You Probably Need a Will, So Here's How to Have That Potentially Awkward Conversation with Your Family
Remember, if you die without a will, the state will determine who inherits
I was ten years old when my parents called it quits.
I was twelve when they rebooted their flopped marriage.
“Oh yay,” I said and smiled when they told me the happy news. Though, to be a thousand percent honest, I felt anything but happy. I felt irked.
Allow me to set the stage, pre-separation. It’s 1996. One kid, two-story house, two-car garage (but no cars fit inside—too much stuff), one dog, one workaholic dad, one stay-at-home mom, one stay-at-home grandpa, and a whole lot of love. It’s true: I never felt a lack of affection or attention. My parents were overprotective, typical for parents of only children and parents of daughters (double whammy), but never overbearing; they encouraged my talents and interests, but were never prescriptive.
No curfews, no rules, no censorship, no discipline—but I didn’t run amok. As long as I can remember, they treated me like a little adult, like their peer and equal. They respected me and my opinion (which was heavily influenced by their own opinions, of course—how independently thoughtful can you be at ten years old, really?) but they were hyper neurotic. My BFF since age three will to this day laugh, “Can you believe they never let you go skiing with my family?” Well, yeah, I can.
My parents were cool, but they were also slightly insane. They liked having me close. “Life is a parking lot,” is a thing my dad would say whether we were walking through a parking lot or not. I think it means that you can get rear ended or run over at any minute? Be vigilant always? Trust no one?
Still, my parents and I were friends, best-best friends. I counted myself lucky.
Some only children are spoiled so profoundly in their youth by Mom and Dad that they grow up into savage crossbreeds, part human, part beast, perpetual man-children and princesses who sue if they don’t get what they want instead of scream. I pray to God I’m not one of those, and I’m nearly positive I’m not (though I have my moments, I’m sure). The thing is that I didn’t want a lot then. I mostly wanted everyone to be happy.
What is a friend really but a confidant? They both had a great deal to confide. At that time my mom had very few girlfriends, and those she did have mostly used her as their listening ear. (I know, I observed it.) My dad had lots of friends, but most lived at least an hour away. I take full responsibility for inserting myself into the mix. I asked my parents (separately), “What’s going on? Do you want to talk?” Yes. Yes they did want to talk.
I heard all the grievances against each of my parents from the other. Usually these let-me-get-this-off-my-chest sessions would morph into vitriolic ventilations full of harsh consonant enunciation and spit (Dad) or crying (Mom). They’d had problems for years. (Again: I know, I observed it.) I honestly couldn’t remember one family vacation or one family outing that didn’t yield one humongous fight. The saddest thing about it, now that I look back, is that I learned not to let those fights faze me. I learned to adapt.
My mom tried very hard to shield my aging grandpa from those blowups. Sometimes she’d ask me to take a walk with Pop so he wouldn’t have to hear it. Luckily for him he was practically deaf, but I’m sure he got the gist. He and I were extremely close, but we never talked about his daughter and son-in-law and what on earth they were screaming about now.
So when my dad moved out in July 1996, I was thrilled. I cannot even quantitatively convey the sense of relief that washed over me as I watched his ancient blue Volvo burn rubber circling the cul-de-sac and careening the hell away (this was following a heart stopping CRACK of a door slam, but no bother). And that relief had nothing whatsoever to do with my dad the individual. I adored my dad. He was (and remains) my hero. But he was also a hurricane, and I preferred that he relocate elsewhere.
He stayed at a friend’s house for a few days before picking me up from my mom’s—he’d been out barely a week and already I called it “my mom’s;” Jesus, I was happy—to go check out apartments, which was a straight-up, legitimate thrill. This place had a washer/dryer in the building! That place had a patio! This place had it’s own barbershop in the complex. Ultimately we decided—we!—on the one-bedroom that had easy access to an awesome swimming pool and a killer view of the Back Bay. He gave me the big bedroom (twice as big as my room at home!) and bought himself a futon with a cave-drawing decorated mattress for the living room. It was like a never-ending slumber party: all fun, no sleep, who cares!
Meanwhile, back at the real homestead, my mom was a mess. Everyday introduced new challenges that always started with the Let’s Get Out of Bed, Mom! Game. I feel like my mom had some sense that she shouldn’t treat me like her in-house therapist; but I eagerly offered my empathy and my ear, and she was so broken that she could hardly muster the energy to shut the depression faucet off. I desperately wanted to fix her. I felt so helpless; I figured the only way to do anything constructive was to listen.
