I remember standing by the newly tarred farm road in Texas about four yards off the shoulder. The morning sun was slanting down and promising a scorcher. My Grandma had just put down our shovel and was lighting a smoke. The air smelled like asphalt, pine needles, red- dirt and tobacco. My sister stood alongside and after Grandma had said a small prayer, we lowered our beloved departed German Shepherd into the deep hole. In my four Summers, this was the first time I had attended a funeral. During the excavation, I stood off away with my elder sister and asked my Grandma if she knew how deep it was safe to dig without busting through into Hell or at least getting the Devil's unwanted attention. She laughed and told me not to worry because it was a hell of a long ways down and much farther than she was capable of digging. That settled my apprehensions long enough to start processing my grief and remembering the good times my sister and I had had taking turns riding dog-back on that magnificent beast.
After that, I went to a few funerals for people who were not family until I reached age twenty. At this juncture, my estranged father passed away, suddenly and without a will. It was one of the most difficult times I can see in my rear-view mirror. One aspect that exacerbated my discomfort during this episode was the bureaucracy I encountered on the road to doing what is right and expected of one in such circumstances. A full six months transpired before I had successfully negotiated an estate consisting of a car, a watch, a deck of smokes, a lighter and two hundred dollars in Traveler’s Checks. Necessity caused me to have a safety deposit box in Chinatown drilled in order to further acquire an Italian stiletto in good working condition. These operations, though simple in themselves were rendered stubborn as well fed cats under the weight of the papers required by protocol, legality and record keeping. The result was such that I managed to conclude all tasks but had to process my emotions at the same time. The emotions were myriad, powerful and at times contradictory. Thus, what would have been a bittersweet lesson in life morphed into a mercurial blur.
I laid my father to rest in the Summer waters off the Lighthouse Rock, a Vancouver landmark he had sailed past many times throughout the Second World War as a Canadian Merchant Seaman. I avoided being an executor for anyone after that and did not make my own will until I attained the age of forty and had two children and a much loved wife. The process was just as agonizing as the first time because my two sons were born of two different mothers. This basis coupled with our relative youth and the uncertainty of the future had the effect of causing my inner Solomon to get busier than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. I spent weeks concocting and calibrating noteworthy equations that factored in all known data but also made fair adjustments for probabilities and respected the softer feeling of everyone involved. When I was ready, I committed this to writing on a kit I bought at the drug store in order to avoid legal fees.
Never feeling it was perfect nor that it ever could be, it finally dawned on me that making a fair and just will in today’s reality is akin to trying to divide an unknown quantity of an unknown commodity by using a snapshot of a dynamic set of ever-changing inventory which will be obsolete before the copies are filed in all the proper places. I was proud to have done my best. At this juncture the idea of being someone [who's lack of wealth caused him to undertake such a matter as will-making without the aid of a lawyer] fretting over the scraps struck me as very humorous. Without diminishing the grandeur of the ceremony, the propriety of the assignments to the beneficiaries and not letting any pertinent details escape being duly recorded for the later scrutiny of Queen, Country or Clerk; my attitude became markedly different than it had been before those experiences.
Recently, at fifty-nine years of age and three years into my retirement from being a letter-carrier for Canada Post, I hired a lawyer in the nearest town and set about making a proper will. There were some aspects of the job that were frustratingly reminiscent of my previous encounters, a few brand new concepts, some changes in old legalities and a set of jargon and vocabulary to learn and brush up on. I remember chewing on a lot of carrots and sprinkling fresh dill on everything I ate during the month or so in which this paperwork was being created, checked and drawn up.
This time I already knew that we were trying to divide an unknown quantity of an unknown commodity by using a snapshot of a dynamic set of ever-changing inventory, emotions and circumstances. My lawyer was a fantastic young woman who had a great facility in switching her speech effortlessly from Legalese to Piney Woods to Post-Punk Patois. Thus my wife and my offspring were all able to understand what we had caused to be wrought. I was proud to have done my best when it was all over. We got some Greek food at a little place I know and had a nice drive home. All the way down Dead Man Creek and along the Bonaparte, The Thompson and The Fraser Rivers; I found myself seeing the humor pregnant in the solemnity of a peasant pouring himself into the same form used by and necessitated by the landed gentry since before the surviving written record. When we reached my trailer, I was in such a state that I could have walked through powder snow and not left any footprints.
