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Writing My Will Called for an Ice Cream Sundae

The former president of HBO Documentary Films discusses end-of-life planning


(Editor’s Note: This conversation previously appeared on the PBS NewsHour site and features Next Avenue 2017 Influencer in Aging Sheila Nevins.)

Judy Woodruff:

A change of tune now.

For 38 years, Sheila Nevins served as president of HBO Documentary Films. She resigned from that role last year. Nevins will continue to produce documentaries for HBO and for others. She is also an author, having written a book of essays, You Don’t Look Your Age…and Other Fairy Tales.

And, tonight, she offers her Humble Opinion on preparing for the end.

Sheila Nevins:

I had to write a will today, mine, or at least revise an old boilerplate version.

I had written that one years ago, when dying was for other people. It was different now. My lawyer was kind and gentle, no kid either. He helped me navigate the eventual disposal of my very self and all that I had acquired through years of toil and laborious sacrifice.

It was odd selecting various body parts for possible organ donations. Now, I am a very giving person when the hat is passed, but disposing of my corneas, my kidneys, my heart all seemed exceedingly generous, even for me.

I simply checked yes next to the give box. Yes, indeed, I said, and quickly turned the page.

I was then to divide my small holdings, giving everything upon my death or incapacitation to my son, a son who never returns my calls. He will return this one when it happens. At least he will know it’s not me.

Some of my more psychically inclined friends think we will always be in touch. I think I won’t tell my boy that there’s even a doubter’s chance that such communication might occur.

Then came the question of my remains, my ashes, to be exact. I requested cremation. I don’t cook and never have, but, fortunately, there are other people who do. Was I to be sprinkled, boxed, buried or dusted off? I decided to leave this decision to my heirs. I simply couldn’t make this judgment call, and I was somewhat relieved that I would never have to witness this familial event.

Most decisions en famille have historically broken down into serious squabbles. I won’t be there. I smiled. There are certainly some advantages to my non-beingness.

It then came time to sign and have witnessed this game plan for my exit. Two seemingly teenage legal assistants bolted into the office and witnessed, without any evidence of pity, my farewell manifesto. They were young and hopefully foolish, and signed as witnesses on the line with unwrinkled, unfreckled hands.

They seemed anxious to get on with it, to get me over, so they could go to lunch and continue with their lives. I thanked them, without meaning it at all. How dare they be so cavalier about observing my termination? Time would pay them back. Of this, I was sure.

I then bid adieu to my sympathetic, empathetic lawyer. And he walked me out and asked me if I found it a relief to get my lands in order. Feeling medieval, I agreed it was a great relief, responding by rote.

Frankly, it was hideous.

Across the street from the scene of my imminent demise was an ice cream creamery called Cold Stone. Truth. I entered full joie de vivre and ordered with abandon, possibly my last supper, an M&M sundae with hot fudge and peanut butter ice cream topped with a mountain of whipped cream.

I didn’t need to fit into anything now, really, ashes or body. The coffins I know are one-size-fits-all.

However dark the day had been, it lit up with this ice cream fiesta. Nothing could match this pleasure. No one was going to take this taste away from me. I wasn’t giving away a morsel of my morsel. It was mine.

And then, as I left, I noted they offered packed ice cream to go. And I thought of my little 35-year-old baby boy. And so I took some home for him. The same combo. I would just drop it off secretly, place it in his freezer. I’m pretty sure no one will do something like this for him once I’m gone.

But maybe it won’t even matter. Even if he never calls, even if he never calls to thank me this time, I will always love him more than life itself.

Judy Woodruff:

Sheila Nevins, you have given us all a lot to think about as we prepare for what is next.

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