“At the next appointment, they want a copy of his living will and healthcare proxy,” my sister said.
My sister, Lisa, has been doing an amazing job in the last few months helping my father process and manage his prostate cancer diagnosis. She’s been making — and pretty much taking him to — all his appointments, asking questions of the doctors, taking notes, and making sure everything that is supposed to get done actually gets done.
“I think I have it from when he got sick in 2007,” I said. “Let me check the paperwork. And, while we’re at it, I’ll see if everything else is in order.”
Division of duties among siblings is an interesting thing. For the luckiest of us, it comes somewhat naturally and, of course, equitably. In our case, my sister seems to have taken over the caretaker role, while I seem to have taken on the executor role (as in handling the business side of that which eventually befalls us all).
In 2007, when my father suffered a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm while he was on vacation in Las Vegas, it seemed like he wouldn’t recover. At that point, there was no paperwork of any sort in place. Luckily, when he did make progress, we had the opportunity to process a Power of Attorney so I could handle his bills and, when we were back home in New Jersey, a Will and Living Will/Healthcare proxy. When I mentioned to my sister that I had to check the paperwork, this was this file I was looking for.
Luckily I found it, and so was able to provide the document in question. But I also wanted to review all the wishes expressed in all the papers to make sure they were still what my father wanted. In a coincidence, right around this time, the library in my town — which regularly features interesting speakers and other programs — announced it was having an elder law and estate planning lawyer deliver a lecture on the topic and answer questions. I knew I had to go.
In attendance at the session were me (in my mid-40s) along with about two dozen folks in their 70s and 80s. Though I felt a bit out of place, I leveraged the opportunity to plunge in with question around substance and process:
- What kind of information did I need about my father’s accounts, insurance policies and other properties?
- What does an executor do?
- What kinds of documents should be created while someone is living to prepare for their death>
- What’s the order of what’s done upon death? Where do I go? What do I need?
This stuff, I will call, the business of death, and it’s got nothing to do with the fact that you just lost someone who was very dear to your heart. Nonetheless, it cannot be avoided (the lawyer said all wills in New Jersey must be probated by the court). And I’m the kind of person who, knowing the freight train I’m on will eventually hit a mountain, wants to at least put on his seatbelt.
So attending this session, getting the necessary paperwork done, and making sure all involved are on the same page about what’s going to happen, are all part of putting that seatbelt on. Unfortunately, this seatbelt cannot be fastened without the help of the person in question. In this case, my dad.
In 2007, when we got back from Las Vegas, where I had flown to be with him during his recovery, I pushed my father to get the documents prepared. Now that it seems time for a review, I’m pushing again. I brought the papers to my sister’s house during one of our visits, and told my sister and father we were going out onto the porch to go over some things.
I took out the documents and we went through them one by one. I made sure what was in them was still relevant and in agreement with my father’s wishes. I asked my sister to get a HIPAA authorization done so family members (especially her) had a legal right to interact with my father’s physicians on his behalf; and I asked my father to develop a comprehensive spreadsheet for me that listed all his accounts (including banking, brokerage, credit cards) and insurance policies with organization name, phone number, account number, username, password and beneficiary (where applicable) for each.
I even asked him to call the funeral home and cemetery where he wanted his services held to find out about prearranging and prepaying (another suggestion of the estate lawyer) for them.
As we all know, there is a care side of healthcare and a business side of healthcare. We all know millions of people go bankrupt and probably get a whole lot sicker dealing with that business side — just try to straighten out any issue with any insurance company and you know what I mean. Of course, there is also a business side to death — a business side that cannot be avoided, only made more painful and stressful by refusing to deal with it before the train hits the mountain.
I could tell my father wasn’t too thrilled with these conversations or the assignments I gave him, but maybe the fact that I’m trying to take care of business, no matter how painful, makes him feel a little proud of me. I think I’ll be proud of my boys if, someday, they do the same.