A father's very detailed instructions for his estate prove impossible to follow

My father—a list-maker, a planner, a person who liked to be (and almost always was) in charge—left nothing to chance: he left us instructions for after his death.

He left multiple sets of instructions, actually. He left a document called “special instructions” on the desktop of the PC in his home office, which we called “the den.” He left another, older document (“instructions”) in the computer’s documents folder (it was nearly identical to the more recent one). He left multiple hard copies of both of these—as well as other, older (but also nearly identical) sets of instructions—printed out on brightly colored paper (orange, lime green, yellow) and buried within stacks of papers in the den, which doubled as a guest room (and tripled as storage space: a closet that stretched almost the length of one wall was stuffed with everything my parents had rescued from my grandmother’s apartment after her death, and there were boxes stacked in every corner of the room, filled with my mother’s notes from med school in Mexico thirty-five years ago, framed pictures they’d replaced with others, photo albums, scrapbooks, and all kinds of memorabilia).

There were a lot of stacks of papers. There were stacks of papers on the bookshelves and papers in stacks stuffed every which way into the drawers of the credenza. There were piles of papers beside the computer and more piles on the folding snack table my father had set up alongside the computer table. There were piles of papers on the gigantic desk, a leftover from when he’d had an actual office on Fifth Avenue, from when he’d had his own business—a desk that took up a good third of the room and blocked its only windows (so they could never be opened) as well as the air conditioner and heating panel below them, which had to be turned on and off by flipping the switch on the circuit breaker in the hall.

It was a completely impractical setup. It was a completely impractical desk. He should never have kept it, never have gone to the trouble and expense of moving it into the apartment. But that was how my father was, sometimes: completely impractical, sentimental, impulsive.

The rest of the time, he was thoroughly pragmatic—sensible, practical, knowledgeable about how the world worked, full of good advice I couldn’t follow because I am not very practical. My father knew how to get things done, how to make things happen, how to manage.

And then he was gone, and he left us instructions.

He had been sick for five months—since December, when he’d contracted Legionnaires’ disease, a severe form of bacterial pneumonia, while on a cruise with my mother. They loved taking cruises. When they were a little younger, they would travel by air and wander the streets and museums of far-flung cities, but in my father’s late seventies, they made the shift to cruises. On the last few, they’d even stopped disembarking at the ports of call: he was eighty-three, and arthritis in his back and hips made it hard for him to walk for more than a few minutes.

On their final cruise, they made a stop in Belize, and as usual, they stayed on the ship. That evening, my father felt awful—awful enough to decide he needed to see the ship’s doctor, who promptly checked him into the infirmary. The next morning, he was in the hospital in Belize City.

Eventually, he was cured of the Legionnaires’, but his lungs never recovered from the assault. And in the course of his first hospitalization in New York—after a trip by air ambulance from Belize—the doctors discovered an aortic stenosis that meant he’d need valve replacement surgery, so that when he finally went home, the plan was to make him strong enough to withstand the surgery. It never came to pass. Over multiple hospitalizations, one long stay on the rehab floor of a nursing home, and a heart attack, he lost fifty pounds and grew weaker and weaker. On his third hospital stay, an attempt was made to put a stent into one of his coronary arteries—not a solution to his multiple problems, we were told, but something that “might help”—but even this stopgap could not be managed as the arteries were “entirely calcified—like cement.” There was nothing to be done, either for his heart or for his lungs.

My mother and brother were sure he’d recover—and why not? The team of doctors—cardiologists, pulmonologists, intensivists, and an infectious disease specialist—talked in terms of recovery. Even after my father asked for a do-not-resuscitate order (after, I believe, his third intubation, when he announced he would not go through another), no one would admit he would never be well again.

Except for me. I knew it; I felt it in my bones. Although he’d never really been sick, he’d been frail for a long time. He was sedentary and had been overweight nearly all his life, and he was diabetic, which no doubt predisposed him to the Legionnaires’ (my mother, who at eighty-one is in excellent health, must have been exposed to it, too, but she did not get sick). Still, before this illness, he was surprisingly healthy overall. He’d been hospitalized only twice—the first time in childhood, with scarlet fever, and the second time in his seventies, for just a few days, with fever and chills and malaise that never did end up being diagnosed. The decline in his health seemed sudden, and it was shocking. And I could see that it was irreversible.

My father himself did not believe this until the Saturday before his death, when he woke up early in the morning convinced that it was the day he would die. It took three more days for my mother and my brother to believe it—just short of twenty-four hours after he stopped speaking, when he had been “sleeping,” his mouth agape, hour after hour, high-flow oxygen pumping into his lungs, the feeding tube continuing to deliver nutrition overnight.

When he died, I was alone with him. I’d sent my mother home with my brother when he left for the night. She’d been there for eleven hours already. She needed to try to sleep.

