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First comes love, then comes marriage. Then comes the ‘If I go first. . .’ conversation

Jacquie Bishop (left) and her wife Kelley Ready posed for a portrait with their boiler at their Dorchester home.
Jacquie Bishop (left) and her wife Kelley Ready posed for a portrait with their boiler at their Dorchester home.(Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)

Anne Lower is in her early 50s and presumably has many years left. But just in case, once a month, she holds a “fire drill” with her husband in their South End condo, reminding him where she keeps the notebook with the passwords. For the bank. The insurance company. Boston Public Library. Sonos. Netflix. eBay. Experian. E-ZPass. And so on.

“On top of the tragedy of me dying,” said Lower, of GordonLower PR, “I don’t want him to be on the phone with customer service in perpetuity trying to get the passwords again.”

First comes love, then comes marriage. Then comes the “If I go first. . .” conversation. It’s a practical and sometimes even jokey talk that doesn’t dwell on the emotional part of being widowed — missing your beloved’s soul and companionship and a life built on shared hopes and memories. The point is to pass on crucial information to the one left behind. Before it’s too late.

Here’s how you run the dishwasher since you’ve never once done it in 50 years of marriage. This is your sister’s address. The black shirt does not go with your blue blazer.

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Or, as Dave McLaughlin, 50, of Belmont, regularly tells his wife, Betsy, 56, a Pilates instructor: If I’m not here to nag you about it, “don’t watch so much CNN.”

“CNN enrages me,” said Betsy, who has her own pre-posthumous instructions for Dave, which also deal with issues of mental health, in his case, attention deficit disorder.

“Please make sure you’re properly medicated,” she tells him.

In many marriages — OK, in most, or even all, no matter how equal they are — a division of labor is established, often with zero discussion. One person knows how to reach the snow plow guy and understands the air conditioner, and the other keeps track of the milk and blueberry supply and sets up the auto pays.

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It’s a silo-style arrangement that can leave one person with half the knowledge necessary to run a household and a life.

In Dorchester, Jacquie Bishop, a program specialist at AARP Massachusetts, doesn’t know the details of her own bills or heating system. Those are in her wife’s job description.

Aware of Bishop’s deficits, her wife, Kelley Ready, 62, has started the “I might not always be around” talk. She doesn’t want Bishop to end up alone and impoverished in a freezing house, a move aimed at protecting both Bishop and, admittedly, the triple decker she loves.

“She would rise up from her grave” if the pipes burst, Bishop said.

Jacquie Bishop, left, and her wife, Kelley Ready, at their home in Dorchester.
Jacquie Bishop, left, and her wife, Kelley Ready, at their home in Dorchester. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)

There are also social directives, typically from wives worrying that their widowed husbands will be lonely.

“I’m the keeper of the social life,” said Lisa Rowan-Gillis, 60, chief development officer of the United Way of Mass Bay and Merrimack Valley.

She worries that if she “drops dead” her beloved husband of 38 years, former WHDH-TV reporter Gary Gillis, 64, would never leave the house except to walk the dogs. “My fear is that people will think he’s fine because he’ll put on a stoic face.”

Her “if I go first” is in the form of a question: “Tell me who you’d reach out to,” she demands.

Ellen Offner, 78, a health care consultant from Newton, also worries that her 81-year-old husband, a professor emeritus, will be lonely. “Arnie thinks of himself as a hermit, but he really loves the company of other people,” she said to a reporter, and then directed her comments to him.

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“Don’t be a hermit! Respond to invitations.”

If there’s a downside to teaching your spouse how things work ahead of time, it’s that they may end up doing it better than you. And then judge.

That’s what’s happening in Kingston, in the Clinch household, where Eileen, 74, a retired administrative assistant, is learning how to do the bills.

“She is noticing I wasn’t doing a great job,” said Stephen, 73, a retired engineer, only partly joking.

Death is nearly as old as life, but Stephen Alex Iacobacci, 54, owner of Newbury Street’s Avanti salon, has a modern twist. “They need to start a personalized Alexa or Siri where they can ask the dead spouse what, where, and how to do anything,” he said.

He listed questions his husband will need answered in his absence: Where’s my passport? What do you use to clean the bathroom tiles? What should I get my mother for Christmas?

“I need to start recording it all now,” he said.

Meanwhile, some people are thinking not only about their spouse if they die first but of themselves. Or, as Debra Curtis, 55, an associate professor at Salve Regina University, has instructed her husband:

“Make sure I don’t have a double chin in my casket.”


Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @BethTeitell.

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