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
It was a beautiful October day -- crisp and sunlit, the day of Mary Alice Thomas' funeral. My grandmother, who made every person who knew her feel loved -- with her coral roses, her plum jelly, her airy whistle in the kitchen, her lipsticked kisses, and her 96 years of bright shining joy, vibrancy and a pure, selfless heart.
That morning in 2008, at St. Augustine’s church in Indiana, my sister sang the processional song from high up on the loft, leading in with a sweet soprano, "Gentle Woman, Quiet Light." The little great-grandchildren brought forth flowers Mary Alice had planted in her garden, the one with the real working well we loved to pump, water flowing, making our hands clean and cool. Each child placed their rose on the casket. Morning Star, So strong and Bright.
We buried her at the cemetery in Derby, Indiana, her casket lowered down to rest side-by-side with Grandpa’s. My black high heels sank deep into the cold mud, and I tried to brush aside the thought of my grandfather, the state of his human body, down there in the ground since we buried him, also on an October day 13 years prior. I forced myself to think of angels and saints and everlasting glory, and the resurrection of the living and the dead.
When I returned from her funeral, I went on a long walk around my Southern California neighborhood, trying desperately to get out of my head and away from thoughts of death.
Walk, step. One foot in front of the other. I turn round the corner.
Plastic grey tombstones, R.I.P. across each, clutter the side of a lawn. A decaying Latex hand reaches up from the gound. A rope cordons them off to create a small faux graveyard. I move fast, away from the hyper-Halloween decorated house. A pop-up electronic zombie shrieks.
I turn and something grazes my neck. I reach my hand to the back of my head, prepared to brush off a bug. I reach back, look up: white paper ghosts brush my hair beneath jacaranda trees. Skeletons dangle, their bones jangling like dark wind chimes.
The walk that I hoped would clear my mind did the opposite. Everywhere, some object seemed to mock her death, the cemetery, and the sorrow of that day.
A crone with a red-eyed crow sits in a rocking chair, waiting patiently to scare unsuspecting children. Gentle Mother. The white paper ghosts flutter in the air. Peaceful Dove.
Halloween is unlike the Day of The Dead, the Mexican holiday, when the aim is to celebrate and pray for those who have died, that is historically linked to the Catholic Church’s All Souls’ Day. There are no white candled alters to relatives passed on, no belongings or letters left for them, no sweetbreads shaped like bones. This Halloween revels in the macabre and the morbidity of death, the physical state of the lifeless body, the fear of death itself.
I walk onward, by every house and yard in this neighborhood, no doubt filled with Hollywood set decorators and art designers, from the details and scope of the scenes. In my fragile, acute state of mourning, each seems to lampoon my grandparents’ deaths. Each string of skulls belittles the tears now steaming down my face.
On a lamppost, I see a sign for a Haunted Hayride, a photo of a wagon with bales of hay under a full moon. The driver, cloaked in black, wears a sinister face with pocked, putrid skin.
I close my eyes, and see bales of hay, spread out along the rolling green hills of Southern Indiana. There is my grandfather, sitting high up on the John Deere, out baling hay. He wears his blue plaid shirt, soft from years of warm water washes.
Then I see me, walk-running down the path with a tall glass of lemonade held tight in both hands, my tongue gliding across the top ice cube, sipping lightly to keep it from spilling. I duck under the rusty green gate, and walk through the field, tall golden grass scratching my mosquito-bitten legs.
“Grandpa! Grandpa! Lemonade!” I shout, but he can’t hear me over the roar of the tractor.
Finally, he sees me from afar, waving, and my face beams, as I hold up the lemonade like a torch I’ve run in from miles away. He stops baling, powers down the monster machine, and I bring the lemonade to him. We sit on the bundles of straw, just me and Grandpa amid the hay. I am safe.
I decide I’ve had enough fresh air for today -- and enough grief for this hour. I walk on back, toward home, keeping my face forward. Moving straight ahead.
But, I round the corner, and there it is -- another fake cemetery. I inhale, angry, then notice amid the tombstones there is something else: a faux wrought iron cross, staked in the middle of the scene.
I block out the mummy sitting up in a casket, the ghouls, bats, cobwebs, everything else blurs. I gaze on the cross. I close my eyes, and hear the soulful soprano high above us as, she sings the rest of my grandmother’s requiem song, "Teach us wisdom, teach us love."