Once they left, I settled in for the night with him. I dragged the recliner I’d demanded weeks before (the cardiothoracic ICU unit didn’t have one; they finally snagged one from maternity after I wouldn’t give up asking) as close to his bed as I could. I turned off all the lights but one dim one. I asked the nurse on duty to turn off all the alarms on the various monitors in the room—if she needed to hear them in the hall, I didn’t mind, but I didn’t want to hear them—and I needed her to promise that if something beeped or buzzed or shrieked (if his blood pressure dropped precipitously, for example), she wouldn’t come running with all the residents and interns, flipping on all the lights and assaulting him with more procedures, more drugs. It was too late for that, I said, and I was grateful when she agreed and promised.

When he died, I was holding his hand and talking to him—I’d been alone with him for seven or eight hours by then, talking and singing, telling him everything was going to be all right—and it was peaceful. It was easy. He took one breath, and then he did not take the next breath. And then he was gone from his body—and it was as if he’d shed it, as if, in that instant, it had become of no use to him and so he’d slipped out of it, out of his skin and bones, flesh and blood—and left the room. Left the world.

I had thought it would be hard to leave him after he died. I had thought I would find it terrible to walk away and leave him there, in room 906 at Lenox Hill, where I’d spent so many hours, so many days and weeks, with him. But it wasn’t hard at all. Even though he looked just as he’d looked the instant before—even though he smelled the same, and his hand in mine was still warm, as was his cheek when I bent to kiss it—I felt no sentimental attachment to the body he had left behind. It was only a body; he wasn’t in it—it was the shell that had once contained him. Now it had no meaning at all.

He died at 3:40 AM on Wednesday, May 14, 2014. By noon, I had found the first set of instructions. I was not in the least surprised to find them. (Indeed, as Dad would have said—as he always said, gravely, when my brother or I called with big career news or to report that our children had made the dean’s list—I expected no less.)

I was not surprised, either, by the specificity of the instructions, by the numbered list broken down, like the outlines we had to make in school, into lettered sub-lists—and then further broken down into numbered sub-sub-lists. I was a little bit surprised they were so mundane, that there was nothing of his personality in them—all he’d given us was names (attorney, accountant, stockbroker) and bank accounts and sub-lists of “important documents” and where to find them. There was a short list of small bequests—the coin collection we hadn’t known he had was to go to my daughter, a star sapphire ring he hadn’t worn in decades was to go to my brother’s youngest son, etc.—but he noted that these were iterated in his will. He was just making sure everything went exactly as he wanted it to go; he wanted to make sure we knew exactly what he wanted. That was how he was, how he’d always been.

He didn’t have to say Take care of Mom or Take care of each other or even Don’t get rid of my desk. He knew we knew all that. There was nothing that was not mundane that needed to be in his “instructions,” it occurred to me as I finished reading them. He knew we knew what he wanted.

I was also surprised, when I started going through all the stacks of papers and the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of discrete files on his computer (it turned out he did not believe in file folders, either virtually or in life), to find there were so many sets of almost-the-same instructions. I was surprised to discover there was no system to what he’d saved, that the stacks of paper weren’t organized in any way I could discern: they were simply stacks. I was even more surprised to find he’d kept junk mail and other pieces of paper that should have been discarded years ago, and that all of this was mixed in with papers we needed—important financial documents nearly at the bottom of a tall pile of advertising circulars, newspaper clippings, and marketing brochures for cruises.

I spent weeks working in the apartment, taking breaks to fly back home to Columbus and then returning to pick up where I’d left off—back and forth, again and again. I hauled out twenty trash bags’ worth of recycling and filled a huge cardboard box with papers that needed to be shredded: twenty-year-old, thirty-year-old tax returns and credit card and bank statements from accounts long closed. I disposed of broken things, unrecognizable things, thousands of dried-out rubber bands.

I found buried treasures, too. I found letters I’d written (which I had no recollection of having written) in the seventies and eighties, and I found the ankle bracelet he gave to my mother in 1947, when they were first dating (it featured two tiny connected gold hearts, one inscribed Morty and one inscribed Sheila). I found many drafts of his own writing—he’d wanted to be a writer, and there were manuscripts of two novels, a memoir, and a screenplay even my mother hadn’t known he’d written—and typed lists of the photographs he’d taken long ago when he worked for daily newspapers as a police beat photographer. I found my birth announcement; I found family photos I’d never seen; I found a family tree he’d painstakingly filled in, right up through my brother’s two grandchildren—my father’s great-grandchildren, both born after he turned eighty-three. I found copies of speeches he’d made and mementos of the many trips he and my mother had taken and cards made from cut-up shirt cardboard onto which he’d glued his own typed recipes for cocktails—the cards must have been from the fifties. And in a cabinet in the living room that no one had opened in thirty-plus years, I found the glassware necessary to measure and mix the cocktails, and two silver cigarette lighters made to be set on a coffee table, which my mother supposes must have been wedding presents she’d forgotten about. I found rosters of police contacts from the sixties; I found dozens of laminated press cards. I found the scrapbook we all thought had been lost in a flood in his father’s hardware store in Brooklyn—the scrapbook into which he’d pasted every news story and photo with his byline, every feature story he had ever published in Pictorial Living Magazine, every short comic piece (for example, “Hollow Dolly,” about the days he spent toting around a life-size grown-woman doll, taking her to restaurants and out dancing, and watching people’s reactions, and “Prohibition Is Back,” which complained about all the things one was no longer allowed to do) in Parade and Quick.

