My mother died a week after Valentine’s Day of my senior year in college. I flew home to California from my school in Vermont to spend time with my family and attend her “celebration of life.” Upon my return, I went to the campus post office to pick up my mail. When I opened my mailbox, waiting for me was a card from my mother. For a brief moment I thought that my mother’s death had all been a bad dream. Then suddenly I realized that she must have sent the card right before she died. I opened it to discover that it was a belated Valentine’s Day card which read, “Do you know how much I love you?” The experience was actually very comforting – it was as if my mother were still present.
I was reminded of this episode when I recently thought about my own estate plan for the benefit of my son who is about to turn two years old. Being an estate planning attorney, I made sure that my wife and I nominated guardians to raise him should something happen to both of us before he becomes an adult. We tried to identify the core values that we would want his guardians to possess and considered practical issues such as the potential guardians’ locations and whether he’d be able to remain in the same school. We thought about whether the same persons we nominate as guardians should also be named as trustees to manage his inheritance, or whether it would be better to have a system of checks and balances. We even named temporary guardians so that in an emergency, he wouldn’t automatically be placed in child protective services while the Court took the time to officially appoint a guardian.
But I realized that, despite all of this detailed, legally-centric planning, we overlooked one key element: how will we continue to be a presence in his life? Right now, we are his whole world. But if something happened to us, would we become a fading memory? Is there anything we can do about this? And then I remembered my mother’s last Valentine’s Day card.
What if when I graduated from college, somebody handed me a letter that my mother had written before her death telling me what it means to apply my education to the “real world”? What if when I received the positive results of the Bar Exam, somebody handed me a letter from my mom about what an incredible accomplishment I achieved? What if at my wedding, somebody handed me a letter from my mom about love and commitment? What if when my son was born, somebody handed me a letter from my mom about the instant and unconditional love a parent has for a child? I thought about how I was lucky enough to have that comforting experience once, by accident. It would have been wonderful if I could have had that experience over and over again throughout my life.
In addition to making all the important legal and practical plans, I realized that my wife and I – as well as all parents of young children – should spend a weekend sitting down and thinking about what messages we plan to give to our son at certain milestones of his life. We should memorialize those messages in personal letters. Hopefully, we’ll be able to actually read those letters to him. But, should we not be that fortunate, we will ensure that we will have some presence in his life well into the future.