Assholes & string puppets tells of the journey of 3 siblings settling their mother’s estate as co-executors and beneficiaries, while dealing with skeletons in the closet and the coercive demands of one co-executor. It just happens to be my story.
My brother wants to paint the entire house himself. Wade told me today, he’s starting this weekend. How it will raise the value of the house when we sell it. He’s unconcerned that there’s still two-thirds of the house to be emptied, expensive furniture we’ll have estate liquidators remove anyway. I suggest we hold off on painting until we have more stuff donated or thrown out, but he says I’m being stupid.
¨Let’s try to handle one room at a time. Not only do I live here, but I also work from home.¨ I sent Wade a long message on Messenger ‘cause he isn’t reading his emails. How we need to gain agreement from Emile before making changes to Mom’s estate; how putting the entire house in chaos while we’re decluttering and making repairs just doesn’t make sense. Wade gets angry when faced with a wall of text and threatens to get his own lawyer. He doesn’t see the reason for my interference. He really wants to paint. When I mention this interaction to my closest friends, they say, “That’s ridiculous…” It’s only when he’s pressured to respond to our lawyer’s messages that I realize something’s wrong. Wade doesn’t want to read long email threads and piles of financial statements. I was preventing him from contributing in the way he most wanted. He came to me with other suggestions, overcompensating. I could see, how he felt he had disappointed me. That, yet again, somehow his best hadn’t been good enough. When the realization sunk in, I cried for three days.
Boulders in the backyard I had difficulty climbing when I was little, seem so small now. Neighbourhood saplings of my childhood have become thick-trunked, wise with age. In the expanse of green, our yard looks enormous next to the neighbour’s, with our big rectangle of lawn green next to the sparkling turquoise rectangles embedded in theirs. I’m unsure how I’d almost been convinced to keep our mother’s house, a sizable plot Wade nor I could possibly manage. It’s the only house Wade has ever lived in. Before my mother died, we’d fight about this. Mom always took his side. Dismissed as the youngest, the girl, the one who couldn’t possibly know anything. I had always resented being the useless girl. Now, all I wanted was to be that useless girl again.
¨Emile said he’ll have his lawyer send us a letter… to start the process.¨ I said when I’d hung up the phone. ¨He wants to sell the house.¨ When Emile had called Aunt Shirlyn, with whom Wade and I had been having Christmas dinner, he refused to talk with Wade, asking to speak with me instead. ¨It only made sense to keep the house when we couldn’t find Emile.¨ I said. Emile hadn’t come to the funeral. It was the first time we’d spoken in over 15 years. Wade is offended by Emile’s refusal to deal with him, the eldest. His feelings of betrayal morph into anger, and escalate in our aunt’s living room amongst three generations of extended family. My cousin and aunt only intervened as the decibel levels reached intolerable heights.
We involve lawyers because each of us wants what we can’t have. Wade remains angry because Emile and I don’t see the benefit in keeping the house. Emile begins to treat settling our mother’s estate like a hostile corporate takeover. He relentlessly demands we sell our share to him for significantly less than it’s worth, months before we have the legal authority to sell it. Emile refuses to come to the house, sending his secretary instead (masquerading as his fiancé), to give me a phone I didn’t ask for. When he began to call thirty times a day, I switched it off.
I pour over articles online about people facing permanent financial ruin from liabilities incurred in poor executor decisions. Yet, when Emile demands we renounce ourselves as executors, we respectfully decline. I sift through piles of mom’s financial papers, compile lawyers’ briefings, lists of assets and estimated values; cancel credit cards, subscriptions, her driver’s licence and insurances; track down pension statements, tax slips, medical and charitable receipts. I fail to convince Wade of the need to stay on top of the estate paperwork, to avoid Emile trying to have have us removed as executors. Wade reveals himself to be more productive with dewdrop shade white paint.
When I convince Wade selling the house is in his best interest, we decide to share a lawyer. I’m advised we didn’t need an expensive lawyer, just one who knew estates really well. The law firm was referred by a lawyer I know in New York as I haven’t any legal contacts in Toronto. In their boardroom, I feel like a 1970’s secretary and convince myself it’s because of the office decor. Wade positions himself as being in charge. His persona is a mask, concealing how he hasn’t read any of the financial documents or the lawyer’s emails. I’m surprised to find myself invisible in these meetings. Our lawyer belittles my efforts. Later, I wonder why I go along with it, after my voice is drowned out of all decisions. When I confront our lawyer about representing both voices equally, he tells me, if my interests aren’t aligned with Wade’s, he’ll have to drop our file.