Slowly, my mom’s spirits started to pick up. She might have even dated a little. That I genuinely don’t know, and it’s probably the one piece of personal information she blessedly withheld from me. My dad had a girlfriend, and that was its own funky muck of weird.
Over the course of the following months, my parents got to the point where they could be civil around each other—friendly, even. They could laugh! They both attended my dance recital that year and sat next to each other. We got dessert afterwards! All of us! My dad always hated ordering dessert because he’s both health-obsessed and obsessively frugal, but even he ate that chocolate molten whatever-it-was with a grin.
I was ecstatic. I had the top-drawer, Cadillac-Rolls-Royce hybrid, unsurpassed par excellence of both worlds: happy dad in cool apartment, happy mom in childhood home. I never missed one when I was with the other because they split the time perfectly, 50/50, three days here, three days there. And we were so busy enjoying the peace, Life Before felt like a scary fever dream long faded.
We did whatever we wanted. Dad and I ate waffles for dinner. Waffles for dinner. Mom and I stayed up all night on Sundays watching movies. Watching movies! And eating cookies! My dad let me decorate my bedroom at his apartment however I wanted, and my mom took Pop and me on a cruise to Mexico, which is so beyond a thing my dad would ever be remotely interested in, it’s almost on par with taking Karl Marx to Disneyland.
They were always in good moods. They didn’t sulk, they didn’t steam, they didn’t cry. It was the best of times, and it was the best of times. If ever I were going to say that I was spoiled at some point during my childhood, it was then.
Until they ruined it. After two years of split-up parent bliss, they told me over ravioli that my dad was coming home.
Angry doesn’t begin to describe it. Incensed is a close start. We fixed the problem! Their union was the problem! Why undo the solution? But I bottled up whatever unsavory feelings I felt because I knew only a spoiled brat would be pissed that her parents were saving their marriage.
Don’t ask me why they got back together. I hoped beyond hope that it wasn’t for my sake. Oh God: that would’ve been almost be too awful to bear. Because the Magic of Love didn’t return to our home once Dad was back. It was just like old times. Old times sucked.
They fought, again. They dragged me to couples therapy, again. I attempted amateur mediatory counseling, again. The problems of Life Before reemerged: they shared little in common, and they harbored old grudges. Sure, I missed the fun. I really missed the fun. But more than that, I missed the peace.
The last fifteen years, however, have not been terrible. Yes, they continued to fight like rabid wildebeests throughout the rest of my childhood, but my parents are still (astoundingly) together. Before I left for college, I worried that they’d split up once I was gone. Well, I half-worried/half-hoped. I worried because I’d be three thousand miles away and wouldn’t be around to help. Of course it’s a pretty inflated ego that thinks she’s the glue that holds two bickering adults together, but so be it. I was eighteen.
And get this: they made it. In fact, the last ten years have been perhaps the least emotionally fraught period in their now thirty-five year marriage. (If that doesn’t make you believe in miracles, I don’t know what will.)
What’s different? Well I’m out of there, for starters. Did our family triangle yield an imbalance where there was always an odd man out? Did I, in an attempt to help, stir things up? Were my parents so preoccupied with parenting me that they neglected to partner each other? Or, are they now older and wiser, and a little exhausted?
Perhaps they just don’t have the energy to fight like they used to. My dad’s temper used to scare the dickens out of me when it flared up, and my mom’s mood swings couldn’t have all been attributed to menopause. But now I call my mom Lamby, and my dad kind of resembles a sheepdog. If he’s upset, he doesn’t fly off the handle, he just hangs his head low. Defeated? Sure, but also peaceful. You can’t overrate peace.
Now that my mom’s just turned 64 and my dad’s about to catch up (a miracle in and of itself to him, and every time we talk he feels compelled to quote a lyric from “When I’m Sixty-Four” a la The Beatles), I’m grateful they still have each other. And, for the first time in my entire life, I actually see affection between them.
My dad texts me pictures of my mom at brunch with the caption “Pretty Mama.” During my mom’s last visit she became obsessed with finding my dad the perfect new tie. They take each other to the doctor. They badger each other to listen to the doctor. They really, truly love each other. I never would’ve believed it as a twelve year old, but I’m older and wiser (and a little exhausted) now, too.