And on a bookshelf in the den, I found a set of “autograph books”—both his and my mother’s—the kind with colored pages, in which no one except a few teachers and perhaps a couple of grown-up members of the family dared to write anything heartfelt (I have two of these books myself, one from elementary school and one from junior high). Friends had written, as they always do, things like When you get old and out of shape / remember a girdle costs $3.98 and Dated till Niagara Falls or Yours till Hungary eats Turkey in Greece on China.

On the first page of his eighth-grade autograph book, there’s a set of printed questions and my father’s answers.

Favorite heroes? the book asks, and my father, age fourteen, responded in graceful cursive on the line provided: Lou Gehrig and Frank Sinatra. He filled in the blanks for “favorite author” and “favorite book” (I’d never heard of either one he named, and already I’ve forgotten), and for “favorite song” and “favorite friend.” And then there’s this—my favorite of the favorite things:

Favorite motto?

A place for everything and everything in its place, my young father wrote.

I was not surprised by the discovery that he was disorganized (anyone only glancing into the den would have known that), but I had assumed he was disorganized the way I am—too busy to get organized, to put things away properly, but still (you know) pretty much on top of things. I discard junk mail every day; I don’t print out every e-mail I send and half of the ones I receive (I can’t think of the last time I printed out an e-mail), nor the records for every financial transaction I make online, to save them forever. In stacks. Unfiled.

I don’t keep drawers full of expired credit cards, every business card anyone has ever given me, old receipts, bank statements going back to the eighties, old rubber bands and thousands of loose paper clips, or envelopes with long-defunct return addresses printed on them. I don’t keep checkbooks from accounts I closed years ago.

And I don’t have “a vault” filled to the brim. I don’t have “a vault” at all. Why did I need one when my father had one? In 1989, when I bought my house, my father said, “Send me the deed. I’ll put it in the vault.”

I said, “You have a vault? How big is it? Where is it?”

“Not like in the movies,” he said impatiently. “A safe deposit box. In the bank.”

I didn’t ask him why he didn’t call it his “safe deposit box.” He always made things sound more important, more dramatic, than they were (I do this, too). I just sent him the deed.

My mother and I went to “the vault”—the safe deposit box at Chase on the corner of York and 79th—confident that we would find the original of my father’s will, the deed to my house, the fan letter I received from the novelist James T. Farrell after I published my first short story, my parents’ birth certificates and marriage certificate, their parents’ death certificates, and other important documents listed in his instructions. As we expected, the box was full; the coin collection took up most of it. But none of those documents were there.

It’s possible, I suppose, that my father thought he’d eventually get around to separating the useful from the useless. Perhaps he thought he had all the time in the world to do that. Perhaps, although he put on a good show of preparedness—that numbered, lettered outline of instructions, repeated over and over again, with only the slightest of variations—he didn’t really think he was ever going to die. Perhaps he only acted as if he knew death was a certainty, because he knew he was supposed to act as if he knew. But he didn’t mean it; he didn’t believe it.

That’s what my brother thought—or it was one of the things he thought. We talked about it every day, and every day we changed our minds about what we thought. Except for one thing: I felt sure the missing papers were somewhere. Like he was.

I felt my father around me all the time. I could hear him in my mind, telling me what he wanted me to do whenever something difficult came up (and everything difficult that came up had to do with him, and especially with the missing documents—so this was ironic, yes), and I could see him in my mind, shaking his head, looking embarrassed the way he would when caught in a mistake of any kind, and egging me on when I scolded someone on the phone or was absurdly, immovably persistent in my demands on behalf of my mother, on behalf of him—in his honor.

It felt as if the essence of him—whatever that could mean once he was no longer in the vessel that used to contain the essence of him—was in a place I couldn’t see or touch, but that didn’t mean it was not in a place.

That was what I found myself thinking, every day.

I would not have predicted this—I would not have predicted that I would think about him this way once he was gone. Gone forever. Like the missing papers. Which had to be gone forever (They must be gone forever, I told myself, because I have looked everywhere and haven’t found them)—and yet, illogically, I kept on looking for them. I couldn’t stop. I didn’t know how to stop.

