What I Learned From My Father’s Death

I can still remember getting the call from the hospital about my father, who was being treated for terminal liver duct cancer. The voice on the other side said the words “ICU,” “unconscious,” and then asked the question, “Do you know what his wishes are?”

From the other room, I could hear my six-week old daughter cooing. I opened my mouth, but no words came out. How was I supposed to decide whether my father should live or die?

I don’t remember what I said. What I do remember is wishing like hell that I wasn’t in this position. Because my mother is mentally ill and unable to competently make decisions, and because I have no brothers or sisters, the decision to continue life support or to opt for palliative care was mine alone. My father had left no living will or health care proxy explicitly outlining his wishes in the event he became incapacitated or who was authorized to make those decisions.

Even if he did regain consciousness, he wouldn’t have long to live. The cancer had spread to his surrounding organs and was inoperable. A pulmonary embolism, or blood clot, in his lung left him gasping for air. I decided to take him off the ventilator and withdraw his feeding tube. He was given a morphine drip to control whatever pain he might feel.

My father died a few days later, never having regained consciousness, and I was left to figure out what do next. We need a will, I thought. He had mentioned one a few weeks ago, so I drove to my childhood home and began digging through his file cabinet. After about 10 minutes, I discovered a legal-sized envelope from a law firm. This must be it. But when I opened the flap and pulled the papers out, my heart sank. It was a draft of a will. He had not signed it.

When someone dies without a will, it’s known as dying intestate. Basically, it is up to the state to decide how the property and assets will be distributed to the beneficiaries. This is known as the probate process. It takes a long time and the court costs are paid by the estate, which means less money for the beneficiaries. In this case, me and my mother.

These memories came flooding back to me while I was reading Diana and Liz Welch’s The Kids Are All Right. Told in alternating voices of the siblings, the memoir recounts the story of four kids who, within the course of a few years, lose their father in a car crash and their mother to cancer. After their father’s death, the family is hounded by bankruptcy lawyers intent on collecting on the hefty debt the father left behind. Later, after the mother succumbs to cancer, the kids learn that she never specified in her will who they would live with after her death. As a result, the kids are dispersed to different family friends, and their lives take heart-wrenching turns before they are able, in early adulthood, to come together again.

Why hadn’t Mom specified what would happen to us after she died? the Welch kids wondered. The answer: she believed to the end that she could beat this thing.

I can’t help asking a similar question of my father.  How could he leave me with such a mess? Without a will I had no access to any money. I borrowed money from my father-in-law to cover my Dad’s funeral expenses (the kids in the memoir had to rely on an uncle to pay for their mother’s burial costs at the cemetery), and I paid for my mother’s COBRA health insurance with my savings.

Eventually, I hired a lawyer, went to probate court, and got appointed as Administrator so that I could start paying the bills. But it didn’t have to be like this. The mother in “The Kids Are All Right” at least had the presence of mind to create a trust fund for her children, ensuring that their education was taken care of.

My husband and I decided never to let our daughter go through what the Welch siblings and I endured. Several months after my father’s death, we went to a lawyer and had health care proxies, living wills, and wills drawn up designating an Administrator for the estate and Guardian for our little girl.

My daughter is an only child, so she won’t have siblings to rely on, but at least if anything should happen to me and my husband, she’ll know that we cared enough to spare her the crushing paperwork and anguish that accompanies an unexpected and unplanned death.

This post is inspired by the book, “The Kids are All Right” by Diana and Liz Welch, with Amanda and Dan Welch. I received a complimentary copy of “The Kids Are All Right” as a member of the Left to Write Book Club. All comments and opinions of the book are my own, and I did not receive any compensation, monetary, or otherwise, for this post.*