Next year, my wife LauraBeth and I will have been a couple for half our lives. Everything I have in the world is shared with her, and every plan I make for the future is dependent on us being together and happy. I worry that writing about our future at all will jeopardize it somehow, that if I just don’t bring it up, then maybe nothing bad can happen. I don’t think of myself as a superstitious person, but we all have our limits.
Last summer, we finally had wills drafted and met with a financial advisor to develop something called a Life Goals Plan. Steve, the advisor, had a penchant for repeating himself five or six times in a row, which reminded me of my deceased father-in-law Fred and was the main reason I had booked our first meeting with him; I trusted he would patiently, and gently, explain the vagaries of finances to us. We are both smart people who do not understand anything about how money works, though I swear we have tried. We met with Steve several times to discuss our current savings, our aspirations, our specific financial goals, and the obstacles we might face. His office was a single, sparsely-decorated unit in a nondescript complex in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, a town that, like many in South Jersey, has its charms but is mostly numbered highways connecting strip malls. He is married, and I hope some days he gets to go home for lunch with his wife, or that they talk on the phone or something. On the windowsill he displayed a Rookie of the Year trophy from the Toastmasters. The thing I remember most clearly about him was that instead of saying, “What ends up happening,” he would say, “What lands up happening.” This is a phrase he managed to use often enough that it has since infected both of our speech patterns.
Steve asked us how long we expect to live, so he could walk us through what would land up happening. Our options were 95 years, 93, or 91. We asked if he could plan for something closer to, say, 65, which would have out outliving three of our four parents. This was not a joke, but he laughed because people don’t know how to respond when you talk about death like this. He emphasized that his job is to consider all contingencies, so by planning for the longest possible life, he can give us the best chance at success. Eventually, he ran a scenario in which LauraBeth lived to 93 and I lived to 91. On a line graph showing our projected earnings and expenditures over the remainder of our lives—factoring in inflation, this program projected more than a million dollars in healthcare costs in our retirement years, a number no reasonable person can expect to be able to pay—we were presented the most optimistic version of our future that a computer could generate. In the year 2073, suddenly the expenses were cut in half. Tom’s plan ends, an annotation said, euphemistically. LauraBeth’s plan continues.
At the end of our meeting, Steve gave us a 100-page binder filled with dozens of charts and graphs, each a different permutation of our possible futures. Looking at the graphs, I try to comprehend the dire implications of every peak and valley. I understand that, to nearly every being on the planet, I either don’t exist or, if I do, I am just a single data point in an infinitely sprawling graph, bouncing along until the algorithm determines my value has been reduced to zero. For most of my life, I would have clung to this notion and thought it constituted a kind of wisdom, proof of the general pointlessness of existence. I would have used it as an excuse to justify my nihilism, to shrug and laugh and pretend nothing matters. There are times when thinking like this feels like honesty, but that’s a delusion that only makes you sicker. On days when I feel that familiar despair sinking deep into my bones, the thing I try to do is to turn away from the horizon and instead lower the microscope onto the smallest, least consequential aspects of my life. I push back on that voice that tells me I’m selfish for needing to look away and disengage for a minute. I try to shut out the inevitability of collapse and the crushing weight of the world’s indifference and remember the individual moments I get to live: the warmth of my wife in bed next to me on a Saturday morning; the smell of her perfume on the pillow when I wake up without her; the relentless chatter of the sparrows in the trees in my back yard; a hot sandwich straight out of the toaster oven with melted cheese oozing off the edges and crusting onto the sides; my dog snoring on the couch next to me as I read a good book, the cushions vibrating just slightly with each inhale (he’s a Pit bull mix, but when he’s sleeping he looks and sounds like the world’s oldest bulldog); the sun rising over the woods, shining through the trees and into my office as I type something that feels like it has a chance to be pretty good; the freedom of a summer weekday where I am accountable to nobody in the world except my wife and my dog, free to take a walk or watch a movie or do nothing at all; the last cool fall night when I sit on my deck with a fire crackling and a cold beer and a book I am holding but not really reading while Otis Redding plays on the speakers; the rare and perfect moments when we are all out to dinner as a family and everything clicks into place, nobody dealing with any drama or pain, nobody annoying anybody else, just a family together and laughing at the same old jokes and emptying a carafe of wine and ordering another round of appetizers and feeling invincible.
I know all the ways I’m supposed to feel bad. I think about them most of the time. But for brief, fleeting moments, I forget them all, and I am just a person who is alive and who has people who love him. That’s pretty good, all things considered. I sit at my desk and close my eyes and breathe it all in and I try to remember.
Tom McAllister is the author of the novels How to Be Safe and The Young Widower’s Handbook, as well as the memoir Bury Me in My Jersey. He is the nonfiction editor at Barrelhouse and co-host of the Book Fight! podcast. He lives in New Jersey and teaches at Temple University. Find him on Twitter @t_mcallister.