The “facts of life,” according to my father, had nothing to do with the birds and bees, but with dollars and cents. I guess he knew his daughters would figure out the first, but he wanted to be sure we knew “the rule of seven,” compound interest, employment benefits, and insurance costs and benefits. Money was only a means to an end, not the end itself. A child of the Great Depression, he knew what it was to scrimp and go without. While his daughters never knew that way of existence, he did make sure that we were prepared. We were a military family, constantly on the move, but well-grounded in family goals.
That’s why in December 1974, when my parents visited me in Puerto Rico, I wasn’t too surprised when we sat down after dinner one evening to talk. They had talked with their attorney and come up with a plan for the future. Wills and documents and a division of possessions had been drawn up in the preceding months. What I received were outlines of their wills; their individual, hand-written wishes and instructions for their last few days; the disposal of remains; directives for no funeral, but a memorial service if it would comfort the living. I was told that Do Not Resuscitate orders were on file with their doctors and the hospital and exactly what they meant. They had also established the Civille Family Trust, which would keep their estates out of probate. They had a similar talk with my younger sister.
One of the most interesting parts of this “package” was an inventory of their nice things – china, silver, crystal, art, jewelry, electronics, and books. They had divided these between my sister and me, taking into consideration our likes and dislikes and what they knew of our lifestyles. A general rule for all the books was that if you gave them the book, you had “first dibs.” This list was not static; my sister and I were encouraged to talk about my parents’ suggestions and make our own, trading items between us. There were some things neither of us wanted, and they were put aside for others. A cousin who adores Toby Mugs now has the collection proudly displayed in his home.
The real beauty of the package was that it had us talking about the future – a future when one or both of them would not be around. Talking about these facts of life made it easier to concentrate on my father’s death from cancer in 1992 and our mother’s in 2006. We were freed from the petty squabbling and indecision often seen in families at the time of death. Our parents made sure we, and everyone else around them, knew exactly what their wishes and desires were.
Publications are full of advice about the necessity of having a will and other documents in place. Aside from having your affairs in order, you give your children the ultimate gift of knowing what you want, easing questions and making the death and loss easier. For those who complain that this is “too complicated or morbid” to talk about, I have two questions: Will you only discuss your parents’ wishes after they are dead? Will your children only discuss your wishes after you are dead?