I was waiting for him to tell me to stop. For him to give me some instructions, damn it.

In early July, I made the trip to Manhattan once again. There was more work to do in the apartment, of course, but also my mother and brother and I were going to host a party in honor of what would have been my father’s eighty-fourth birthday, on July 8. My daughter flew to New York with me, and the evening we got there, as we sat with my mother at her dining room table, planning the party, I noticed that a bulb was out in the ceiling fixture. My mother noticed me noticing.

“Daddy always changed the bulbs,” she said.

“I know,” I told her. “I can do it.” I scraped my chair back. “Where do you keep the light bulbs?”

My mother began to cry. “I don’t know. I don’t know where he kept them.”

My daughter, Grace, rose to comfort her, and I said, “Don’t worry about it, Mama.” I never used to call her Mama. Mama is what my daughter calls me. “I’ll find them, OK?”

I looked in the kitchen—in all the drawers and in all the cabinets and in the broom closet. I looked in the famously cluttered den—so recently de-cluttered—even though I was sure there were no light bulbs anywhere in there since I’d already opened every drawer and cabinet and both closets and searched every bookshelf. I looked in the closet between the living room and the bedroom, where my mother keeps her vacuum cleaner and, on a shelf, a stack of board games I still hadn’t had a chance to work my way through. I looked in the linen closet—I hadn’t had a chance to get through it yet, either (I would, though, the very next day). I dragged the stepladder from the kitchen to the closet in the entryway, opposite the door to the apartment—a coat closet, but I remembered that my father used to use the high shelf as a sort of a pantry. At one time, there were boxes of pasta up there, cans of tomatoes, rolls of paper towels. I climbed up and looked—but it wasn’t a pantry anymore; it was another place to store odds and ends. There was a movie projector, seven umbrellas, a lot of baseball caps, two computer keyboards still in their boxes, an external hard drive also still in its box, and a coffee maker (ditto). Two cartons full of my mother’s college papers and notes on index cards. Seven telephones—seven! All in boxes—put back into boxes; they were old phones. There were no light bulbs.

I took out everything but the movie projector and umbrellas—I’d figure out what to do about them later. Then I closed up the stepladder and surveyed the bottom of the closet, below the row of coats and jackets hanging there. The coats and jackets could wait till tomorrow. Or the next day. But the floor of the closet was packed tight with stuff.

“I might as well finish cleaning out this closet as long as I’ve already started, OK?” I called out to my mother and daughter.

They were busy talking. They ignored me.

I sat on the floor and started pulling things out. I pulled out a heavy box filled with catalogs from Christie’s—from the years when my father was attending auctions, collecting posters. Behind it was a box of catalogs from Phillips—another auction house. A box of my mother’s psych textbooks. A shopping bag full of electrical cords. Two more phones! A pile—a great big pile—of galoshes, the old-fashioned kind you put on over your shoes. And behind the galoshes, a shiny gold shopping bag—the sort of bag you put a gift in. I dragged it out of the closet. It was full of manila envelopes.

I considered the manila envelopes.

“Mom?” I called. “I found something.”

I opened the first envelope.

I must have shrieked because my daughter came running. My mother was behind her, slower but still as fast as she could.

I’d found my father’s will.

I’d found, it turned out, everything that was supposed to have been in “the vault.” One envelope held the deed to my house and the abstract of its title. One was full of birth certificates. Several held documents my father hadn’t even listed in his instructions—his honorable discharge papers from both the Army and the Navy, his grandfather’s citizenship papers, letters, social security cards, my grandmother’s savings passbook.

Grace said, “It’s Chekhovian. Finding what’s important behind the galoshes. Isn’t it?”

And when I called my best friend, Hula—a musician who practices law part-time, who had begun filing the papers one has to file when someone dies without a will—she said, “So that was the vault! The gold shopping bag.”

I will never know what my father had in mind. Perhaps at one time he actually had all the documents in a different safe deposit box, a bigger one, and then he closed that one and meant to open another. Perhaps, what with his coin collection, there was no room in the new box and the bank didn’t have another one available, so he stashed all the important papers behind the galoshes in a gold shopping bag—a safe place, he must have thought, a place no one would ever look—until such time as the bank had another box available (though why he would have put the coin collection in the box instead of the documents is hard to guess; perhaps the coins were so heavy, he was loathe to drag them back up to the apartment after dragging them over to the bank). He put the documents in the shopping bag, and the shopping bag in the closet behind the galoshes, and then forgot about it. That must have been what happened.

But who knows? I’ll never know for sure. And it doesn’t matter, does it? It only matters that I found them—all the documents his instructions promised I would find. I knew they had to be somewhere. I knew they weren’t really gone.

About the Author

Michelle Herman

Michelle Herman’s new collection of essays, Like A Song, is due out in March 2015, and a book for children, A Girl’s Guide to Life, is due out in December 2014.

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