The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Remembering Martha June 20, 2015

It’s been one week since Martha died, and I’m still in a sort of stunned place. I think all of us are. I don’t fully get it yet; as with the passing of anyone close, you find yourself thinking about the person as if you’re going to see them again – and then you remember all over again. Having seen her coast gradually down to a stop – and then seeing the rapid decline in her final few days – that helps to acclimate me to this new reality of a post-Martha world, and it helps me to know unquestionably that Martha’s death was not only inevitable, but in the end, welcomed. And in her last few days, even Martha – who always spoke as if decades of life still lay before her – finally let on that she knew what was coming, and that she was at last ready.

She died in the wee hours of Saturday morning, on the 13th of June. The day before had been rainy, and the house had been once again full of friends and visitors. But on her last day she didn’t do or say much. She was merely hanging in there, breathing and sleeping, and no doubt still listening to us all as we visited, shared stories and laughed. I was surprised to see how much she’d changed in the past twenty-four hours; her eyes had become sunken, pink orbits and her skin waxen and cool. But mom, Elihu and I had been lucky to have been with her one day earlier when she could still communicate. I hadn’t realized on a conscious level that this would be my last true visit with her, but that’s how it turned out. More importantly, she was able to let me know something that concerned me more than anything else. She had been crabby with me – actually, she’d been a downright bitch – in the last few weeks, but that was ok; somehow she was blaming me (and mom, too) for her situation, and I recognized it for the impaired thinking it was (I know this well from experience with my brother). I knew that she loved me, and in spite of the things she was saying to me at the time, I loved her too. I knew she was comfortable and pain-free for the most part. And she was home; that was key. But what of her true, innermost feelings about what was taking place? I was worried that she was full of fear – and too proud to let on. She had hardly the energy to speak, but when I went to her side and placed my hand on her head, she simply said to me “I am not afraid.” I told her that I was so very glad to hear this, but I didn’t want her saying this for my sake – or for appearances. I didn’t want her doing the stiff upper lip thing to the very end! Of course she didn’t have the energy to explain her thoughts, but she made herself perfectly clear by repeating, as loudly as she could, one more time: I am not afraid.

In that same visit Martha had revealed herself to be living one foot in our world, one foot in another. Once, a week before, when I was passing the morning with her, I asked her where her thoughts were. “All across the spectrum”, she’d answered. In the final few days, it seemed the spectrum had become even wider. (I remember this same near-the-end phase of dear friend Jim Lewis. He was an actor, a gentle man and a thoughtful one. He seemed lost and agitated in his last days. When I asked what this was like, he too, answered me simply with all of his focused effort: “I can’t place my place.” This seems to be the brief state of confusion through which many pass just before death.) Martha opened her eyes and looked at mom and said weakly…. “I’m just remembering that I’m in my beautiful home, with all of my friends, and my puppy…” Truly, these were the most important things. My most urgent hope through these past few months was that she die at home. And now finally here she was, with her beloved black hound dog by her side and all her dearest friends nearby. And all in that amazing farmhouse. The same house in which her own mother had died, the house in which no doubt others had also died – and been born, too. In and out of reality though she may have been, she knew where she was, and she was not afraid. We’d almost made it.

I kinda wished I’d been more aware of my last kiss and goodbye, but as it was there was some general laughter and conversation going on, plus the concern of a rapidly approaching summer storm, so Elihu and I left Martha’s bedroom much as we would any other visit. Which was probably best, anyhow. That’s how Martha would’ve liked it. No fanfare or drama. Just everyday life. Mary, the overnight nurse, was surprised shortly after three a.m. by what she said sounded like “a man’s voice talking”. She got up and went in to check on Martha in time to see her exhale one final time. There has been some speculation on who exactly it might have been who ‘came to get her’, and most agree it was her dad – and likely not her sometimes-philandering husband. After telling me the story, mom quickly added her take – a staunch, no-frills opinion that Martha would have no doubt shared – and said that we could forget the idea of anything paranormal having occurred here; that it was just Martha’s deep, robust voice, uttering one last vocalization. Ok. She can believe that. And maybe that’s the truth. But Mary does this kind of thing for a living, and she’s got a career that depends a lot on observation. Like my friend the retired state trooper who saw an image of Ruthie in the porch of her house (and knowing nothing about her), I’m going to go with the nurse’s take on the event. Me, I believe that someone who loved her very much came back to help her across the threshold. My humanist friends can think me delusional or at best, self-comforting – but I don’t care. Whether her concsiouness has gone on to a new experience or has been extinguished forever, it doesn’t really matter. Martha lived a very full life and had a positive influence over countless people, and she concluded that fruitful life as peacefully as ever one might hope.

