want something else, fend for yourself.”

Eric, still waking up, noticed that his wife was fully dressed, ready to go out. “Okay. Why are you dressed?”

She stepped into her shoes. “Millie needs moral support. We talked about an hour ago. Eric, she’s crushed and lost. Did you know that she found out about Tom’s death from that email you got?”

Eric sat up and put his feet on the floor. “Jesus!”

His wife’s voice hardened. “Exactly. She’s an emotional wreck, with no one to turn to but a friend. You go to your meeting to talk about the dead. I’m going to help the living.” She bent over and kissed her husband. Her eyes lingered on his for a moment, as if chasing an unformed idea. She stood and strode through the open bedroom door. “I have no idea about dinner.”


When she’d arrived, Millie was still in her robe, sitting on the couch, her feet tucked beneath, her and surrounded by a wreath of tear-soaked tissues. Kathy had ordered her to shower and put on something worthy of leaving the house. “We can’t start you on the path, if you’re staring at a house full of memories, girl. Hit the showers. We’re going to Sofie’s for coffee, a fruit plate, and a plan.” Millie had started to argue, but was over-ruled with a harsh, “No arguments. It’s what friends are for.” She tugged her from the couch and turned her toward her bedroom. “Now scoot.”

Kathy appraised her friend when she appeared. “That’s better. You don’t look great, but you look a lot better.”

Millie looked in the mirror by the door. Her eyes were still red, but the tear stains were washed from her face and her hair was pulled back into a ponytail. “I wish I felt better.”

Kathy put a hand on the small of her back and reached for the front door. “We’ll work on that. Give it time. That’s why I’m here. Oh, bring your phone and Tom’s.”


Placing her fork on the plate, Millie sat back. Pausing for a thought, she picked up her mug of coffee. “Thanks, Kathy. I know I wouldn’t have eaten anything if I were sitting at home. You were right. I was paralyzed by the news.” She held her mug out. “More?”

Kathy refilled both mugs. “You’re still in shock. You got pushed through the rabbit hole to the rest of your life with no warning.”

Millie put her hand atop Kathy’s. “I know and now I have to move on. The hospital wants to know what to do with him and I haven’t the foggiest idea. He’s been dead less than 24 hours and I’m having to gather up the pieces. I don’t have time to cry. He hasn’t been dead long enough for me to even miss him, yet. I already got a call from a funeral home. How the hell did they find out?”

Kathy shrugged, “I think they monitor police channels.” She took a sip of coffee and savored it for a long moment. “Okay. It’s time to think about, like I said, all that shit. Anyway, it will keep your mind from dwelling on the inevitable. You’re going to be too busy to be the image of the sobbing widow. Did you guys ever talk about what to do when one of you died? I mean where did he want to be buried or cremated or what kind of service?”

“Not really.” Her hands spread in frustration. “I mean, who does? His parents are buried in Milton. I guess I can see if there is space there.”

Kathy held up a hand. “Stop. No rash decisions. You don’t have kids. Did he have an extended family?”

Millie shook her head. “No. He was an only child. We just had each other.”

“Okay, then. Do you want to be buried by him?”

The questions stopped Millie in mid-thought. Her eyebrows furled. “You know, Tom’s dead. I doubt that he cares where his body goes. Once I’m dead, I guess I don’t care where I am, either. There’s no one to care.”

“Then, I think you should consider cremation.”

Her voice was tentative. “I don’t know anything about it.”

Kathy reached for her purse, extracting a small blue spiral notebook. “I’ve got a better idea. I don’t want to be the reason you make decisions that you might regret. Let’s just write down keywords for things that we both know are going to come up.”

Millie gave a sigh of relief. “I like that idea better. My head is starting to swim.”

“Sorry.” She poised a pen over a blank page. “Burial or cremation? Funeral or Celebration of Life? Obituary or Announcement? Insurance. Will. Titles. Investments. I’m leaving lines between each item to put contact or relevant information.”

Millie cocked her head. “Uh, okay.  But add clothing, guns and books.”

Kathy added them. “Let’s see. Computer passwords. Social Media. Cell phone. Memberships and subscriptions.”

Exasperated, Millie cried out. “Stop! Now my head really does hurt.”

