Originally published: April 25, 2003
This wobbling step over the mortal line and into responsible adulthood has been long in coming. Unexpectedly, in setting up our Last Will and Testament and Durable General Power of Attorney, I am overcome not with the depression I feared would smother me while reflecting on my inevitable demise, but by a profound ennui. I imagined I would indulge in days of morbid daydreaming when I finally unsheathed the contents of the envelope that had been gathering dust and dog hair for the last many months. But here I sit, fighting to keep my mind on the task at hand, while wondering why my education has not prepared me to read and understand a mere 40 typed pages. Granted, in those pages are such gassy sentences as these:
“If my agent determines that using certain assets in a particular manner might discharge the agent’s own legal obligation, then my agent shall be deemed to be an interested agent. The interested agent shall not have authority to use assets in the contemplated manner unless a special agent independently approves the proposed use. Successor agents named in this power of attorney may serve as special agent for such purposes.”
I am suddenly imagining Maxwell Smart and a rather smarmy James Bond wheeling and dealing in my affairs under the cone of silence.
“Definitions. The use of the singular shall include the plural; the plural, the singular: the use of any gender shall include all genders: and the term agent shall include duly appointed substitutes and successors.”
That’s not what they taught us in French class…
“To make, execute, acknowledge, and deliver a good and sufficient deed or deeds of conveyance, or other instrument or instruments, necessary to effect such sales, conveyances, or agreements.”
I am being borne on a plinth through the town, playing the pipes, and selling cheap knick-knacks for tourists.
It becomes obvious I need a cup of coffee - or a shot of something that burns as it goes down.
As I read on, flipping the pages when I tire of the arrangement of the text -rather than when I actually understand the content- it begins to dawn on me that the saving grace of legalese is that it declaws the Awful. There are monstrous things out there, but because of the antiseptic, cauterizing nature of this language, the unthinkable is cotton-wooled inside phrasing so opaque it obscures all emotion. There are sentences so long they defy the understanding of even the most dogged reader. These endless run-ons begin a long-winded embalming of deceased loved ones until the dead are no more tear-jerking than an addendum on the definitions page.
One particular sentence I am faced with is a staggering 10 lines long and includes 8 sets of parentheses. Thankfully, our humanistic lawyer has provided us with an opening “Executive Summary” of the subsequent pages, that renders the inelegant language into fairly readable prose. Turns out the 10-line sentence (entitled, interestingly enough, Section 8) is where it is determined who will get our stuff if our children all die before they are old enough to inherit it. It is masterful obfuscation of an occurrence, which is, to most parents, too horrific even to ponder. We cannot deal with the death of our children, however abstract, so the law softens the blow with mercifully numbing inscrutability.
So this is an unexpected perk of wading through this incomprehensible stuff - the narcosis-inducing state it delivers helps us depersonalize a highly personal process. It doesn’t get any more down and dirty than deciding who gets your kids if you die, or who deals out your belongings and to whom. This all-business attitude is a tremendous service. Spouses, children and friends can pocket their grief for a time and busy themselves instead decoding the maze of General Provisions, Fiduciary Powers, Trusts, Legacies, and, when all is done, Residue.
It took Adolfo and me a long time to do this. Our children are 11 and 8, and we have been without a Will all this time. Friends and family were scandalized. But it is such an easy thing to put off - like a having a mammogram or collecting that stool sample they’ve been asking for. On an average day, you really don’t want to know all that goes on in your body – and certainly not all that goes on within your heart and mind. But you also know, that all days aren’t average, damn it, and that the clock is ticking.
But I guess it is marginally comforting to know I now have a Personal Representative. It’s kind of like having a Personal Trainer, but not quite so narcissistic. A Personal Representative might take control if you have become non compos mentis. A Personal Trainer might get you those six-pack abs you’ve been wanting. It’s a toss up, maybe, but what good is a washboard stomach if you’ve got both oars out of the water? My Personal Representative is Adolfo, and I am his. I guess it remains to be seen which of us will have to follow through with all the things we’ve just agreed to do for each other. There’s something to be said for just getting hit by the same bus in one go.
A “Proxy IQ Test” is the last part of the packet, stapled separately from the rest. The idea is to answer the 14 questions, then hand it to your “agent”. The agent will then, without looking at your answers, answer his or her own version of the questions. Then you compare and see just how well your agent understands your wishes if you’re… well, if you’re out of the game.
The questionnaire follows an “imagine that” format.
You had Alzheimer’s Disease…
You are now seriously ill…
You have moderate dementia…
You also have circulatory problems, which resulted in one leg being
amputated because it developed gangrene…
You are physically frail…
You are in a permanent coma and you are dependent on a tube inserted
into your stomach for nutrition and hydration, for food and water.
The next time you get pneumonia, do you want aggressive antibiotic
treatment again or just comfort care until death comes?
Jesus… For all the messiness they stepped around earlier, they’re dragging you right through it face first now. None of this is legalese - they actually use pronouns in this section – and by the simple use of the second person and the present tense, you are there. You are experiencing it all without any padding, without any coyness. You, not an agent, not a Personal Representative, or a trustee, or an executor, or the party of the first, second or third part. It has gotten very real, very quickly.
That “ennui” I mentioned earlier was just a front. It is impossible to go through this process and not conjure up depressing images of oneself smeared on the highway, talking to the walls in a nursing home, or just bubbling away on life support. If preparing for one’s death isn’t a sign of at least impending adulthood, I cannot imagine what would be.
Young children go though a phase of obsessing about death and imagining what death looks like, feels like, and how they will die. Then they realize on some level that they can’t figure the thing out because no adult can ever seem to give them satisfactory answers. They move on. I guess part of becoming an adult constitutes turning around and looking at that fear again, and knowing that there are no answers. Death isn’t anything we ever “figure out”, it just is. We deal with it one way or another, or more accurately, it deals with us. We just do what we can to ease it, for ourselves, for each other.
Adolfo may be the one to “deal” some day – I suspect he’s much healthier than I am. There is a loophole, though, and I’m sure he’ll spot it: If he’s dead, the document says, he is excused from acting as my agent, as long as he can produce a notarized death certificate.
Some people will go to any lengths.