Game over. Game won.


Martha Ward Carver
was born on July 17th, 1926 in Binghamton, New York
to F. Erwin Ward and Isabella Post Ward of Deposit New York,
and died at her home in Greenfield Center, New York on June 13th, 2015.

Martha Ward Carver, 88, grew up in Deposit, New York and graduated from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY in 1947 with a degree in public school music, as it was then called. She served as Supervisor of Music in the elementary and junior high schools of Greenfield, Mass from September of 1947 to June of 1955.

She returned to Skidmore College in the fall of 1955 to join the Music Department faculty, implementing the music education program. After fifteen years at Skidmore she chose to leave the campus in favor of domestic life on the farm.

Martha was a long-time friend of the Festival of Baroque Music and attended performances every year from its beginning in 1959 to its final season in July of 2011. She was a member of the Saratoga County NAACP, and SEAD (Saratogians for the Equality and Acceptance of Diversity). Ms. Carver left over one hundred acres of farmland to Saratoga PLAN.

Ms. Carver is predeceased by her husband, Frank Carver, originally of Milo, Maine, and her brother Charles (Chuck) E. Ward of Ballston Spa, NY, and is survived by her stepson, Robert J. Carver of Nokomis, Florida; her foster son, Michael Spiak and his wife Kelly of Greenfield Center, NY; nieces and nephews Susan Ward of Catskill, NY; Braden Ward of Oneonta, NY; Mary Jane Benenati of Norwich, NY; Mark Ward of Walton, NY and cousin M. Edward Hartz of Wilmington, NC in addition to a loyal support group of friends and neighbors as well as her faithful and beloved dog Macy.

At Martha’s request there will be no funeral service. She has donated her body to the Anatomical Gift Program at Albany Medical Center.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Deposit Educational Endowment Program (DEEP), Deposit, NY, 13754 or the Yellow Rose Fund, Skidmore College, 815 North Broadway, Saratoga Springs, NY, 12866.

Remembrances may be made on the Hans Funeral Home website at www.hansfuneralhome.com.


IMG_0030Martha, at two.

IMG_0043A regal portrait of her father, F. Erwin Ward (I only remember him smiling.) I recently learned that the “F” was for Francis – which would also turn out to be his son-in-law’s name!

IMG_0041Martha, right, with her brother and only sibling, Chuck. Decades later the two ended up living just miles apart on the same road in tiny Greenfield, hundreds of miles from Deposit, where they grew up – purely by chance. I still can’t wrap my brain around that kind of coincidence.

IMG_0034Martha, on the right, an unidentified young boy in the middle, and brother Chuck on father’s knee. Circa 1928.

IMG_0028I like this shot of the family – and Ma Ward (Isabella) almost seems to be smiling! Martha’s signature haircut identifies her. Circa mid ’40s.

IMG_0048It probably isn’t fair to use this pic of her mother, but she really did always have a scowl on her face. This is rather harsh, but comic, too. Man, she scared me as a kid.

IMG_0049Same tailgate picnic as above, Martha doesn’t look much happier, nor does dad. Think it’s just an ill-timed shot.

IMG_9706Ma Ward may have been the stern one – but her brother’s certainly got a twinkle in his eye.

IMG_0048The young high school graduate.

IMG_0014The Skidmore College Graduate, nicknamed ‘Marty’.

