Monday, March 9, 2015

A Religious Experience at the Attorney's Office

"Inspiring you to Reinvent Yourself"

Artist: Jennifer North

Two days ago I turned 53. Today I signed my Last Will & Testament. The sequence was a coincidence of attorney-client mutual convenience but nonetheless struck me as meaningful.

Here's the story: In the first 68 days of 2015 (minus one hour stolen by the Spring Ahead demon), I:

  1. Stepped down as head of my school, ending a 32 year Jewish education vocation.
  2. Started
  3. Served divorce papers on my husband after 13 years of marriage and three of estrangement.
  4. Began a freelancing business of writing, editing and proofreading.(
  5. Consolidated various 403b and IRA savings so that they will grow faster.
  6. Put myself on a spending budget and a healthy-for-me eating plan.
  7. Labeled myself "semi-retired," to relax into my Fibromyalgia rather than fight it.
Not bad for a person who is chronically fatigued and in pain. (Though I don't think I yet understand the meaning of semi-retirement.)

With many changes looming, the time seemed right to organize my pre-death and in-death experiences. Control freak or kind soul? You choose. Either way, I chose now to convey my wishes.

Besides the legal forms, I wrote an Ethical Will, which is a deceased person's final soapbox, on which she can climb in death to share with loved ones her gratitude, values and wishes -- with no back talk. Ethical wills are a minor, long-held, Jewish tradition. Though not exclusively Jewish, I believe. 

See Jack Riemer's now classic text, So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them, December 1, 1993 ISBN-13: 978-1879045347  ISBN-10: 1879045346

Back to my attorney's office, today. I thought: In for a quick check of corrections and my John Hancock; in by 2, out in 30.

Instead, I had a religious experience. Re-reading my end of life instructions, my Last Will and Testament, and my love-soaked Ethical Will, my spirit began to well. The chik-chok-watch the clock attitude I came in with left. Time slowed and so did my breath. 

I used each moment alone in the conference room to meditate. It came easily for once. Empty my lungs and shut out air with my adductors; fill my lungs and shut air in with my glottis. Feel the rushes -- in and out -- when I unlock the muscles. Think only of each breath and, to be honest, of Jeanette Miller, the yoga instructor who taught me this practice long ago. 

In walked the attorney and three witnesses, bearing documents on heavy, ivory paper, with headings in elegant type, bearing my penultimate and final wishes. I rose and shook hands with each witness. We took seats around an oval table. I laid my hand on the pile of documents, accepted a pen from the attorney, and thought, "There should be a blessing." I couldn't think of one on the spot, so I did the birthday candle thing instead: Closed my eyes, made a wish, opened my eyes and got to it. My wish? 
"May this do its job to ease and obviate the pain of others."

I found the first blank places and wrote "9th," then "March," then "2015," very carefully with a blue pen. Found the line with Rhonda Lea Rosenheck centered under it and signed Rhonda Rosenheck, because Lea is never part of my signature. Handed the pen and paper to the first witness, who filled in her part while we silently watched. She handed paper and pen to the second witness, who wrote her part and then handed it across the table to the third witness. The attorney laid it down, first of a stack invisibly labeled, "Done." 

We reenacted this for the Health Care Proxy, the page that attests that the witnesses are who they say they are, something else procedural and my Last Will and Testament. This was then notarized, to demonstrate that I am who I say I am. 

The last document was my Ethical Will. As a letter to my loved ones, only I signed it: Love, Rhonda Rosenheck. I was going to sign "Rhonda," but out of kindness to genealogists in the next century, I added my last name.  

Can you feel the religion? Ritual, grounded in tradition, shared among officiants with specified roles, meaningful in perpetuity, and giving structure to the most uncomfortable questions of life, death, pain, hope, faith and grief. 

There should have been a blessing. Here's my stab at it tonight. Not an experienced liturgist, I have chosen the essential Jewish formula for blessings over mitzvot, commandments.

Baruch atah adonai...
Blessed are you, Adonai, my God, Ruler of the Universe, who blesses us with your commandments and commands us to prepare for death in life. Amen.

Amen, my beloveds who will, one day, have to listen to a recitation of my less-than-terse Ethical Will.

Amen, readers who can choose now to express their end of life wishes, saving their loved ones the agony of guessing. 

Amen, readers who can already check off these tasks: "Done."

I'd love to hear your experiences. Please share freely in the comments.

Thank you. 

Love, Rhonda


  1. The process, both in thought and action, becomes even more of an experience when you have a child who will never be anything but a child in developmental terms. You have to think about their emotions and well being beyond your own mortality, especially when they will never be able to understand the meaning of the expressions of love you leave behind. The complications and burdens you will have to leave to others concerning the care of that "child" are also factors that come into the process. Silent, undefined prayers are always part and parcel of the planning, with the greatest weight on the question of whether you have planned enough for the child's continued care after you are no longer providing for them. Have I prepared my child enough, do they understand, can they accept what has been planned, do they understand now why we need to have such a plan even if it will not affect their lives until some unknown time hopefully long into the future. In writing our wills and directives, my husband and I spent a lot of time, energy, thought, and effort on these matters as well. We needed to "publish" many of what should be our final wishes to those who would have to assume burdens for us, including our other child who, by necessity, need to be her brother's care overseer. This entire process of planning integrates elements of prayer - that you can foresee and/or predict enough of the future, and hope that your "child" can transition to a future without you.

    1. Hello again. I am editing something that brought your words back to mind, so I came back to read your lovely reflections on caring for your son -- and your daughter -- after you and your husband are gone. It's a guide for camps to become more inclusive of children with disabilities, and one of the contributors wrote that part of the camp's task is to help the children gain as many skills and as much independence as possible for a future after their parents are gone. I hope you have such supporting schools, programs and camps in your life. The challenges are beyond my imagination without the support of others. All the very best, Rhonda

  2. Yes, what you write is so true. Thank you for sharing it here. I have family for whom something similar is true. The prayer, perhaps, may help the parent(s) transform a potentially terrible situation into a reality that allows for calm, sufficiency and joy despite the difficulties. Such profound thoughtfulness. Thank you.