x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Hatched, matched and dispatched

There are several good reasons to make a will when you have a family.

It is a truism piped out by a blustering uncle, a lacklustre Hollywood cliché delivered over sentimental music: the only thing certain when you are born is that you are going to die. The writer Samuel Beckett put it better. In his play Waiting for Godot, one of the characters says: "They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more." This sentence homes in like a laser on life's quivering uncertainty, its fleetingness and, above all, that living is just another name for the process of dying.

Birth tugs death out from the shadowy dimness of distant, future events in interesting ways. Perhaps thinking about beginnings brings endings into sharper focus. Certainly I have found myself thinking about death more often since Astrid was born.   Selfish and self-absorbed, I had never before understood life insurance. Why, I would ask the sales agent on the other end of the phone, do I care about all that stuff? I will, after all, be dead when the benefits begin.

Life insurance suddenly becomes more relevant when you have children, although I still doubt that I shall ever sign on that particular dotted line. Two-thirds of parents - Lucy and myself included - have no will. I've never felt as though I owned enough to justify one. Apportioning a meagre set of possessions and doling out custody of the anecdotes has always seemed pointless. Besides, most countries have rules to deal with people who die "intestate" - without a will. Any excuse not to think about my last croak.

I recently realised, however, that a will is important for parents of young children because it is an opportunity to designate a legal guardian. It helps to prevent disputes over who will take care of your children if you both die before they grow up. It makes sense and I have started to investigate how to do it. Companies have created computer programs to guide people through the process of writing a will. I am going to buy a book.

The computer program is probably quicker and easier, but there is something about the process of writing a will that seems to demand the authority of the printed word. It cries out for musty, leather-bound tomes, parchments, pots of ink and quill pens. Wills can stir up trouble as well as help to avoid it. William Shakespeare infamously left his "second-best bed" to his wife Anne Hathaway. It was her only mention in the document. Much has been written over the centuries about what seems to be a deliciously poetic snub.

The most popular theory points to a grave end to an unhappy marriage, although others have suggested that it was not a slight. The "best bed" could, according to customs at the time, have been one reserved for guests and the bed referred to in the will, therefore, simply the one the couple slept in. The will of Charles Millar, a Canadian lawyer who died in 1926, led to what became known as the Great Stork Derby. With no one to leave his estate to, Millar decided to bequeath most of it to the woman in Toronto who gave birth to the most children in the 10 years following his death. In 1936, four women, all of whom had given birth to nine children, each inherited $125,000. Death breeds life. Wills may claim to be the final word but they are not necessarily the end.

Astrid can grasp objects, clap her hands and pull herself up to a standing position. All these developments are normal for a five-month old baby. The strange thing is that I am watching her progress on a computer screen. Astrid is in England at the moment and I am in Abu Dhabi. I phone most evenings and watch her lurch towards the web camera and try to eat the computer. For her it is an early introduction to the screen-based world we live in. Like the disembodied voices of radio transmissions in the 1930s and the black and white images on television sets in the 1960s, interacting with the world through a computer screen is one of the defining features of our era.

It will quickly become normal for Astrid. It will simply be part of her life. What technological advancements, I wonder, will occur during her adulthood? What inventions will influence the way she perceives the world?