“Where’s your mom?” the gruffness in her voice is heard from a distance when Wade answers the landline.
“May I ask who’s calling?”
“It’s Janet. Put your mom on the phone.”
“Janet, I’m sorry… she passed away last night,” said Wade.
“Wha– She daeeeaaad?”
“Yes. She passed away.”
“I’ll call you back.” Click.
I later realize Mom may have agreed to drive Janet to church the morning she passed. Wade refused to answer the landline after that. A constant barrage of calls followed from mom’s elderly Caribbean church friends, who weren’t shy with their demands and criticisms. How we don’t answer the phone during the day; how they weren’t notified in time for them to attend the funeral; and how I must send them all pictures of her. When I don’t acquiesce, they tell me how our mother had described her children as heathens, the complete opposite of the fine church-going lady my mother was; how I must accept the Lord, or else. I regret that it took me several months before I had mom’s phone line disconnected.
Gold trimmed, moss green, fine bone china is piled inside the glass hutch in the room he begins to prep for painting. Wade has been painting for a month. Five rooms are in disarray. None are complete. I have difficulty functioning in this amount of chaos. Wade dismisses my concern over mom’s fine china. He sees nothing wrong with the house being in this much disarray.
“You should be grateful, I’m doing this for all three of us.” Wade says.
“No one asked you to paint.” I say.
The burden of knowledge begins to weigh on me. I’m unsure how to confirm my suspicions. I want to confront Wade about the patterns I see, but I really don’t. I am forced to by an envelope that arrives in the mail. It outlines a pension benefit option to our mother’s estate for a disabled dependant.
¨Not sure why these conversations always fall into my lap.¨ I say. Sitting at the kitchen table, Wade looks at me blankly, waiting. “You’re showing signs of someone who struggles with dyslexia. Are you on disability?”
“Have you been diagnosed?”
After Wade does his own research, he asks how I figured this out, when he himself had never suspected anything like this. Our respective investigations most clearly point to signs of an underlying disability, undiagnosed well into adulthood. I don’t tell him it’s noticeably impeding his productivity; how it’s likely to be something more serious than dyslexia given that he’s lived with mom his entire life and still works in the same job he had in high school. I don’t betray my fears that his welfare will become my responsibility. Instead, I tell him if he were diagnosed with a disability, mom’s pension could go to him entirely. Wade’s physician agrees he might have an underlying disability, but it will cost a significant amount of time and money to conduct the proper diagnosis, neither of which Wade says he can afford right now. Without a formal diagnosis, my opinion means nothing.
Emile demands we pay rent to the estate and again pressures us to sell him our share of the house. Our reasons for denying his request again fall on deaf ears. Emile’s continuous demands began to inflame Wade, causing his priorities to shift away from executor duties. I develop charts and timelines of all the resources we need to ready the house for sale. Contents removers, external painters, estate liquidators, cleaners, stagers, landscapers, all based on the recommendations of two realtors who gave property valuations for the probate application. Based on the wording of the Will, all co-executors must agree on costs to be reimbursed from the estate. Emile develops a pattern of refusing all costs, then complaining about the slow pace, without seeing the connection. Due to his unwillingness to come to the house, he doesn’t understand the resources required to empty a house of this size nor ready the property for sale.
“Clearly your lawyer has yet to inform you, we are under no obligation to sell the house to you, and likely never will be,” I say in a letter I have forwarded by our lawyer. I resort to writing lengthy memos to Emile when our lawyer refuses to relay any of the issues that concern me. I say he can’t continue to rely on me to do this work without additional resources and include my suspicions of Wade’s underlying disability, couched in the pension options. I threaten to move back downtown, saying, with Wade left to oversee things, the house is unlikely to be ready to sell for well over a year. It didn’t immediately dawn on me, I couldn’t leave Wade alone in the house without putting the value of the key estate asset at risk. As I sat with this feeling, I became acutely aware, this wouldn’t be the case with dyslexia.
