When There’s A Will

What it really means to write your last will and testament.

A signature, an envelope, and a stamp. That and a quick walk to the corner and it would have been done. Instead, it took eight months for my wife and I to mail the final page of our will to the estate lawyer. Rather than dropping it in the mailbox, we dropped it on the dresser, where it lay ignored, tucked beneath the ever-growing pile of unmatched socks.

It wasn’t like we forgot it. Always there was some “reason” for taking more time, for making one last change, one last tweak, for taking one last look. And when those things were done, there were plenty of excuses—work to do, dinner to make, kids to pick up, shows to watch. Until, one day, there was only the naked truth: we were anxious, frightened that by acknowledging that we would one day leave this world, we would somehow make it come to pass.

Which is silly, of course. A will isn’t a curse or a jinx, but a legal document—an instruction manual that tells friends and family who gets the house/the bank account/the bed when we die. It simply acknowledges what we already know: that in the long run, we will all be dead.

But must we think about that? For most of us in the First World, death is a comfortable abstraction—something that happens to other people, whether they be the sick, the elderly, or the unfortunate. Mostly, we see it from a distance: on the nightly news, in a Hollywood shoot-’em-up, in the obituary column. And that’s exactly how we like it. When it does come closer, it’s not something we contemplate, but rather something we “get over” or “move past”, hopefully as quickly as possible.

Even the simplest of wills has the potential to raise deep-seated, almost primal anxieties about existence.

Until you write your will. A will makes death personal and concrete, forcing you to recognize and enumerate all the “its” you can’t take with you: the possessions, the family, the friends, the memories, the meaning. It’s not something you can throw together on a Tuesday night—it requires an investment of time and effort, and no small amount of mental energy. Even the simplest of wills has the potential to raise deep-seated, almost primal anxieties about existence, about the value of family and friends, about the true cost of all those years given over to getting and spending, accumulating and amassing the treasures and debris of our lives. In the end, was it all worth it?

Heavy stuff. So heavy, in fact, that most of us avoid it altogether. In fact, an online survey by Google Surveys in 2016 found that a whopping 62 per cent of Canadians have no will; nearly 12 per cent have one that’s out of date. Why? Maybe some don’t know they need a formal one. Others may believe the little they’ve accumulated hardly warrants a will. But I suspect the real reason for this national procrastination is as simple as ours was: turning your mind to your own death is a strange and unsettling thing, and making practical plans for what happens after the event is awkward and disagreeable.

Not nearly as much as the alternative, however. On a practical level, dying “intestate” (the formal term for the absence of a valid will) is a stunning abdication of both financial and familial responsibility. Leaving a mess for your heirs—decisions to make, assets to track down, debts to pay, “stuff” to distribute, conflict and rancour to smooth over—is perhaps the most self-centred expression of “not my problem” you can ever make. Even more so if you have young children, a spouse, or employees who count on your business acumen for their next paycheque.

The act of writing your will remains perhaps the last irrefutable notice to the world that you have indeed grown up.

On an emotional level, it is an extraordinary admission of immaturity. In an age when it is easier than ever to remain a child for an extended period of time—by living with your parents well into your 30s, by wearing distressed jeans well into your 40s, by injecting yourself with botulinum toxin well into your 50s—the act of writing your will remains perhaps the last irrefutable notice to the world that you have indeed grown up. Anyone can be scared of death, but it takes an adult to accept it, plan for it, and carry on.

And that’s when it hits you. Your will is indeed a legal document, but it is also something more: a rite of passage, a lesson in wisdom, an essential reminder to the player that the drama of life is all the sweeter for having a beginning, a middle, and an end. And so you step up to that mailbox on the corner. You pull back the door and let the letter go. You take a deep breath and walk home. Congratulations: you’re all grown up.

Illustration by C. Aldin for Every-Day Characters (1896), sourced from the British Library Catalogue.


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