IMG_0016Martha is accompanying a local choral group. I have this dress – and it came with a story: Just as Martha was ascending the final stair to the stage – audience and chorus awaiting her – she heard a loud rip, and then heard the room gasp slightly. She looked down to see she’d stepped on her organza skirt and it had ripped all the way up the front. With many layers beneath it, she paid it no mind and continued on her way. Later, she simply took some scissors and cut a triangle out of the front to make it look ‘right’. When I pass on this dress one day, the story and pic go with it.

IMG_0021Martha Ward Carver and Francis Speed Carver on their wedding day in Chicago, May 12th, 1956. He was teaching in South Dakota, she in Greenfield, Mass, so they met in the middle. After the wedding they both flew back to their respective jobs ’til they were concluded. It would be Frank’s teaching job at Skidmore College which would soon bring them to Greenfield Center, New York.

IMG_0023This is a cute shot.

IMG_0060A studious group of Skidmore Music faculty listening to a hi-fi; her husband Frank, standing far left, Martha center, and friend and soprano Ruth Lakeway standing behind in black. (All three very important to dad and mom’s Festival of Baroque Music).

IMG_0038Martha, busy – as always – with a project.

IMG_9698Martha with some of the first musicians from the first Festival of Baroque Music, held at the Seagle Colony in Schroon Lake, New York, 1959.

IMG_9700Martha, violinist Renato Bonacini and his wife, and conductor, Fritz Rikko.

IMG_0057A graduation ceremony at Skidmore, likely for of one her students.

IMG_0265Martha loved kids, and they flocked to the farm to be with her. Martha used everyday activities to teach. (That’s my brother Andrew – so cute!)

IMG_0288Martha and me.

IMG_0285This pic makes me contemplate the way in which our roles shifted during our lives.

IMG_0259Her famous “Texas Cake”, a chocolate cake recipe she learned from an organist in Texas whose name is lost to us, but this cake became a staple at the farm. I’m not a fan of cake – and chocolate’s not my go-to flavor, but this cake I always love. There is nothing like Martha’s Texas Cake.

IMG_0287My mom and baby Andy on Sylvia, in front of the old barn, which burned to the ground in the early seventies – and on Martha’s birthday! Frank had made the mistake of packing wet, green hay, which created fumes that combusted. Sadly, this is how many barns go. It took the giant, gorgeous maple tree in front of the house too. Totally transformed the feel of the place and was a devastating loss for us all.

IMG_0283Little me on a big horse. Also, in front of the grand, original barn. Martha and Frank’s farm made these kinds of experiences possible for so many kids. Life at the farm added tremendously to the quality of my childhood.

IMG_0044Martha, my dad (always picking a piece of lint off the floor!), Frank and mom. Mid ’70s.

IMG_0032This photo really captures the feeling of Martha at home.

IMG_0027Martha, her folks, her sister-in-law Claire (also a talented musician) and brother Chuck, circa early ’80s.

IMG_0281Me and my little brother Andrew, playing in the driveway in front of that gorgeous farmhouse.

IMG_1049Life in the kitchen just a few weeks ago – much as it had been for the past five decades.

IMG_0027Ever a busy place – Martha presided over the kitchen from her chair as nurses, friends and family came and went.

IMG_0134Elihu is about to play “Simple Gifts” for Martha on his mandolin. We all know we’re getting close, and on this last night there’s a different feeling in the air.

IMG_0054Her dearest friend in the whole world, Michael, holds her hand as she gets ready to leave us.

IMG_0162This was my last look back at the farm on the night she was to pass. I kinda knew she was close. The sky musta known too; it was already crying.


We all kinda thought Martha’d make it til her 89th birthday on July 17th. Trying to assign some meaning to the 13th – or at least perhaps discover a clever way in which to remember it – Mom learned that Queen Elizabeth’s official birthday fell on June 13th this year. ! Martha and Queen Elizabeth were neck and neck til now… But that’s ok, Martha will always reign supreme in our world.

