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Illustration by Shout

My Father’s Final Gift

When it came to preparing for the end of his life, my father planned for the worst, knowing that would be best for me.

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It was June in Arizona, and it was hot inside my dad’s kitchen. The whole place smelled musty, the way old cabins do, and I watched as a swath of sunlight coming through the window illuminated lazy plumes of dust. My thoughts felt as clouded and untethered as the drifting specks. I had flown in from Denver the day before and driven more than 100 miles from Phoenix to collect some of my father’s things and bring them to the hospital, where he lay in a medically induced coma.

It had all happened so fast. I’d received a midnight call from a neurosurgeon in Phoenix—the same one who had done a fairly routine surgery to mend a break in my dad’s cervical spine a few weeks earlier. Somehow, the physician said, my father had accidentally undone the surgery, leaving two screws and a metal plate floating in his neck. The doctor explained that he had operated emergently on my dad, who would be under a heavy fentanyl drip—and a halo—until he stabilized.

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Although my parents had been divorced since I was two years old, my mother was there to help me that afternoon in Dad’s cabin. Between coaching me through decisions like which of his T-shirts to pack and whether or not I should bring his reading glasses, she happened upon a navy blue three-ring binder, with a cover page that read “Last Will and Testament, Power of Attorney & Living Will for Larry Forsythe,” in his bedroom.

He had never told me about the binder, but my name graced nearly every page within it. On a durable financial power of attorney. On a durable medical power of attorney. On a living will. And on his last will and testament. My typically nonconformist dad had prepared a collection of legal files that would become my bible in the ensuing months.

During the roughly 16 weeks he was hospitalized, I would reread, reference, fax, scan, copy, and email those documents—particularly the powers of attorney—countless times. I also thought, on nearly as many occasions, how fortunate I was that my dad, who probably struggled to pay for a law firm to draw up the papers, had done so just a year before he was unexpectedly admitted to the hospital. Without his wishes committed to paper, I know I would not have been able to fully and confidently make decisions on his behalf. But, navy blue binder in hand, I was empowered to speak with authority to doctors, nurses, bank executives, and even the cable company, which would not have stopped the monthly payments that were dwindling his already heartbreakingly low bank account had I not been designated his financial power of attorney.

I always thought that having a sick or dying loved one meant hospital visits and flowers and tears—all of which is true—but I spent far more time on the phone with medical professionals, financial institutions, and social workers than I did crying. I imagine all of that strife would have been magnified dramatically had we not found that binder.

My dad died a year ago this month. His passing brought more challenges for me, but for a long time after, I silently thanked him for having the foresight to visit that estate planning law firm, for considering what I’d go through when he was no longer here. It was one of the last—and best—gifts he ever gave me.

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