BOULDER, Colo. — Marilyn Zurek wrote one:
"There have been times that were very hard in my life ... but we always came through and after a couple of those times, I just expected that I would always come out the other end of bad times OK. ... don't waste a minute holding on to grudges or feeling sorry for yourself. Sometimes you can't help it, but let it go as soon as you can. Every minute is precious."
John Eifler, 87, is still writing his:
"It is my personal belief, and I cannot prove it, that people too often let themselves get old and less self-reliant a little at a time until there is not much they can do for themselves."
These bits of wisdom are contained in their ethical wills, documents that are meant to complement the passing on of material items.
"The idea is to think about what your life has meant, what you would like family and friends to remember," says Kim Mooney, the director of community education at HospiceCare of Boulder and Broomfield Counties. "It's an opportunity to leave a legacy that has nothing to do with physical property."
The wills vary as much as the people who make them, she says. The ethical will of Zurek, who was Mooney's mother, was 1-1/4 pages long and ended with a chipper "Adios Amigos." In a move that was a bit like attending her own funeral, she sent the letter out about a month before she died of pancreatic cancer, which she knew would be terminal. Before she died, she got many heartfelt responses from old friends.
"What a shame if she had died not realizing how many people she had influenced," Mooney says.
At HospiceCare, Mooney periodically teaches classes on making ethical wills. She says the most important thing is that they accurately reflect the people who write them.
One man wrote an 80-page document, a history based on things he thought were important such as stories his grandfather used to tell him and a family recipe for brownies.
Another, an engineer, wrote a will that laid out exactly what he wanted to say in 10 bullet points.
"(I knew) his family was going to love it," Mooney says.
Occasionally she encounters people who are angry and want to make sure their families know it. Mooney does her best to steer them in another direction, reminding them that the will is something that might be remembered for 100 years. She gently points out that the anger is "only one slice of their letting go. We want to keep that in context," she says.
On reflection, most people do not want their lasting legacy to be, "You've always disappointed me," Mooney says.
One woman, for example, was full of anger after a nasty divorce, which had divided the family and left some members estranged from one another. Mooney, who is quick to say that the classes aren't a therapy group, nevertheless helped the woman see that the value that underlay her anger was the importance of family. After a couple of drafts, the woman was able to say in her will, "I hope you all find your way back to each other."
Mooney suggests that people write ethical wills in every decade of their lives as a sort of snapshot of what they've learned and what they value.
"That will help open up a way of living and seeing yourself that can't help but benefit you when you are thinking about dying," she says.
David Perlick, a local attorney whose firm specializes in estate planning, says he has been encouraging clients to write ethical wills for more than a decade. He says the wills can take many forms. Sometimes they are a list of dos and don'ts for their lives. Others are more personal and reflective, he says.
Sometimes the will can serve as a values check for the person writing it.
"It doesn't have to be a looking back. It can be a way to write a mission statement," he says. "If you're wanting to give your kids ... a road map, you look at your (own) life and say, 'Hey, am I on that map? Am I on that course?' I think we all need a compass."
Eifler began making his ethical will, entitled "So! This is John Angus Eifler," in 2002. The will, which has eight chapters, is a work in progress, although he hasn't added to it since 2009.
In it, Eifler includes poetry from his wife of 49 years, who died in 1998, as well as pictures of the marquetry artwork he does, recipes he has created, such as "John's Healthful Cookies," family photos and stories, as well as the occasional nugget of advice and reflection set off by a bullet point.
At one point he writes: "I really do deeply believe that the true basis for any meaningful relationship is friendship. Friendship must be the foundation upon which love stands. It is a terrible shame that some marriages never develop into or start from a true friendship. It is a disaster that we never really developed that friendship in our marriage in all of 49 years. Unfortunately, I believe, love is too demanding and not easily satiated, whereas friendship is more tolerable and forgiving of shortcomings."
He admits he had some shortcomings himself.
"I didn't try to paint it like I'm always Mr. Nice," he says. "We all go through stages in life we are not so proud of."
His life has not been without hardships. A couple of years after he and his wife moved from Paterson, N.J., so he could attend the University of Colorado, they lost a baby boy. Two of their sons later died from causes related to alcoholism. The book is for their two daughters and son, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
"I'm thinking it will give them a greater understanding," Eifler says. "(They will think), 'Maybe I'm not wrong. Maybe it will all work out. Maybe it's something I got from my great-grandfather.'"
One thing he admits that he's always sought, but has not quite attained, is a sense of inner peace.
"It's an ongoing process. It never stops," he says, even at age 87.
Eifler says one of these days he'll start writing on the will again, starting a Volume II.
"It will not refer to the first one. If there's a conflict, so be it," he says. "That's life. It changes all the time."