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August 11, 2006

The Will to Survive

If there's one thing above all other that really bothers me about my grandparents, it's their outright refusal to write or even discuss writing a will.

My mom's mom has everything squared away; she's got a will, she's updated it repeatedly as her assets have changed, and she's been sending money to the kids and grandkids every year since (a) she doesn't need anywhere near as much as she has and (b) anything she gives us all as a gift now doesn't have to be fought over or taxed as part of her estate, or some legal wrangling by the state over the validity of her will. Her burial plot is already purchased (right next to my grandfather) and the headstone engraved. Despite that, she has no intention of kicking the bucket, and is living it up to a degree nobody would expect of an 87-year-old woman. Were it not a fact of senior life that breaking your bones is a Very Bad Thing, the woman would probably have tried skydiving and bungee jumping by now. She seriously wants to try everything she can in the time she has, and doesn't act at all like she's in her late 80s.

There's nothing like seeing her rush around, either; you wouldn't think an 87-year-old woman with two total hip replacements and a shortened leg could still darn near run, but give grandma her cane and a mission, and she books it like nobody's business.


And then there are my dad's parents. My grandfather is convinced it's an enormous inconvenience every time they call. "It's just your father" (or grandfather, for me) is the usual answering machine message. "Call us back if you feel like it."


My grandmother, who used to be one hardcore lady, has lost all her self-confidence as she's aged. You would never know from being with her today that she helped bust gangsters. You'd never know she was working in the police station when Al Capone was arrested. Or that she rode motorcycles. Or that, during the war, she was working as a riveter and may have even considered being a WASP. She was even awarded for the quality of her riveting work.

She's not that woman today. You'd never know she was. Her decreased mobility and her hearing loss are best dealt with in her opinion by staying home as much as possible and pretending her hearing's fine. She only just finally swallowed her pride and got a hearing aid last year, despite having not been able to hear hardly at all for... the better part of a decade.


But perhaps the most alarming part of my grandparents' aging is that they absolutely, positively refuse to draw up a will. They won't hear of it; it's just not going to happen.

In some states, this wouldn't be an issue. My father, being an only child, would inherit all their possessions, our family would fly out and deal with their funerals and all their possessions, the state would get their taxes, and all would be well.

Illinois apparently doesn't work that way. Absent a will, everything belongs to the state and any debtors. The state may then apparently hold an estate auction, at which point family members can fight to buy back their family heirlooms. (Now, were it me, I'd make sure that I kept a working key to my parents' house so that I could take the first flight upon my parents' death, rent a U-haul or three, and liberate everything before the state stole it. But I'm subversive that way, and the better and less legally gray solution is a will.)


To the best any of us can tell, my grandparents refuse to draft a will as some sort of voodoo. My grandfather is the only child left, my grandmother is one of a very few, and both of them have had most of their friends pass on. The working theory seems to be that as soon as they write a will, they're just asking to join all their deceased family and friends and call it a life.

Which leaves my entire family with the unsettling knowledge that, if my grandparents die in a car crash tomorrow, that's all she wrote: no mementos, no photographs, and none of the property in their house that's actually my father's. All we'd have to remember my father's side of the family with is what we've got tucked safely away in our heads. And the huge chunk of family history contained in all their photographs and the family Bible would be lost unless we could afford to play the state's game of extortion.

All the little things that make me remember the best of times with my grandparents—like my grandfather's disgustingly kitschy "coconut monkey hula girl" lamp, complete with grass skirt—would disappear into the ether.

Sigh.

Posted by Colin at August 11, 2006 1:02 PM

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