The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Losing Martha May 25, 2015

IMG_1392Martha 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.

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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.

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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.

IMG_0988Mike, Martha’s favorite person in the world, checks in to see how she’s doing. This guy has so much on his plate – a family, a new job, a vineyard – and Martha. He’s handling it all so well.

IMG_0971Martha always enjoys hearing “Simple Gifts”.

IMG_1005Martha’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.

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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.

 

Next January 1, 2015

IMG_2875Dad didn’t quite make it to 2014, and enigmatically, his few and final words to his grandson were: “When beautiful January comes….”  Last January we experienced unusually heavy snows and low temperatures, and dad’s Studio flooded and froze; both the floors and walls were ruined. It was a stunning and heartbreaking loss, but after a thoughtful reassessment of the situation, what followed was the beginning of an important, year-long process of re-birth… Was my father being prophetic or poetic?…. Who knows? Either way, January will always make me think of my father’s mysterious, near-final words which, intentional or not, heralded the way for the next chapter in our lives…

After having passed the first anniversary of my father’s death, I find myself thinking more about it than I have in months. It’s strange terrain now. There’s an inclination to feel that somehow he’s slipping further away, that somehow it’s slowly becoming more and more like he never existed at all… I know this isn’t really true, and if nothing else, I and my son are proof that he was here. And Elihu’s our insurance that his line will continue forth into the world… (Not that the planet actually needs more humans!) But why even think like this? Very few people on this earth will ultimately be remembered for the long haul. Most of us, except for the very slim part of the earth’s population that comes to know some true degree of fame, will indeed become forgotten after a while. After all, life moves on, and the void left behind naturally fills in with new creations, new endeavors… There are only so many stories one can pass down to the next generation, there is only so much time in which to tell them. Beyond a certain point, it just doesn’t make logistic sense that we’ll all be remembered by our descendants.

It gives my fragile ego a small amount of relief to think that now I’ve left behind a digital footprint, and that in some way I, my family and my life, will now never die… Perhaps in a century’s time my long-dormant blog will fall to the bottom of the searches, and it may ultimately come to languish in a virtual state of suspension, but still, it’ll be there, somewhere. To know that gives me the variety of comfort I imagine folks derive from erecting several tons of marble to mark their final resting place. When I lived in Chicago I was a fan of the city’s beautiful cemeteries, and it boggled my mind to ponder the immense amount of industry that went into their memorials. I would stand in the middle of a peaceful forest with headstones and statuary as far as the eye could see in every direction, the only sound being a soft hush of white noise from beyond the cemetery walls… In that peaceful, natural oasis it was hard to imagine the toil it must have taken to erect these monuments – let alone dig the holes in the middle of a frozen winter! I think of horse teams pulling great loads of stone, of the pulleys and levers, the carts, the wheels, the manpower… I imagine how loud and chaotic it must have been at one time. I imagine all the horrible job site injuries that must have happened; the crushed fingers, the sprained muscles and worse… All of this motivated by the need for men and women to memorialize themselves unto eternity. Really, doesn’t it all seem so silly, so vain? So futile?

Ok, so if burying one’s body in a cemetery and spending a chunk of your estate on a piece of granite to mark the site is a ridiculous notion – especially because without an accompanying bio and headshot, future passersby will have absolutely no idea what you were fabulous for and why we should even remember you – then what should one do with one’s own body? A good question. A question I’ve wondered at for years, but until my own father died, I never truly followed it through to a conclusion. There are no easy answers. Even for me, a gal who has not a fraction of a doubt that our souls continue on to another realm of existence after this flesh-and-bone school of life. I mean, I may not care what happens to me after I’m gone (I don’t worry about my body’s disposition in any way affecting my soul’s successful transit outta here), but thinking about it now is what’s hard. Either way, it’s just plain icky. Biological life is wet and smelly, and there’s no tidy way around it. Everyone knows this, of course, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty application of the concept, screw it. It does not help.

