Some Parting Advice

| September / October 2005

Interest endures in the ancient tradition of writing "ethical wills"

Karen Russell's first husband, Michael Press, often left her notes -- in her shoes, inside a cereal box. She was likely to pick up the toilet seat and find a short, irreverent poem. A few months after Press died in 1982 at age 29, the victim of a drunk driver, Russell was cleaning her guest bathroom when she found a piece of paper covered with his tiny script at the bottom of a Kleenex box. It was not one of his gags, but a letter that began: "You, Karen, are a special jewel in the universe." Press had composed the note expecting to watch his wife live out her dreams, but what he planted under the tissues turned out to be his last testament to her. "Never doubt yourself, for you possess marvelous talents," he had written.

"It was an amazing connection to him, this one last communication," says Russell, who founded the nonprofit National Grief Support Services more than a decade ago to honor her late husband's memory. "In that moment, I realized how powerful it would be if I could bring that comfort to other people."