Why do we mortals behave as if we are immortal? Whether we are a teenager and impatient for adulthood, middle-aged and at the peak of our career, or even more elderly and in great health, we all look forward to a life spread out in front of us, blurring into the distance, infinite.
A special visitor to Jamaica this week led us, gently but firmly, to the realization that we must actively, and in a practical sense, prepare for that most certain thing in life – death, which is a part of all our lives. Yvette Taylor-Hachoose, an attorney-at-law and expert on estate planning, gave presentations to the Jamaica Fulbright Association, and to the relatively new organization, the Caribbean Community of Retired Persons, founded by Jean Lowrie-Chin. We also traveled to the cool, green hillsides of Mandeville in central Jamaica, to the Northern Caribbean University – whose kindness and quiet hospitality was as usual deeply appreciated.
Yvette had audiences of different ages and persuasions – businesspersons, students, teachers, retirees, Jamaicans who had spent years overseas and returned to spend what is euphemistically called their “golden years” on the island. Estate planning is all about wills, and living wills, and powers of attorneys, and trusts, money, cash, property, real estate…and families.
With growing admiration, I realized that Yvette had to tiptoe through a complex web of family feuds, estranged relatives, jealousy and sibling rivalry, children known and unknown. In Jamaica, the family structure can be rambling, dense and intricate. Even married men can have another “family” ; there are often “outside children” on both sides; stepfathers and stepmothers can create complications. It takes skill, tact and great humanity to navigate these potential dangers, and make sure that the hurt feelings and the pride are smoothed over.
Several things stayed in my mind, at the end of Yvette’s visit: something that both she and a colleague Jamaican lawyer reiterated, that estate planning is about the life we are living, now. It’s not about death at all, really. It is about our lives, the here and now. How we feel about our relationships, the things and people that surround us. It is about trust, loyalty, the ties that bind us to our fellow human beings.
Yvette also talked a lot about legacy. (What will be your legacy, and mine?) She told a very personal and poignant story about her father, who is a veteran of the Korean War. He was persuaded to write and publish his memoirs, after holding himself away from some painful truths that he felt unable to write about. “We think we know everything about our parents, don’t we,” Yvette noted. But of course, we don’t. Her father created his legacy of courage and death-in-life through his memoirs, when he witnessed tragedy and grief beyond description as a nineteen-year-old soldier. It is a part of him, for better or worse. Our lives are ourselves.
A legacy is something tangible, yet with a spiritual force. It is what we were, what we are, and what we always will be.
Well, we can all start by writing a will. And take it from there.