Having already muscled through the notion of my dear father’s body being scorched to ashes by a turbo-powered blow torch (and having visited the place and seen it with my own eyes as part of my process of closure; here’s a link to the post “Tiny Trip”, scroll down to the very end), I suppose one could say I’ve made some progress. Yes and no. And I like to think I’m pretty laid back about things. Again, yes and no. I’ve butchered chickens. I’ve tried to participate responsibly in death, bringing it swiftly, honoring the sacrifice of life. I’ve tried to be as matter-of-fact as possible about things. But it’s just so strange, this territory of a non-living body that once was a real, living person. It’s hard to reconcile those images. So in order to help myself do just that, I searched out – and found – a book on this exact subject. It’s called “Stiff” by Mary Roach, and I highly recommend reading it if you too would desperately like to demystify death and the culture of cadavers. The author is delightfully witty, and without her good humor it might be all to easy to simply shut the book before the end of the first chapter. (Even so I had to put it down every so often and take a break from it before resuming.) Still and all, I don’t know. I just don’t.

But Elihu does. Since he was quite small he’s known what he wants done with his body after he’s through using it. When we first began talking about death, burial and such, he would get very emotional about it – insisting that he wanted his own dead body to be taken into the forest and left for nature to take over. I explained that it would likely lead to a whole mess of legal trouble – that the people who laid him there to rest might even possibly end up in jail. This made him angry. It was surprising to see such a young child express such indignation. He found it fundamentally wrong that he and his family be forbidden from doing the most natural and correct thing possible. Whenever we found ourselves discussing it, he’d get very upset. Likely he now understands more clearly how small eighty acres is in actuality, and that barring a life on the Alaskan frontier, a burial in the family’s woods won’t be an option. But no matter, this kid is not worried. This, after all, is the same kid who scolds “it’s just a dead bird” when I wince upon pulling a frozen hen out of the chest freezer, wondering which gal it might have been… This is the kid who told his grandfather not to be afraid to die, because it was “just like turning the page in a book”. This is the kid whose last words to his grandpa were “See you shortly”. So thankfully I’m in good hands. I think I’ll leave it up to him. I just don’t want to know is all.

Do you know what thanatology is? Until a couple of hours ago I had never heard the word before. And that kinda surprises me, having conducted more than my fair share of searches on death and dying. (Here’s a link to a gal whose life’s work is all about death. If you have the time, the panel discussion is interesting, although it’s more theological than thanatological.) Thanatology is simply the scientific study of death. It deals with the forensic aspects of death – like those hard-to-think-about physical changes that occur in the post-mortem period. Plus thanatology also includes study of the social implications of death. Really? Such a thing exists? As well it should! There is only one thing we can absolutely count on in life, and that is our death. But even so, we so seldom talk about it directly and specifically… and that drives me nuts.

In re-reading the posts I wrote last year at this time, I’m fascinated to remember the tiny details of dad’s final days. I begin to see patterns – of course I’d read about them before my experience with dad, and I’m somewhat aware of the landmarks that one meets as one gets closer to death – but today I was able to see the whole process with so much more clarity. The events that I might have ever-so-slightly doubted the validity of last year – even while experiencing them for myself – I now know these to be real and universally recognized sign posts on the final path. It’s exciting to know that it’s not as mysterious as we might feel it to be… Last year, when I’d asked a nurse what exactly we were to be on the lookout for in dad’s final days, she gave me a short list. But then she added “I don’t think he’s there yet. He still has some transitioning to do.” What in hell did that mean? Just why such goddam cryptic language? At least I knew to be on the lookout for blue skin. But still, she left me guessing, and I didn’t appreciate it. So now between the local hospice volunteer training and this thanatology stuff, I might be closer to making peace with things one day. We’ll see.

