By Carolyn Wallace
It’s the night before a big unexpected emergency operation. Your family is trekking in the Himalayas and won’t be home for two weeks. The doctor is a friend. She tells you the truth, “You may not make it through,” and asks, “Are your affairs in order?” You have a yellow legal pad and your favorite pen. What will you do?
Or it’s just a regular morning. You drink your coffee, read the morning paper, eat your granola with bananas and almond milk and rush out the door. What a hectic day you’ve planned. You mentally tic off the A list and muse: “Better move these four tasks to the B list… way too much to do.” You are feeling concerned that you may be five minutes late for your first appointment as you enter the interstate with a quick glance in the side mirror. Then out of nowhere there’s the semi, barreling. “Oh God, where did he come …”
Suddenly, it’s over: the A list, the morning, the life.
Or, it’s today. You are likely sitting somewhere taking a few moments for yourself (good for you—do more of that!). As you read this you remember that at some point in the last few years you actually realized in some deep visceral place in your body, “I am going to die one day. I don’t know when, but I am surely, actually going to die.” And perhaps you expect that you are closer to that day than to the day you were born … (Note: I didn’t stop referring to myself as middle aged until a year or two ago, and I’m over 60. My family includes long livers, but 120+?)
What if you learned about something you could do for the ones you love most in this world that would take a few hours or a day, that could bring them comfort, pleasure, and even joy, after you’re gone, for the rest of their lives? Would you want to make it a priority to do that something?
Such a gift is an ethical will, which I sometimes call “the last love letter.”
Ethical wills, also referred to as legacy letters, have been around for eons. They were oral before writing came along and are referred to in both the Old and New Testaments. Examples appear in medieval manuscripts and in writings of various religious traditions. They are most well known in the west as a Jewish tradition.
In old times they often came from the patriarch of the family. He wrote to elucidate his beliefs and values and instruct his children about how their lives were to be lived, how to carry on family traditions, and what he expected to observe from the other side!
While this practice is not well known, I hope someday soon ethical wills/legacy letters will be as common as material wills.
I often wonder: What of real value from our lives will be left for generations to come? What will our great grandchildren know of who we were and what we cared about and what we perceived as meaningful? What will they know of our hopes and dreams for their parent’s parents, their parents, and for them?
What will they know of our hopes for this beautiful and troubled old world? Will they know that we loved them, whether we knew them directly or not? Will they know what we tried to do to make a contribution to others’ lives, to this planet that was our dear home? Will they have a way to be encouraged by us as they live their lives?
Close to home, right now, I wonder about my granddaughters Lia Grace and Ellen. We have the greatest times together, and they know that I adore them. But they are 7 and 5 years old. If I should die in the next five or ten years, how much will they remember when they are 20, 30, 50? I want them to know who I am (was), what my life is (was) about, how I feel about them and always will, both over here and over there. I want them to feel my love, deeply and explicitly, my love for them, for others, for the world.
A suggestion: Think of someone who died years ago who you looked up to and especially loved as a child. Perhaps you’re thinking of a grandparent, aunt, uncle, teacher, or even one of your parents. Take ten minutes and jot down first thoughts as fast as you can, listing whatever comes up that you would really love to know more fully about that person:
For example, what were their most profound life lessons?
Or, what mattered most to them?
What would they want to tell you now if they could?
It’s your list. Write down whatever you really wish you could know.
Imagine what it would be like to have a letter from them to you, addressing some of these questions. Feel what such a gift would mean to you. You can give this gift.
You can address the list of questions you just created in your legacy letter. It is very likely that those you love will want to know many of the same things you wish you knew from your beloved person from another generation.
A second suggestion: You can also approach the writing by asking yourself, thinking of a particular person, again using the “Ten minute First thoughts” writing exercise:
If I die tomorrow, what do I most want ___________ to hear from me through my words whenever they choose to over the rest of their life?
What do I want to tell them?
What will they need to hear?
There is no “right way” to compose this letter. I once wrote an iteration of a legacy letter to my family on the back of a cocktail napkin (over the red Coca Cola logo) at 10,000 feet when the plane ride got choppy. I imagined this skinny tiny napkin miraculously surviving, being found in the mangled wreckage of the downed plane, and again miraculously being delivered to my daughter’s front door in Eugene, Oregon by a kindly employee of Delta Airlines. Now I use it for show and tell in my workshops: “See? A legacy letter can come in many forms!”
Your legacy letter/ethical will can be three paragraphs, three pages, or 30 pages. Many are a page, or two, or three. You can include whatever is most meaningful for you: values and beliefs; joys and sorrows; wonderings and wanderings; expressions of gratitude, sorrows, joys; biggest life lessons …
You can include words of forgiveness or requests for forgiveness; luminous experiences; family jokes; your secret recipe for coconut caramel cake or New Orleans red beans and rice; family sayings and traditions; hopes and dreams for them and perhaps for the world; family secrets it’s time to reveal; whatever you choose to share.
Remember the semi I mentioned earlier? Not maudlin, just reality. Most of us do not get to know how long we have on this great green earth. We can choose to leave a legacy letter.
Thich Nhat Hanh says about whatever we are thinking of doing “someday”:
“If not now, when?”
Got a pen?
Coming Next month: Writing from the heart, ideas and helpful resources for completing a legacy letter, occasions that lend themselves well to sharing it, and ways the creation of a legacy letter can provide a springboard for further life exploration through writing.
Carolyn Wallace has lived in WNC since 1977. She was a member of the Stone Soup Restaurant collective and spent many years helping to develop various non-profits and organizing with others for social and environmental justice. She served as the first Executive Director of MANNA Food Bank, and more recently as Dean of Service at Warren Wilson College.
Carolyn’s business, Life Story Catcher, is based in Asheville. She leads workshops in writing legacy letters and life stories; and she records life stories for folks who want to tell rather than write them, creating CD’s and legacy books with family photos and other memorabilia, books that will last for a very long time. She can be reached at email@example.com or or 828-337-3738.