Erin Aubrey Kaplan: The poverty and prosperity of losing my husband

(Linda Huang | The New York Times) The poverty and prosperity of losing my husband.

Last week I got new checks in the mail. It had been years since I needed any; like most people I find myself writing fewer and fewer checks these days. Cutting open the package, I was struck by the fact that where I used to receive a whole box of checks, I now got a slim envelope of only two — one more paper item that used to be solid and institutional was now, like so much else, swiftly passing into irrelevance. I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of loss.

When I saw the new checks I was suddenly flooded with a regret I didn’t anticipate at all. I had forgotten this new batch would have my name on it — only my name. My husband’s name, which had also been on our checks for nearly 20 years, was gone. He died in 2015. In the four years since, I gave or stored away virtually all of his stuff, but his name on the bank joint account stayed. I thought of it as a lingering bit of post-mortem paperwork that was no big deal, something I could do anytime I had five minutes to go into the bank. That I never went spoke to how much I am still connected to Alan, especially in matters of money. For all kinds of reasons, many to do with Alan himself, I never wanted to face money alone.

In the past I’d pretended there was nothing to face. Finances for me had never been a big deal, not unimportant but only one fact of life among many. When I was single and a modestly salaried journalist, I pretty much spent what I made — I reasoned that’s what money was for. As long as I could pay rent and essentials and not incur too much debt, I was content, successful even. When I got married in 2000, the idea of joining my money with my husband’s was exciting and endearing. What might we buy together? What would we save up for? The possibilities alone of expanded wealth, monetary and spiritual, made me feel rich.

Alan was much less romantic about money. I discovered he was very anxious about it, as anxious as I was determinedly indifferent. Throughout our nearly 15 years of marriage, he always wanted to call money into account, to make budgets and forecasts, to plan. I wanted to buy things in the moment and not think too much about the future. I was partly trying to counterbalance Alan’s tendency to imagine a dark fiscal future in which we were always broke and overextended, even when the facts and figures of our joint assets said otherwise.

Then roughly halfway through our marriage, in the late aughts, the journalism business began to come apart. I started losing gigs and getting paid dramatically less than the salary I had started married life with: We were no longer equally yoked. Though our love persisted, it didn’t conquer a nagging but mostly unvoiced tension about who was more valuable than who, who was a deficit and who was not.

All of this dovetailed uncomfortably with racial difference, with how we saw ourselves and our fortunes. I’m black and Alan was white. I wasn’t opposed to financial success, of course, but it was hardly a given among the black people I grew up with. More often people struggled simply to have full-time jobs or steady work at all. The real goal, whether you had money or not, was to feel affirmed and fulfilled in a country that in a million ways told black people they were worth less, if not actually worthless.

Alan had grown up seeing financial security as natural and normal, almost a birthright. Even though we both grew up working- to middle-class (though in very demographically different parts of Los Angeles) he saw that status as temporary — his generation would of course make more money than the previous one. In other words, he was deeply invested in the American dream and his place in it as a white person, while I had always stood outside of it. The irony is that Alan was a fiercely progressive history teacher who knew very well the false promise and racial hypocrisies of that dream. But he couldn’t snuff out his expectations of prosperity entirely, just as I couldn’t snuff out my corresponding sense of estrangement from money.

When I lost writing work and scrambled to make it up, Alan was alternately supportive and critical as he struggled mightily with a fear, almost a terror, of being poor. Though I was more circumspect, I couldn’t help but feel I was dragging him into a reality he had never counted on. Per the power dynamics of race, I instantly assumed responsibility for making things worse. I was disrupting our good life not just because I wasn’t making enough money now but also because my husband was obliged, by our marriage, to experience a bit of the long-term struggle so common to black people, even educated people like me.

In my joblessness I fought feeling a kind of shame very similar to the shame I felt as a grad student 30 years earlier when a white professor accused me of plagiarizing a term paper I had written because, he said, people like me simply weren’t competent enough to write like that. I knew he was wrong, yet that didn’t keep me from feeling that I would always be kept from real success — especially financial success — because of beliefs like his. On some level I accepted that.

When Alan died, the unimaginable happened: I came into money. I wasn’t rich but I was O.K., and would be O.K. for years to come. The financial planning Alan had done his whole teaching life to keep away the demons of poverty paid off — to me, not him. It was hard for me to accept his sudden, terrible death and my new struggle-free state he’d made possible. I responded with a mix of bewilderment and gratitude, and decided that I was only taking care of Alan’s money in his absence. Having his name on the checks helped me believe that and kept me from contemplating the unfamiliar truth that I was in charge of not just money, but also the life it was paying for.

That truth arrived with the new checks. But after the initial flood of regret came a surprising calm. Four years on, the truth of being financially alone is not jarring or life-changing so much as mundane. Buying a car, donating to nonprofit radio, regularly paying far too much for veterinary bills and property taxes — these are now the facts of my life, a few among many.

Alan is not among those facts anymore. His permanent absence has created a poverty I’ll always live with.

Erin Aubry Kaplan, a contributing New York Times opinion writer, teaches writing at Antioch University, Los Angeles, and is the author of “Black Talk, Blue Thoughts, and Walking the Color Line” and “I Heart Obama.”