Clapping the small blue book closed, Kathy tucked it into her purse. “I’m going to type this up and email it to you. I’m afraid that this all falls on you, Millie. Search the house for legal documents, bills, subscriptions in his name and titles, and just put it all in a box for now. Make a list of his contacts, like lawyers and investment people. Throw that in the box, too.”

The server stopped by to set the bill on the table. Kathy set a credit card on the bill and leaned forward. “One last thing. You’re going to need certified copies of his death certificate. The hospital liaison will help you there.”

A stricken look crossed Millie’s face. “Death certificate? That’s so final.”

Her hand atop Millie’s, Kathy’s voice softened. “No. Millie what is final is that Tom is dead. All this, what did I say, oh yeah, shit, is just dealing with the details of that finality. A hundred years ago, a widow would bury her husband and grow old in her house, if it were paid for. If not, she’d move in with a relative to waste away her remaining years on what money might be left. Today, everything is connected, and you, lady, have many years to live. It’s going to be a tough month or two, separating yourself from his world and tying up his loose ends, but you’ll make it. And Eric and I will help, because that’s what friends are for.” She signed the receipt left by the server, tucked her card back into her wallet, and stood. “Come on. Let’s go home and find a funeral director to take care of Tom.”


Eric pushed the door open and backed in, his backpack hanging on a shoulder. He hooked the door with his foot and swung it closed. Kathy was sitting in the darkened living room, a large glass of wine, held in both hands. “Hey! Kathy?”

“Hey.” Her voice was subdued.

“You okay?”

A breathy sigh preceded her response. “Yeah. I spent all day with Millie. Man, what a downer.”

“Well, here’s an offering of food for you. I figured you would’ve had a tough day.”

Kathy sighed. “You are a life saver and a thoughtful husband. God, that smells good.”


Eric stacked the plates. “Barton is a total … Hell, I don’t know what. He wouldn’t even let me take some of Tom’s personal items home to Millie. He pulled some ‘I need the surviving spouse’s permission’ crap on me. What an idiot!”

Kathy reached for her purse, extracted the blue spiral notebook, opened it, and made a note.

Eric pointed. “What’s that?”

Kathy spread the book and held it up so that he could see the page of bullet points. “It’s a list we’ve made of the shreds of her life Tom left dangling. I’ve added his office stuff to it.”

Eric tipped his head and his brow furled. “Good idea. Add pay, vacation and 401(k), too. Barton wouldn’t talk about them. I want Millie to get everything without bureaucratic hassle.”

Kathy scribbled more notes and set the book aside. “I spent the day on the phone with funeral homes and researching spousal responsibilities. Millie spent the day -- between despair and sobbing -- looking through files and boxes, assembling the threads of their life. She was exhausted and numb when I left.”

“Is she okay?”

Kathy’s voice hardened. “Hell no, she’s not okay! Her husband dropped dead, and she has no idea what to do next. She’s lost and confused, and only knows that her husband is not at their table or in their bed.”

Eric held his hands up, palms out. “Whoa! Lighten up.”

Kathy slumped in her chair. “I’m sorry. How can anyone be prepared for this?”

Eric’s response was measured and calm. “I don’t think you can, hon. Life today is too unpredictable. The only thing certain … is uncertainty. The best you can do in life is to put the 80-20 rule in place. Planning for the 80 percent that you can predict gives you room to manage the 20 percent that you can’t.”

Kathy huffed. “Eric, Millie’s been blindsided. Even if Tom did organize eighty percent, Millie has no idea where the eighty stops and the twenty starts.” She waved the notebook. “We’ve barely started to organize it.”

He tried to pull her to him in a bear hug. “It’ll be alright. You’re a good friend.”

Resisting the hug, she reached into her bag, pulling out a red notebook. “Right. I also want you to be a good husband. I’ve duplicated every dangling thread that Millie and I could think of about their life. Now, you fill in those same blanks about ours.” She handed him the red notebook.

She pulled his face down to hers, locking eyes with him. “Tomorrow, I have another meeting with Millie about her life after Tom’s death. Then, you and I are going to have a meeting about my life after your death – while you’re still alive to attend.”