Then after the bodily issues, there’s the tricky business of what comes next. I have known and loved some hard-and-fast atheists and agnostics in my life, and I’m absolutely fine with the idea that nothing at all comes next. The tidy nature of it does have its appeal. (Given the true definitions of those terms, I might be either one myself; I neither know unquestionably what I believe, nor do I believe there is one single creator, but rather a collective energy of awareness and love that permeates all. Another post, another time.) And for those who believe that we need to keep our bodies whole and pretty for the rapture – that’s cool too. (Only what about the plastic fillers, chemicals and wires used to keep folks pretty while they wait? Yeeks. Wouldn’t want to come back like that.) Ultimately, no one truly knows. But in my thinking I’m certain about the general gist of things. I used to worry about losing the respect of my dear friends for whom belief in an afterlife means you really aren’t as intelligent as you might once have seemed. Mech. And as for heaven or hell? As I see it, none of that exists. There is no good, no bad. Just a re-integration of our essence back into a loving non-space in which an assessment of our progress is made; a timeless, placeless ether in which to assimilate, learn and regroup in an atmosphere of acceptance and perfection.

Me, I think that our essence – the unquantifiable God spark that makes us us – transits out of this physical dimension and moves into that non-space ‘afterworld’ upon death. Like the signal from a station which your radio is not programmed to receive; it still exists, but you can no longer hear it. This all might even yet seem like so much fluffy conjecture if I hadn’t beheld my father beginning to ‘transition’ out of this world… There are some who might chalk it all up to a simple physiological process of the body breaking down, but I don’t. I watched as he was greeted by deceased family members, and listened through tear-filled eyes when he told me how much he missed his parents. Unknown to him, he followed form perfectly. He pointed to crowds of people in the corner of the room, “waiting on the curve” and asked me who they were (how honored I was that he could share his visions with me) and he said he was “in pleasure” as he watched them. I know now that he was in the middle of his process. By that time he was not altogether ‘living’ anymore. Like a radio station on I80 in the middle of hilly Pennsylvania, the signal was beginning to fade.

So I’m good with it. And not. I feel that dad is doing just fine where he is. It’s just me, mom and Andrew that have the rough road. Once, last year when I was missing dad as acutely as ever, I wondered out loud if dad was with me, if he knew about the Studio, if he approved of what I might do with the place…. Elihu was tired of my laments, and curtly told me that grandpa had “work to do” and it wasn’t fair to bother him with things that were now my business. “He can’t always be here with you, mommy. He’s got a lot of things to do.” I may have a wise kid, but still something inside tells me that outside of this time-space realm, the rules are different. If there is no such thing as locale, if ‘reality’ is as plastic and ethereal as our dreams, then I like to think dad is smiling, telling me it’s all fine, and that he’s right here with me when I need him to be.

But forward movement is required on this plane, so I can’t let my progress falter. Dad is where he is, and for the time being, I’m still right here. Nothing to do but keep going. Everything has happened as it should, and I’m striving to understand it the very best I can, so that I can move on with confidence toward whatever it is that will happen next on this great adventure.

 

Memorial Tree December 4, 2014

It would be the closest thing to a formal ceremony my family would ever have for dad. The funeral home that handled dad’s affairs held an interfaith service and candlelit walk the other night in memory of those who’d died this past year. Time feels very different these days, and truly, it is hard to comprehend that it’s been almost a year since my father’s been gone. Christmastime will forever carry with it a different sort of mood. But it’s ok; his life ended in as near perfect a way as we could have hoped. For the most part, dad was dad up until the end. In spite of that, I do know that the last year or two wasn’t necessarily enjoyable for him. The last month was the worst of it, really. So it was a good thing that he finally left.

Time has taken some of the edge off; the hurt isn’t so acute as it once was, but instead, now I find that his death has become a regular part of my life. I must think of dad several times each day, missing those little, familiar details I can never again hear or see… Daily my sorrow is refreshed in little ways. It’s a selfish thing though; I personally believe he’s enjoying a much more harmonious, peaceful and loving existence wherever it is that he lives now. It’s just this damned one-way mirror makes it impossible to confirm my hunch. Man, sometimes this life thing really pisses me off. And sometimes I think it’s all a very clever way in which to stoke our sense of hope, and strengthen our ability to have faith. And then again sometimes I feel like it’s all a stupid, hurtful game, and I’m done with it – I’m out of patience with the whole ridiculous, painful joke.