I’d always felt like my family played a huge game of smoke and mirrors. A million details and conversations over the course of my life, began to make sense. While mine are nowhere to be found, I find Wade and Emile’s old report cards while emptying mom’s desk drawers. Wade’s showed visible signs of a problem in elementary school, particularly in English, alongside consistently high grades in everything else. I didn’t need the report cards to confirm my parents were aware there was a problem, though. Teaching in inner-city schools, my father was known for his ability to take any child with a development or social problem, and figure out what was wrong and what was required to set them on a better path, educational or otherwise. Parents demanded their kids be put in his class. My uncles, also teachers, marvelled at his ability and the subsequent roles within the school board this garnered him. In hindsight, I wondered if this likely came about because he had a child at home with a problem he couldn’t solve. All of this makes rational sense, but I am unable to maintain rationality. I am angry. Angry at my mother who hid this. Who, for twenty-five years after my father’s passing, abandoned any effort to diagnose this. Over time my hatred dissolves. I begin to see my mother as weak and pathetic, not worthy of respect or hatred. And yet, here I was, cleaning up her mess.
I organized the pickup of donations in successive rounds. Sorting clothing, coats, shoes, luggage; taking down and laundering curtains, bedding and linens. Boxing important family documents. Eventually I enlist friends, relatives, neighbours and mom’s church friends to help. I begin to separate out the religious books to be sent to missionary organizations. I marvel at the cross-section of child psychology, theology and primary education books, and the filing cabinets full of teaching materials, I’d never thought to look through. For a fleeting moment, I wonder if this collection might be useful to someone, before I abandon the thought and randomly throw everything in boxes for recycling. I later pull out binders from a recycling bin full of papers I’d thoughtlessly dumped. Meticulously handwritten, are pages and pages of my father’s old sermons. I am surprised mom had kept them all these years and decide to keep them for my uncle.
In a letter from his lawyer, Emile asks for several lists. Summaries of bank transactions with bank statements and cancelled cheques, utilities incurred to-date and all the bills, assets to be appraised, tax records for the last two years, and a summary of the current year’s tax receipts for the accountant. In the same letter, he refutes the validity of my time records and expenses, refuses to agree to landscaping costs, and demands we sell him our share of the house, otherwise buy out his share. Two weeks later, despite an email advising documentation will be forthcoming, we receive a letter from Emile’s lawyer threatening to take legal action over the delay in my response. Subsequent letters began to demand responses to new requests within 3-6 days. He asserts the delays in readying the house for sale incur more costs to the estate and should be carried exclusively by Wade and myself, in addition to the rent he says we owe the estate.
¨I’m not entirely sure where this tone demanding even more urgency comes from, especially when it’s further brokered by you. Who do you work for?¨ I pick a fight with my lawyer when, under pressure from Emile, he suggests I’m not fulfilling my role as an executor expediently enough. He suggests I retain alternate legal counsel.
Dining room furniture spilled into the living room and hallway. An oven purchased just before mom passed, sat by the front door. A round coffee table rolled on its side, leaned against an armchair in the family room, amidst a pile of boxes in front of the widescreen tv. For months, Wade said he can install it. He removes the old oven and decides to do some carpentry work on the kitchen cabinet before he installs the new one. Both ovens sit in our front hallway for months, amidst the other rooms which remain in chaos. I mentioned this poses a hazard should there be an emergency.
“I already told you, I’m doing this on my schedule, not yours,” Wade says. Decibel levels escalate each time Wade begins painting yet another room. My insistence on finishing one room before starting on another is incomprehensible to him.
¨I need you to finish SOMETHING,¨ I yelled back. Wade stops working on everything for three weeks. He resumes the work just as he had before. I realized it’s not unwillingness on his part. This is the only way he seems able to approach it.
When the dining room is nearly finished being painted, we pulled the carpet up to see the condition of the original hardwood floors. Wooden slats the carpeting had been stapled to the floor with, are pulled out of the floorboards and tossed in the middle of the room. I hadn’t noticed until I stepped on one with my bare feet. A teacup from mom’s gold-trimmed fine bone china set, shatters in a million shards when I drop it.
Wade begins to paint the kitchen, piling all the kitchen furniture into the dining room amidst the staple-ridden wood slats and rolls of carpeting. I refrain from saying anything.
We receive a letter from Emile’s lawyer, saying the courthouse has told him they will grant probate in a week, something our lawyer already advised us of when we filed the application. Emile demands we list the house for sale immediately, saying any sale can be conditional of probate being granted. Looking across the house at all the furnishings piled in rooms they’re not meant to be in, I note that not one area of the house is safely navigable.