Recently, I made my will. I struggled for a while, using any excuse to put off this task that, let’s face it, is a tad morbid. One reason I felt there was no particular pressure to hurry was that I already had a will, one I’d had a lawyer prepare almost 30 years ago. But it had become utterly irrelevant to my life today. Wills are like that: your life changes and with it your realities, your obligations, your priorities. A will needs to reflect that. If I last more than a few more years, I’ll probably do it all over again. What my realities and priorities might be then, I can only speculate about now.
My first will, as I’m sure is the case for many people, was put together when I had a young child. I didn’t have many worldly goods (still don’t), but I needed to make sure that should something catastrophic happen, she would be cared for and her needs, especially things like education, met. Then, abruptly, that time of my life passed; my child was grown, graduated, married and on the cusp of having a better job than I’ve ever had. My previous concerns, so urgent in their day, were indeed past. So what now? A fresh look at myself, and a new will.
Something slightly unsettling about making a will is how it forces us to imagine the world without us in it, yet presumes to give us a say in that world. This thought can give us pause. Yet the wills of even the most humble of us fulfil at least three roles. The first is their arguably narcissistic purpose of allotting the stuff we want to leave behind, a few tangible bits of our life’s accumulations as a reminder that we were indeed here. My poor children and grandchildren, alas, will get my manuscripts, published and unpublished.
Then there is the will’s role in mandating how a family’s narrative continues. Since my own parents are now dead, I possess some heirlooms that I consider to be as much a responsibility as an enjoyment. By naming in my will the old German-language Bible or the clock that once sat on my grandparents’ shelf, I remind my daughter of their significance. When she tidies up after I’m gone, she cannot blithely send those things off to the auction house but is obliged to do as I have done — place sentimental importance on them, perhaps not so much as objects, but as symbols that can carry the family narrative forward for at least one more generation.
Last but not least, our wills force us to think about and even explain what kind of world we wanted to see achieved during our lifetime, all the while acknowledging that perhaps it didn’t get completely realized. Yet by leaving a gift in our will and even stipulating what aspect of the project it should be designated for, we shall have one last chance to make a difference. The word “will” itself is interesting: the will we make on paper allows the will of our intentions to be imposed even after we are no longer around in body. When we leave money to what we deem to be good causes — our church, for example, or our educational alma mater — our gift might in part be to thank those institutions for what they meant to us in the past. But also (and more likely), we make it because we believe in the mission or project of that organization and want to be part of it into the future — even a future that doesn’t include us.
If you enjoy reading our online stories about ethical living, justice and faith, please make a donation to the Friends of The Observer Fund. Supporting our award-winning journalism will help you and others to continue to access ucobserver.org for free in the months to come.