Death wouldn’t be so bad if we could just get a little note from our departed loved ones, just to let us know that they got there ok, that maybe they miss us, and that they want us to know that it’s not so bad. Not bad at all, in fact. Oh, and if they could just assure us that we’ll be fine too, and before we know it, somehow, we’ll be together again.

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 Elihu put his dove on the tree in memory of his grandfather. He started to sing Kum Ba Yah on the walk back to the church. I sang harmony with him, and our song ended just as the candlelit walk was over. Kinda perfect. And Elihu was the first to remember some funny anecdotes about dad at the end of the evening, bringing a bit of spirited joy back to the night. Thankfully, he’s kept his outlook positive and hopeful around this sad change of life, even down to the parting words he last spoke to his grandpa: See you shortly…

 

Three Days Left October 30, 2014

A young woman will end her life this weekend. Her name is Brittany, and I’m incredibly grateful to her.

Some of my friends know this about me – and certainly my son knows it better than anyone – that if I am ever faced with a terminal illness, I intend to make the choice whether to let the disease take me – or whether I will choose to take my own life first. Likely, I’d opt to leave before my quality of life declined to such a point that it was creating unnecessary discomfort and distress – in me or my loved ones. I’ve been adamant about this for a long time now, and after being present for my father’s death last year, I began to think more deeply on the subject. Caught up as I’ve been – as we all are – in the micro details of my ongoing life, I hadn’t thought much on the subject for a while. Until last week.

I very seldom pick up a People Magazine, but when I saw the headline, I had no choice. I had to know this woman, to know her name, have her picture in my mind, I had to know her story… Yes, it was about her, but it also involved those who loved her, too. I couldn’t avoid the big question – what about her mother? I am a mother, and I cannot fathom what it would be to live this nightmare; to know that you must support your child in their choice to end their own life. Such an excruciating paradox; the height of love’s expression: to let your child go as an act of compassion. How, I wondered, even long after I’d read and re-read the article, was this all going to work? I myself now have the experience of holding a family member’s hand as he died, but that was far different. It was his time. We were ready. How in hell can any of her family or dear friends be ready for such a thing? It’s beyond my comprehension. It’s beyond the comprehension of us as a society. For now, at least. It’s my great hope that it will not always be.

Maybe Brittany has begun a more public conversation about the choice to die issue than ever before, and maybe this time it’ll pick up momentum and blossom into a new awareness across our culture. Maybe, just maybe, this is the beginning of a new era. Daily our planet wrestles with a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ dance over social constructs that in my opinion, should be old news and long in place by now. I feel as if we should be beyond all this pettiness by now and be done messing around with other people’s lives and trying to prevent them from making the choices they need to make, but in reality, I suppose we’re still only at the bottom few rungs of the ladder.

But even if it’s a slow progress, we are moving upward, and thanks to my hero Brittany, it’s front-page conversation at the moment. Because Brittany is a beautiful, intelligent, articulate and young woman, she makes the issue relatable and relevant to a whole new population for whom this subject might previously have been as irrelevant as discussions on Medicare benefits. I mean it’s one thing if we’re talking about your grandma who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s after eighty good years, but it sheds an entirely new light on things when you’re discussing death by choice with a twenty-something.

There’s nothing more to be said now. Only three days are left in which her mother may hear her voice, in which her husband may hold her hand, in which her friends may sit by her side. How will Brittany’s innermost thoughts change in the final hours? What on earth is that experience like? Has fear gone completely – or does it ebb and flow? How brave she is to go where few have gone, and from where none can report back. But truthfully, I’m not so worried about her. She’ll be fine. It’s those she leaves behind that have a longer and harder road ahead. Strength to all of you. I send you my love and most supportive energy. There are thousands of us thinking of your family right now, and if we could share the burden of your heartbreak, we would. And thank you so very much, Brittany. I pray for your smooth and peaceful transition. Hope to meet you on the other side someday.

Brittany ended her life yesterday, November 1st, 2014, with her family and loved ones beside her.