Last night I began preparing our tax return. Since Rob and I married in 2002, I’ve done our taxes every year. I love the job. Each January, I label a manila envelope and stick it on the kitchen counter to collect tax documents as they arrive in the mail. And on an evening like last night, when the kids are happily occupied playing, I sit down to make order out of the disordered stack of papers. I’m a crossword-puzzler, online-quiz-taker, form-filler-outer kind of gal. Tax preparation is right up my alley. In high school, I took Accounting 1 and Accounting 2 just because I liked numbers and forms so much.
This year, I’ll admit the task initially felt daunting. I considered hiring an accountant to do the job because I worried I’d run into complexities relating to Rob’s death that I wasn’t prepared to handle. But as I got started, the online system prompted me along, and I felt that familiar excitement build. The little “tax refund” counter on the left hand side of the screen was made for people like me.
The first year Rob and I were married, I was in graduate school and he worked a small newspaper job. We made less than $20,000 between us. We really did live on love. In the early years of our marriage, tax preparation meant thumbing through a fat wad of 1099-MISC forms chronicling my odd jobs and Rob’s freelance writing for the year. We’d sit together on the sofa and remember the various articles he’d written — $75 here, $150 there — to build his clips file and strengthen his career. We’d chuckle as we compiled a list of the jobs we’d held together that year. Sometimes Rob and I had more than five “income streams” (however meager!) between the two of us in a single year. We worked hard to make ends meet. Our taxes each year resembled a patchwork quilt of employment, a bunch of different attempts to find our callings and keep our bellies full.
One of the first questions my tax prep software asked me last night was if Rob had died in 2019. I’d never noticed the question before; I’d never needed to. I checked “yes” and a message of condolence flashed on my screen, complete with a little clipart bouquet of flowers. From that point on, the software referred to Rob in the past tense. Though it’s only been seven and a half months since Rob died, I grew painfully aware that this is the last year I’ll be “married, filing jointly.” Next year, I’ll join the ranks of “qualifying widow” when I prepare my taxes. I’ve even lost Rob on my tax return.
I’ve tried to explain to my kids that I’m not really married anymore. Well, I am and I’m not. Officially, according to the government, 2019 was my last year of being married to Rob. If our marriage continues after that, it’s one of my own acknowledgment. It will be a marriage of the heart, not on paper. No governing body will recognize it. These conversations with my children inevitably leave them frustrated and sad, sometimes angry or annoyed with me. I understand. The thought of it makes me frustrated, angry and sad too. It’s a hard pill to swallow. I haven’t really accepted it yet myself. I wonder when my heart will get the message.
For years, whenever I spent prolonged time typing on the computer, I took off all my rings so they wouldn’t rub. When my work was done, I’d slip them back on, back where they belonged. Last night, as I checked that box “deceased,” I looked down at my bare hands. I’d taken my rings off as usual, without a thought, when I sat down at the computer. The difference struck me this time. Will I still be wearing my rings next year when I file? I wondered. The callouses from my rings, the indent on my finger created from 17 years of a wedding band — will these be gone too? Will even my hands look different? Next year, I’ll file alone. The IRS won’t even ask if I’m married to Rob anymore. I don’t know what to do with that reality. For now, I guess, I’ll just do what I do every year when I prepare my taxes. Move forward one step, one line item, at a time.