The Things You Think About After You Update Your Will
I went into my office the other day to work on an art project. And instead, I ended up writing a new will. The old one, that I wrote 14 years ago, has been sitting on the edge of my desk for a long time now, a not-so-subtle reminder that it’s long past time to update it. I own a house now. And have seven more nieces and nephews than I had when I wrote the first will.
Writing a will always seems so surreal. You can’t help but write it in the present moment with some consideration toward circumstances that might change in the future. But ultimately, you end up feeling like you’re writing something in preparation for your imminent, fast-approaching demise.
Truthfully, I can’t help but think of death, even without the will. I’ve been struggling with a health problem for a while now, and add to that a pandemic… As I sat there typing, I decided to write with utter immediacy. I won’t be signing the document until this summer, probably, so there will be time to make revisions. In the meantime, just in case the unthinkable happens and I don’t see my next birthday, I might as well add in a few instructions on how to handle my very, very current affairs.
Things like: Announce my passing on social media, close out my writing accounts, and delete my blog. Go through my email and tell my pen friends they brought so much joy into my life. Give the following messages to these specific people…
A lot will have to be revised yet again over the next few months. It’s a too specific now. But strangely, I feel a little better, knowing that if this first winter in a pandemic ends without me, everything is squared away.
It’s a good feeling. And also not so great. Because, of course, I don’t want to die. I’m not ready to go yet.
My life feels overwhelmingly influenced by death. I think it started when my grandmother died, unexpectedly, soon after my mother became a mother. I know my mom had spent her entire life dreaming of watching her babies play with their grandmother, grow up under Grandma’s watchful eyes, maybe even make Grandma a great-grandmother.
All of that was stolen away from her, right after my mother had her second child. She was only 27 and her dreams were shattered.
As her oldest child, I am the only one who has a memory of that time — a memory of the genuine trauma my mother experienced in the wake of her mother’s death. Breakdowns and severe depression. And an anxiety that seemed to gurgle and swell like a bubble of lava.
Over time, it felt like that bubble was growing, enclosing us all in its sphere.
It fully imprisoned me when I was 19 and my uncle — my mother’s oldest brother — died suddenly at the age of 49. How could that have happened? He was a health nut who insisted he would live to be 104. How could he have died so suddenly, so young?
My mother’s anxiety grew, as did mine. I threw myself into a new relationship and when it was over before the year had ended, I moved back in with my parents.
My mother and I could barely leave the house, our anxiety was so bad. I couldn’t sleep — I was so terrified I wouldn’t wake up in the morning. On occasion, when sleep overtook me, I had such terrible nightmares that I, an almost 20-year-old, would creep up the stairs to my parents’ bedroom and ask if I could sleep at the end of their bed for the rest of the night. I did this countless times for three months.
If I died in my sleep, I didn’t want to be alone.
I knew if I made it to adulthood, that my forties would be affected by that experience. I knew I’d wonder if I would make it past 49, and hold every year of this decade precious, knowing I could be marching to my end.
It seems ridiculous to think that I might follow the exact footsteps of my uncle — what’s the likelihood of that? Yet even all these years later, it still feels so real, so possible.
Four and a half years. Forty-nine is creeping toward me fast. No, I don’t think that I’ll actually die at 49, but it does seem wild to me that I have a life so similar to my uncle’s.
He had never married or had children and everyone at the funeral had whispered that it was such a blessing God hadn’t taken my mother or my other uncle, because then spouses and children would have been left with a gaping hole in their lives.
Now as I find myself in my mid-40s, unmarried and childless, I am floored that I’m just like my Uncle Andrew. And if God decides it’s time to cull the herd, will It pick me because I don’t have a spouse or children?
Content warning: This section mentions suicide.
I think the worst sorrow of being a human is knowing that this is all temporary. That we will die, one day. And all our loved ones. And all the animals and plants and ecosystems that we love. All of this will die one day.
Everything we know will one day be gone. And somehow, the knowledge that we’ll probably be gone, too, by then, doesn’t seem to alleviate the sorrow of that truth.
But the argument that we wouldn’t appreciate all this if it wasn’t temporary is a powerful one. I can’t argue with that. Would we value life so much if we couldn’t lose it?
Of course, I can’t ask that without acknowledging the fact that I have almost willingly given it up at a few points in my life. I wonder about that, though — were my occasional bouts of suicidal thoughts the results of my depression, or was it the natural response to circumstances in my life that simply overwhelmed me with pain?
I was 14 the first time I thought about suicide. Was it because I was beginning to exhibit symptoms of depression? Or was it because I’d spent the previous two years being ruthlessly bullied? Was it because for months, I was sexually assaulted, and the only people who believed me and fought for me were my parents?
It seems perfectly reasonable to me that two years later, with all that unacknowledged and untreated trauma, living in a world that refused to validate my experience, I was considering if death would be a less painful option.
And when I think of the other times I got close to ending my life…again, I can only say that even such an extreme response was completely logical and reasonable, considering the circumstances.
Did I really want to die? No. I wanted the pain to stop. I wanted to feel better about myself. I wanted to feel safe and loved.
In the absence of all of that, death can come to appear as the lesser of two evils.
When I look back on those moments, I feel such sadness for myself that I ever had to endure such horrors. And also, I am in awe of my soul’s fortitude — that I stuck around, something in me telling me that someday, things would change.
In the end, I always heeded that voice that said, “I’m not ready to go yet.”
In the past year, dozens of my contemporaries have died. People who were in their forties — sometimes 44, just like me. Some of them died from COVID. Some in car accidents. Some from cancer. A 43-year-old friend of mine drowned, of all things, last spring. Drowned.
Did I feel this aware of my own mortality in my thirties? I don’t think so. I think I was too busy dreaming of my future as a wife and mother.
Now, every day, I wake up and feel lucky to have another day here. It’s not that I feel particularly old…yet I’m aware that my youth has passed. I’m aware that in the days before the Industrial Revolution with all its medical advancements, I might not have made it this far. And if I had, I’d be considered elderly by now.
Even after the pandemic ends, I know I will always be filled with this hunger to hang on to life. This subtle sorrow of knowing that any breath could be my last.
And I’m not just aware of my own mortality, but our collective mortality, as well. They say we have 60 harvests left. They say we have only 10–20 years before Florida is mostly under sea level. They say my beautiful Pacific Northwest will be a desolate grassland, ravaged by wildfires before the end of my lifetime.
I’m not worried for our mother. She’ll be fine. Though I’m sad for what we’ve done to her.
And I guess I’m not worried, per se, for us, either. We will pay our bill when it comes due. And in some ways, it won’t matter. Because we’re going to die, anyways. That is our inescapable destiny.
Despite that bill coming due, I still want to see my seventies. Eighties. Maybe nineties, like my father’s parents. I want to travel as far as I can with my nieces and nephews and make sure they are protected and loved. I want to meet their children, if they have any.
And…yes, I just want to be here.
I looked up at the sky yesterday, on my daily walk, and saw storm clouds above me, but a blue sky beyond — the darkness and light at the same time.
A murmuration of starlings streaked across the skyscape, dipping and curving and then disappearing, and I felt everything in that moment: the understanding of how very little and inconsequential I am in this big world, the rapture of witnessing this infinite, ever-changing, living art project that I’m in, the terror of how very alone I am, the peace of knowing that I’m also somehow not alone and am connected to those starlings and the sky beyond, and the overwhelming sadness of knowing that I will not always be here to witness these sights.
I thought about my will, and my uncle, and my grandmother, and all the times I thought about leaving this life, and still, I heard that voice:
“I’m not ready to go yet.”
© Yael Wolfe 2021