Martha Ward Carver and husband Francis Carver. He was a talented musician, and in 1947, at the age of 24, he was the youngest ever conductor of the United States Marine Band. Martha recalled taking me to hear “Johnny Denver” at SPAC when I was young, as Frank had played flute in the orchestra. She also recalled bringing her whiskey sour along in a peanut butter jar. I love the stories that are being retold in this final chapter. People come and go, but stories live on. A consolation for our hearts as we prepare for goodbye.
This is a first. I’m not writing this post from my favorite chair, but rather writing this in Martha’s kitchen, while she lies in bed, waiting for me. Or Mike. Or whomever it is that will come to help her get up and going. The night nurse just left, and she went over the instructions for Martha’s care. I suppose I get it, but I’m stalling. Cuz I don’t want to go there. I know it doesn’t matter in the end, and I’m making too big a deal of it, but still… I am not looking forward to helping her with a bedpan, to wiping her, to dressing her, hoisting her and getting her to sit upright, and then, finally, into her transport chair. I don’t want to see her old lady naked body, I don’t want to feel the vulnerability of a woman who, as of this very moment, still seems as indomitable – and formidable – as an Army sergeant. I don’t want to know her as a frail, ancient woman. On some level she’s acquiesced to her current station in life – still assuring us all “she doesn’t mind a little dirt”. That the ever-present grime and dust covering every surface in her home is there by choice, and not because she’s unable to tend to it. She assures us that a wet bed is tolerable. It doesn’t phase her, she says. All this is her way of maintaining control. And control is at the heart of the present issue: death is the one thing Martha cannot control. No matter what she says or doesn’t say, I know it’s got to be on her mind these days. She may be stubborn, but she’s not stupid.
Yesterday, when I sat through my first shift with her, I watched her in the long, silent moments, and wondered what she could possibly living for now. Mike had established his vineyard there, horses were happily grazing in the fields, the barn had been lovingly maintained, and all of it would one day be home to him and his family. Her affairs were in order, both legal and personal. She was now almost completely blind, hard of hearing, and paralyzed on one side from a stroke decades ago. She could no longer walk, or even stand on her own. What on earth was keeping her here? The only reason I could come up with was fear. Martha’s been a strong atheist all her life and feels that when it’s over here, it’s all just plain over. While I’ve known atheists to feel the same and face death with no fear – I think that the opposite could easily be possible too. She might well be petrified of not existing. Either way, me personally, I don’t see that there’s necessarily anything to fear. If there’s nothing beyond this existence – then what’s the difference? What the hell would you know? You’d be gone, after all. Kinda like going under for surgery – or even simply going to sleep. You’re gone, and you don’t even know it. And if the other scenario is true – if our awareness simply moves into another plane of existence filled with eternal peace and light and populated with those who’ve died before us – then that promises to be pretty awesome. So what’s the big deal? As long as you don’t fear being relegated to a fiery, eternal hell (which as an atheist is not an option), then what have you got to lose? Whether simply ceasing to be, or floating off through the ether in complete peace and love, as I see it, you stand only to gain from the experience. Either scenario seems like a pretty good deal to me. But this is not a conversation I’m brave enough to initiate with Martha. So instead, I watch and wonder, and wait…
Today is my second day with Martha. We made the choice for hospice and home care too recently to cover all the shifts this week (she must have 24/7 care now) – and this being Memorial Day weekend the shifts didn’t fill as easily as they might have otherwise. Thank goodness my son’s finally old enough to be left alone without too much concern. I told him that I’d likely have to be here tomorrow morning too. That disappointed him. He told me that our lazy breakfasts together were “kinda what made the weekends special”. While none of us really knows how long Martha will hang in here, we’re all pretty sure she’s got enough steam in her to last at least another month (her 89th birthday is July 17th. I suspect she’ll stick it out til then). So that means I’ll be here at the farm quite a bit in the near future; it’s likely our weekend breakfasts will be on hold for a while we wait this out. Because that’s exactly what we’re doing these days: we are literally waiting for Martha to die.
I’m sorry to be so blunt, but this time I honestly wish she’d just go. Even since yesterday she’s slowed. Not enough to prevent her from swearing like a sailor at me this morning when I took up my post, ripping her oxygen tube out and throwing it at me with her good arm. I didn’t take it personally. I knew she was still coming to terms with the idea that someone must always be with her. “You and your mother are hell-bent on controlling me” she yelled. I didn’t respond. This can’t be easy for her. She’s still as sharp as ever, so being prisoner in her ancient, non-responsive body has truly got to suck. I had tried unsuccessfully to sit her up, so by then there was nothing to do but wait until Michael arrived to help. She continued to hiss at me, but I didn’t respond. There would have been no point to it. I sat down and began looking through a dusty copy of “Yankee Expressions” while she continued to cuss and tell me all that I’d done to annoy her. “Elizabeth, how in hell do you push my buttons so?” she asked. I paused. “It’s a talent.” I replied. “Ha! That was a very good answer!” she bellowed. I was pretty sure I heard her smile.
Martha didn’t sleep well last night, and so she’s nodding off in her chair now. I too am finding this business of sitting around and doing nothing all day is a bit tiring, and while I’m getting good work done filing and organizing my many photographs, I’m getting sleepy too. Drives me nuts that it’s sunny and warm outside. Makes me sad that it’s a holiday weekend, and I can’t be home with my son. But I scold myself as I remember that this is the woman who taught me how to read music. This is the woman who hosted me as a child through lambing season, the woman from whom I learned about haying, gardening, about interesting words and old-fashioned kitchen implements. Certainly she instilled in me a respect for the importance of knowing ones cardinal directions. When someone at the nursing home had recently asked what our relationship was, I offered that Martha was really my second mother. “Does that sound right to you?” I’d asked her, and she’d nodded. In my family we don’t speak very easily about our intimate feelings. So this alone was pretty big. Yeah, Martha’s had a lot to do with the person I am today, so I need to be here. There will be plenty of fine Spring days to come. This is where I need to be right now.
It helps that I’ve been through this process with my father. Now I’m familiar with some of the landmarks of the end days, and I keep an eye out for signs. But no matter how aware and ready one feels, it’s still a strange waiting game. Hard to grasp that this is a process a that awaits each and every last one of us. If I could have one wish for all of my companions on the planet, it would be for a swift and dignified demise, free of fear and pain, and in the company of those whom we love. Life is not for wimps. Neither, it seems, is death.
Martha’s hound dog Masie runs to join Elihu as he visits with the horses. I did the very same thing as a child – and the fields look very much the same now as they did back then. Even the apple tree in the field remains. There’s a poignant quality to the afternoon light over the field, but yet at the same time there’s a hopeful feeling here too. The farm existed long before all of us were here, and it will likely continue on long after we’re gone.
Post Script: Elihu often enjoys hearing me read the posts aloud before I publish them; in fact he’s offered many helpful and insightful editorial suggestions over the years which I’ve used and very much appreciated. Today, however, when I read this to him, he responded angrily. He was aghast that I spoke like this about Martha. He felt strongly that I shouldn’t publish such writing. I never discount his feelings, and in fact I’m sure that if he feels like this, so too do others. So I apologize if this post is distasteful to some. I hope you’ll understand that I feel it’s imperative to write with as much honesty as possible. I also feel strongly that many of us here in the US need to learn how to talk about death far more openly and comfortably than we do at present.