 

Delay December 22, 2013

Although Elihu was scheduled to have flown to Chicago last night, the weather looked threatening enough for Southwest to re-book him on an early flight this morning (one benefit to flying as an unaccompanied minor). It was such a welcome gift of time. Through a miraculous chain of events we went from nearly missing the new flight to being the last ones to board – to meeting the pilot. Earlier that morning I’d written a thank-you note to the pilots, one which we handed the fellow as he and Elihu boarded together. I have never once taken for granted the skill and professionalism of the people that get my son – and everyone else’s loved ones too – safely to a faraway airport. And especially on a day like today; black ice sheeting the roads as rain continued to fall and freeze all around. I suppose I also chose to write this letter today because given what I’m currently going through I have a heightened sense of how precious and important friends and family are.

Yesterday afternoon we went next door to visit dad in what was to be the first of two final visits for Elihu. While we were there my oldest friend in the world (she’d also been matron of honor at my wedding) and her family, husband, daughter and son, all came by to say hello… and goodbye. There were eight of us together in the room, visiting, sharing stories and catching up on life events. Although dad responded very little and spent most of the visit with his eyes closed, he lit up when Sherry took his hand and said hello. And somehow, once again, dad and Elihu had a quick exchange of their fake language for all to enjoy. What a deep and good feeling it was to hear laughter in the room. Dad and Elihu’s little bit was still so delightful, so hilarious. Plus it sounded so authentic that my friend’s son (a high schooler) actually guessed it to be Russian. Imagine that! Success! Those two have that certain talent, that certain thing. Something that not just everyone has. How lucky I felt to witness it one final time, and to have shared it with a room full of old and dear friends. While dad may indeed have one foot outside this reality of ours, he is still present enough to appreciate the company of friends and family.

Last night after supper, Elihu and I went over so that he could make his final farewell. Dad was markedly less present than he’d been only a day before; he was still able to speak, but so much weaker, so changed. I tried to make it clear to him that Elihu was going to Chicago for the holiday, and that he was here to say goodbye. Elihu leaned in and stretched his arms over his grandfather and kissed his cheek, telling him again how much he loved him. When he pulled away dad said something strange… “When beautiful January comes….” and he trailed off. I took it as a sign that he’d wait til then to leave us, and I pressed him for more, but nothing came. I could see that there was no point to stretching this out. This was the tidiest ending we were going to get, and sad as it was, it was time to go. I left the room first, and turned back in time to see Elihu wave, almost casually, as he said “good-bye, Grandpa, see you shortly”. I know some may think it was just a mimicked, stock phrase of parting that my son chose, but I think differently. I believe that my son knows that he will one day see his grandfather again, and in the infinity of the cosmos, it is truly nothing but the merest moment in – or out – of time.

Today was another gift, as old and dear friends made an incredibly long car trip just to see dad one last time. The man who visited, along with his daughter, is a musician who’s been a part of my father’s professional world for going on four decades. And in that time his family has become part of our family too. This was an important moment for the both of them, and while my father may not have been able to communicate very successfully, it was a necessary final visit. I turned away to give them privacy, but I longed to hear their voices in conversation. From where I stood, I heard very little. I’m sure that dad, at this point, was barely audible. Still, it was an important moment of closure. After they departed for a long return trip I remained there with Andrew and mom. I sat with dad, just holding his hand, stroking his head, rubbing his feet. He twisted in the bed, trying in vain to find a comfortable pose. He tried in vain to lift himself up to shift positions, then hollered in panic when I put my arms under his shoulders and pulled him back up in the bed. I knew to disregard this, but it still didn’t feel great to hear. But what was more frustrating was his unending search for stillness. His hands tugged and this and that, he tried to move from side to side, and eventually began trying to curl up into something that seemed on its way to a fetal position. Oh, poor dad. No amount of pillows or propping or shifting seemed to give him peace. And every now and then he’d grimace in pain and even moan as something in his gut had taken place. All I could think of was the bleeding that continued, slow and steady beneath the covers…. Was this his colon breaking down? Did this bleeding hurt or not? Was this just gas? After a few episodes of extreme discomfort mom finally administered some morphine. It seemed to help, but after another hour he was back to tugging on his sheets and writhing in his bed. Hard to watch, and it made me feel pretty ineffective.