On a roll, I continued into the new territory of securing a piece of ground in which to commit the mortal remains of my wife and myself after our inevitable demise. Remembering a day long ago when I lived next door to a big cemetery in Vancouver, I recalled an impromptu interview with the custodian of the crematorium there. At that time the price of cremation was very affordable but the restrictions placed upon the disposition of the ashes in such a manner as facilitated a convenient, permanent place for family and friends to visit were many, especially in crowded big cities.
I was relieved to find that in my area, it was possible to be cremated, have the ashes placed in a small grave, marked with a durable stone and to afford the living a spectacular view as a reward for their efforts. All this for a reasonable sum even by my own frugal standards. Understanding that some of the variable costs would only increase over time, I did not hesitate to secure our plots.
The actual day of walking the rows to shop the available real estate was a sobering yet otherworldly experience. After much difficulty finding the locations on the list given me by the District, I had a smoke and decided on our spot. It was in close proximity to the canyon wall and looking out East over the Fraser River toward Fort Berens Winery. If one turned 180 degrees at that spot, one would see the Totem Chinese Restaurant that adorns the corner of the street we live on. A future visitor to our graves could conceivably go for a wine tasting or fried rice minutes after pulling out of the parking lot. If it was a windy day, they might wish to do both. Next door to the site I chose is a stone with a ceramic photo of a young couple. Their expressions of love and life are such that once seen, they act as an equal counterpoint to the solemnity of this ground as a whole. On the fence just a few feet in front, a child's doll was attached many winters ago and this proves yet to be the surest navigational aid in finding the spot. We have lived only three years in Lillooet but already have a friend and a neighbor buried nearby. The sky overhead is patrolled by Bald Eagles and when they let the grass get tall in the Summer you can hear Red-wing Blackbirds and Meadowlarks singing their Texas twang. To top it all off, the train tracks run along just under the cliff and the clack-clack plus the engines lonesome whistle make a mighty fine symphony.
When enough time had transpired for all the bills to get paid, the papers filed and for my emotions to process themselves after having been roused like fish in a pool into which a stone is cast, I wanted to thank the lawyer who had helped with the will and the young salesman who had driven a hundred miles to draw up some further paperwork to do with our final arrangements. Basically, he was representing a service that would scour the archives of any possibly required documents, forms and such that might be necessary for an executor to do their duty. The service would also fill in all the data fields of every required form for the executors perusal, signature and subsequent mailing in the provided postage paid envelopes.
The young man stuck in my mind after our session due to his telling me a tale in answer to my asking why he had moved to a small community similar to mine from a big city. He intimated to me with much emotion that he had been held to the floor naked in the presence of his wife and infant daughter with a gun barrel in his mouth for some hours while his house was ransacked by several thieves. He told me this after the money had been paid so I did not doubt its veracity at the time of the telling as his point had been one of explaining his own views on life, death, family and the wisdom of making final arrangements.
I have been alive long enough, however, to allow for the possibility that his gut-wrenching story might have been the greatest sales pitch I have encountered to date, save for the recent experience I had of assisting a tearful man whose finger had just been amputated at our medical clinic and then seeing the missing finger two days later while offering further assistance to the unfortunate creature. At this juncture, I only care that the paper does what it says.
As the Summer faded into Fall, I composed a letter of thanks to that lawyer and then I decided to vent the rest of my lingering emotions by way of satire of the process I had just undergone. This I did and sent a copy to the law office for their own in-house amusement. The piece I wrote was sparked by my curiosity at the origin and etymology of the particular word set used for the drawing up of wills and estates. I have been in divorce court twice, civil court twice and did one round as a juror. I have been represented by counsel and I have represented myself. I have stood before male and female judges. In all cases, I couldn't help but feel as though I had agreed to participate in something which demanded I relinquish all personal power whatsoever.
Not being able to talk or respond if one has counsel is just as frustrating as having no counsel and not being taken seriously by anyone in the room for just that reason. Indeed, both are akin to being kicked in the groin. Googling up some of the words caused me to come across one possible explanation of the root of the words testify, testament, testimony, testatrix, testator, intestate and such. I stress that this is only an unprovable possibility but it sure fit nicely with my mood at the time I read it.
