a hand writing a love letter

I’m Leaving My Legacy in the Greeting Card Store

I’m an Elder Law attorney by training. While I was still practicing law, I routinely met with clients to draft their wills. Their assets often didn’t matter - they wanted to provide some semblance of a script for a postmortem play that had no director. Organizing one’s estate is almost always tremendously messy, often because the people managing the estate are also managing unpredictable ripples and waves of grief, and because an estate encompasses the entirety of a life. Even the most sparse of material existence must be tended to and resolved.

Getting my affairs in order

Because of this training, I was fortunate to have a will and all of my advance directives in place prior to my diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. This was a small relief for me, as I felt somewhat secure knowing that my financial estate (what little will be left after years of medical bills) was properly documented. However, I was still left with the task of providing some sort of legacy for my family, especially my son. My little boy had just turned two years old when I was diagnosed - he’s now almost three and a half and is only now starting to form concrete memories of events and people. However, little brains are incredibly plastic, and these memories are constantly discarded for new ones - as an adult, he will probably not have many concrete memories from this point in his life, and may not remember much prior to kindergarten. As I am nearly 18 months post-diagnosis with a disease that carries an average life expectancy of 2-3 years, I lose significant sleep thinking about what sort of legacy I am leaving behind for my son.

Writing my legacy

Writing letters to your young child is a popular suggestion and a lovely one at that. However, I struggle to sit down and compose myself sufficiently to get those thoughts down on paper. How does one draft letters to their baby, knowing that those words are reserved for the time that they will no longer have you to turn to? I know what I want to say but can’t bring myself to say it. The act of transcribing those thoughts, those words, those feelings feels like a betrayal to my living self. Much like the difficulty of drafting a will, I struggle to plan for a future that I likely will not have. I’m paralyzed by the monumental task of forming the parts my legacy, and then I become paralyzed by my inaction, frozen by the anxiety that I have done nothing. Eventually, I created an email address for my son, intending to email him stories and pictures of our daily life. Email feels like a more natural, less burdensome mode of communication, and thought that I might find more success this way. But I still couldn’t bring myself to write down any of the multitudes of messages drafted in my head.

A way to express myself

Ultimately, I realized that, much like the contents of one’s will or estate, the legacy one leaves is not bound by what someone should do, but by the way that we each feel most comfortable expressing ourselves. Although I would be sad if I never compiled those sweet memories for my son if the act of compiling is causing me undue stress, then doing so may not be a worthwhile expenditure of my energy. Last week, I was waiting for my train at Grand Central Terminal, heading home to my husband and little boy, and found myself browsing in a card shop, one of my favorite activities. I love sending cards to family and friends and often maintain a stockpile for future occasions in my desk. Then it hit me: why not write cards for my son? It felt right - something I would do for him regardless of my health, and relieved the pressure of drafting lengthy letters or emails. Almost immediately, I let out a sigh of relief as the stress I had carried began to lessen. As I did so, a card caught my eye: it was subtle and introspective and perfect for my boy, the perfect first brick for the path of my legacy.

Editor’s Note: We are extremely saddened to share that on Sunday, March 29, 2020, Emily Garnett passed away. We know that Emily's advocacy efforts continue to reach many. She will be deeply missed.

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