I went home to get some rest, but just as I was sitting down I received a call from an old friend who’s parents live ‘next door’ (a quarter mile down the road) to mom and dad. This gentleman now lives in Boston, and he was here on his annual visit to see his folks. Good timing, as he’d not seen my parents now in two years, and this was clearly his last chance. After catching up a bit on the phone I suggested to meet him at over at their house. We hung up and moments later both pulled in the driveway at the same time. He was very good and gentle with dad; I’d warned him what he would see, but having been through a close friend’s recent fight with pancreatic cancer he assured me that he was comfortable with anything. He took dad’s hand, and spoke his presence, although I was disappointed to see that this time dad barely registered a response. We enjoyed a very brief visit, and at his leaving my heart warmed with gratitude and love as I saw him lean in to kiss dad’s hand. I had to turn away, this again was so real, so very sad and final. I only wish dad had been more responsive. It made me wonder, was this the way things were going to continue? Would he remain in a semi-conscious state until his death? Things had changed so much in just the past twelve hours…

So now I’m at home, catching up in this post, wondering whether I should try to get some sleep in, or if I should rally and just go back over there. I have some old down pillows I’m anxious to stash under dad here and there in hopes it might take the edge off whatever ill-ease it is that he’s experiencing, but I don’t know. I am tired. Got about four hours sleep last night, and it’s nearing seven in the evening now. I’ve been given the rare gift of time here; no more workdays for the next two weeks, no mothering duties either. My piles and to-do lists don’t matter. There is only one thing on my to-do list now, and that is to see my father off into death. I do not want to miss it. But how do we know when to expect it? When mom and I asked the hospice worker today if dad’s death was likely to happen ‘soon’ she responded fairly confidently that she didn’t think it would be that soon – as he still had some ‘transitioning’ to do. Well if this shutting down, bleeding out, sleeping all day, seeing dead relatives and uttering poetic platitudes isn’t considered ‘transitioning’, then what exactly is? Mom and I were a bit taken aback. However, mom is holding Christmas in her heart as the date to which dad must make it – and she hopes that he will choose to go after the day is past. Not sure why, but why not? Standing at the kitchen sink, looking out to the songbirds that flitted about on the feeders, her eyes filled with tears as she said under her breath “he’s got to hold on til Christmas“. I guess I hope so too. Yet in some way I just want it to be done. But in a million more ways, I want to stop the clock completely.

I have a plan. I will rally, deliver the pillows, stroke his head, hold his hand, see to it that he’s resting, then return home. In this eleventh hour I don’t want to skimp on anything. If I can do anything at all to help my beloved father stay in peace, then I need to do so. My time stretches out before me open and without obligations for the first time in months – it’s as if life itself has given me the gift of time. And so, with this ever-waning commodity, I need to honor it, use it, savor it. This is one delay I am very thankful for.

Post Script: The extra down pillows I brought over were just what we needed to get dad snug and comfy in his bed. He didn’t fully wake, but he did respond to me as I made some adjustments. Then I sat with him for a while, my hand on his head, my hand on his hands, and over his heart, just trying to comprehend the moment, trying to memorize all the parts of my dear father, and trying to understand what is was to say goodbye – forever.

And when I left him just now, he was peacefully sleeping. A new event however is a faint gurgling sound that  now accompanies his breathing – and I think I remember reading that this is one of those ‘near to the end’ signs. I myself am currently doped up with half a sleeping pill which I hope will let me rest until 2 am, at which time I will go over again and help mom change his undergarments. Then she can go to bed, and I’ll resume watch. What a strange time. Just how do you plan for a death? I sure am lucky to have all the time in the world in which to do it. I’m in rather a daze, going through the motions, keeping my focus on the task at hand lest I become a sobbing wreck. The tears will come when they must, but not just yet…