- I will quote from an article by Dario Maestripieri, PhD. Professor of Comparative Human Development, Evolutionary Biology and Neurobiology at the University of Chicago. - Sourced Jan. 1, 2017 https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/games-primates-play/201112/testify-comes-the-latin-word-testicle
"In ancient Rome, two men taking an oath of allegiance held each others testicles, and men held their own testicles as a sign of truthfulness while bearing witness in a public forum. The Romans found a word to describe this practice but didn't invent the practice itself. Other primates had already been doing this for millions of years. Two male baboons who cooperate with each other by forming aggressive alliances against other baboons frequently fondle each others genitalia. This behavior has nothing to do with sex but it's a social ritual that primatologists call a "greeting." The behavior of ancient Romans and male baboons can be explained by the Handicap Principle, an evolutionary theory according to which the most effective way to obtain reliable information about a partner's commitment in a relationship whether a political alliance, a romantic relationship or a business partnership, is to impose a cost on the partner and assess the partner's willingness to pay it."
There are also the Bible quotes in which someone is admonished to place a hand "under the thigh" of Abraham on two occasions. There are Rabbinical notations dealing with Mitzvah and circumcision. You will find scholarly explanations of the separate origins of the roots of the two words "testify" and testicle." Some have traced the root back to an ancient word for the number three. Yet others contend that oaths were indeed sworn in the manner that Professor Maestripieri relates above. Ultimately, no one knows and as we are all free to find our giggles where we will, I chose to run with the Roman theory for my satire. It is written as a newspaper article chronicling a rare archaeological find in North Africa, dating from the brief period in which the Vandals seized rule from the Romans. And now for the article:
"Froja Armes, Scapia Matzia! [Gothic for: Lord Have Mercy, Let's Get Something To Eat!]
A recent find was made at the ruins of Leptis Magna, 130 km east of Tripoli at present day Khoms. There where the Wadi Labdah meets the sea at a spot that has seen Carthaginian, Roman, Vandal, Berber, Arab, Italian and Byzantine inhabitants come and go; was found a most curious tablet. The artifact was discovered by an eleven year old Korean lad who was visiting the ruins along with his parents and siblings.
A scholarly examination of the large fragment has revealed that it likely dates from the period of Vandal rule of the city, namely the mid-fifth century AD. It was happened upon by the boy while he walked the Via that runs inland from the Serapeum to the Market.
Some of the text is illegible and a portion is missing but several of the linguists attempting to decipher it agree that some of the words appear indeed to be Vandal. Unknown Gothic scholar, Wilbur Plumcrease was chosen unanimously by a bored seven to undertake the English translation of what remains of the treasure. The scholars, save three, agree that this bit of archaeological belly-button lint may best be described as an example of fifteen-hundred year old satire. The author of the document, say those five scholars, appears to be poking fun at the Roman legal customs that preceded the city's conquest by Gaiseric. The remaining trio contend that it is an uncommonly feeble attempt by a non-Latin literate author to forge a legal document. The fact that in the name of Rome, Belisarius recaptured the city in 534 AD lends credibility to their dissenting opinion." Here below then is the Plumcrease Translation:
"I, Dubious Murex, presently of 221-B Via Scapula, in the City of Leptis Magna, by her Revolt all Farmer's Testicular Dispossessions made by me and Shout this to be my Last Willing Testicle.
(1) I point to my wife, Hageblom Murex, to be the Executive Dundee of this my Willing Testicle proving that if my wife shall predisease me, or surveying me shall be unable to act the Executive Dundee of this my Last Willing Testicle, then I point to my cheetah, Strax, to be the Executive Dundee in spite of what my wife said; I come in here after referring to my Executive Dundee and to the Survivors, whether Aboriginals or Substitutes, as my "Dundees."
(2) If my wife, Hageblom Murex, revives me, then I give up, all my Puberty of every nature, kind and wheresonever sitting, including any Puberty over which I may have a General's Power Appointment, to my Dundees upside the following Rusty Names;
[A] To pay the Capital out of my General's Estate, just my Debts, Funeral and Testicular Expanses and all Success Duties, Estate Taxis and like that maybe payable in connecting my Estate;
[B] To disturb among my Mistresses, some of the Artichokes of Personality and Domestic Used Ornaments owed by me at the time of my Disease as Shells selected for them by their Respectful Guards as they agree, and in faulty agreement, as my Dundees conspire suitable equations;
[C] Abject to the provisions Inthishere after Container, to Ransom and Overpay the Residue of my Estate to see my Children survive in Equal Measures. In Testicles of where I have Underhere set my hand this 16th day of Augustus. Signs, Publicans and Shouted by the Testiculatrix, Hageblom Murex as and for her Last Willing Testicle, in front of us, booth presents at the same time, who?, at her request in each present of others, have to Underhere scratch our names as Witless."
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.