On Christmas day 2005, just three days short of my 21st birthday, I woke up early, excited to open gifts with Mom and Dad. I have been fortunate that my parents are such good friends, even though they have been divorced for over 18 years. Later, Mom and I headed out from her Windsor home to deliver gifts to our friends while Dad did his own thing. The air outside was crisp, as it should be on Christmas morning, and the rooftops glistened with white frost.
When we got back, I opened the front door and felt a chill come over me even though it was warm inside. As I turned the corner, there was Dad facedown on the floor. We rushed to get him up; he wasn't moving, his body was limp. When I raised his head, he looked at me and his eyes rolled to the back of his head. I yelled, "Wake up, stay with us!" I thought, "Why is this happening?"
I called Jane, my half-sister, Dad's daughter from a previous marriage who is much older than I and who long ago disconnected herself from the family, to let her know what happened. She came to the hospital, and we met with the doctor in a small room. He told us that, at the age of 64, Dad had suffered a massive stroke affecting his speech and paralyzing his right side.
Dad lay unresponsive in the hospital on the verge of not surviving, hooked up to life-support in the ICU at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. I had to figure out if he had a will or any paperwork stating what to do if something like this were to happen. Jane, Mom and I went to search Dad's house; nothing turned up. There was no power of attorney, no will and no extra names on his accounts. The fact that he had nothing in order made the process of taking care of him that much harder.
Soon after finding this out, I also discovered Jane had deceived me with the show of support and love she had seemed to offer. When we cleared out Dad's house, she threw out almost everything without seeming to give a second thought to what she was doing. I caught her throwing away a box of old photos, mostly of me when I was little, but also a few photos of Dad when he was in the Navy. I couldn't believe it. What little belongings she did save fit into Dad's motor home which she had towed away to a spot unknown. What I did know was that I was alone.
Weeks later, Dad was awake and working with therapists, but with limited communication and unaware of what I was dealing with. In order to figure out what to do for him and where he should live, a meeting was called with the doctors, hospital staff, Mom, Jane and me. Dad had made it clear that he wanted me to be his advocate. Jane would not accept that, nor allow me to take care of him; I had no paperwork from Dad indicating otherwise. But she had a four-page paper typed, ready to distribute to everyone, explaining why it would be "ludicrous" to let me take care of him and how I am a bad person. At that point, I knew I had to fight for him. The first step was getting power of attorney.
It was a struggle, but I knew I couldn't give up. I made several phone calls, was referred to various people, and filled out paperwork that had questions I could not answer.
Eventually, I did gain Dad's POA, which came with responsibilities: changing the mail, bouncing between banks, signing him up for Medi-Cal, traveling to the VA in San Francisco, applying for Social Security, dealing with lawyers, scheduling transportation, finding a place close by for him to live and getting him therapy. My 21st birthday came and went in a flood of paperwork with emotions running high. I just wanted everything back to normal.
If Dad had something—a will, POA or a notarized document stating his wishes—this all could have been prevented. See, like most of us, Dad felt like he was going to be healthy forever and figured he was too young to have anything happen to him.
Through all of this, I learned how to fight for someone I love, knowing I couldn't give up because Dad needed to see that life is worth living. The lesson here is to have your papers in order; you don't want your loved ones going through this.
Today, Dad has gone from a feeding tube to eating on his own and attending an adapted PE class at Santa Rosa Junior College. We just celebrated his 66th birthday, and he couldn't be happier; that warm tingly feeling I get inside from seeing him happy makes all the difference in my world. As for me, I am just your average guy making my mark in this world, trying to accomplish as much as possible. I myself just wrote out a holographic will stating what my wishes are for the little amount I have. I want to spare my loved ones the same unintended trauma.
To learn more, contact the Sonoma County Council on Aging (707.525.0143), the Marin County Commission on Aging (415.499.7396), the Area Agency on Aging Napa-Solano (707.644.6612) or check out www.usa.gov/Topics.Seniors.shtml. The Byrne Report returns next week.