Losing Martha

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.


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.

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.


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.

Summer Starts

Elihu is in the bath, and I’ve snuck away to make a quick post. Spent the day readying our place for the warm months. Raked and rocked the entire garden and set up the bean poles. Planted flowers, cleaned out beds, secured the chicks’ outdoor run, plus a handful of other outdoor tasks. Needless to say I’m a good sort of tired right now. The lilacs have all gone by, so have the lily of the valley. Now we turn our attention to the growing of tomato plants and the swatting of mosquitoes.

Didn’t want Memorial Day to slip by without sharing this wonderful photograph of my father playing harpsichord for fellow army men. He was in his early twenties then. His was the Korean War era, and while he was never deployed, he had been trained for war. When greeted at Fort Dix by a superior he would hear “Private, what is your mission?” to which he was expected to salute and respond “To kill or be killed, Sir!”. When he related the story to me his face took on an expression I’d seldom seen. He looked to me for my shared disbelief and horror. “Can you believe that?” he asked. No, I could not. When he had shared this with his own father, hoping to receive just the smallest show of love or support, my grandfather instead surprised my dad by coldly reminding him “That’s what he was there for.”  (This is a time and culture in which my father and grandfather shook hands when saying goodbyes – and also when upon reuniting after long absences. No physical expressions of tenderness between these men in that day and age.!) All pretty horrific from my perspective today. I cannot even begin to imagine my son in such potential peril, not to mention sending him off in such a cold, unfeeling manner. A different time, a different world for sure.

My father took jobs painting the base’s chapel and playing harpsichord for services. I might not be here at all if he’d seen combat. Never know.

dad fort dix

Private Robert Conant plays harpsichord (this instrument is now in my living room) for the troops, Fort Dix, 1951


“So what is Memorial Day really about?” Elihu asked me yesterday. Hmm. I gave him the simple answer for the time being, and told him it was a day on which we remembered the people from our country who served, fought and sometimes died in the wars. A churning of conflicting thoughts on the subject began inside me. I needed to get to this one. I needed to express my feelings to him, as mixed as they are, on war and the culture around it. For now it would wait, but this conversation would happen soon.

The Fourth of July, Memorial Day and such patriotic occasions always bring forth a swirling mix of ‘yes, buts’ in my mind. Yes, we should remember, bless and thank the people who served, but weren’t these wars for the most part just crazy, vain and wasted efforts created by a few insane leaders? When my son was born, we’d just stepped into the mire of a fresh new war. I remember being on bed rest in the final days of my pregnancy, lying on the couch and watching in disbelief as bombs were dropped in the far-away Middle East on cities and towns that no doubt contained women just like me, in the last stretch of their own pregnancies. I was stunned and heartsick. My baby would be born as a new war began. Shock and awe indeed.

Shortly after Elihu was born I had a what folks these days like to refer to as ‘a light bulb moment’. It was more of a paradigm shift, really. Now holding in my arms a tiny babe, a creature that manifested pure vulnerability and love, I could no longer remotely even begin to justify – or understand – war.  I watched George W. on the screen and searched for the father in his eyes. How must he have felt the moment he first beheld his two tiny daughters? Did his heart truly stir with that certain, specific and intense love that only one’s own child can inspire? And if he did understand that love, as I’m sure he must have, did his own feelings about the children everywhere in the world not profoundly change as well? I mean, just how can he possibly sanction the bombing of a community that will no doubt result in the absolute terror and physical pain of young children, and the loss of their beloved parents?? As a parent it was sealed for me now. I could no longer accept the need for war. I could no longer justify the injury or death of innocent people – of any people. I could no longer keep their tender humanity vague, fuzzy and cloaked by geographical distance. Everyone, every last person, is someone’s baby.

When I lived in Dekalb, Illinois I would attend the town’s Fourth of July celebration in their beautiful municipal park, on the sweeping lawn under the canopy of ancient elms and oaks. The beloved and white-haired band leader of the town would lead the orchestra under the large, clam shelled roof of the bandstand. Fireworks would accompany the final number, the classic 1812 Overture. Before that flashy conclusion the orchestra would perform a medley of armed forces themes. The conductor asked that those who’d served should stand and be recognized when the theme of their branch of the armed services was played. As soon as the new familiar melody sounded, men all over the audience would stand. I was amazed at my own feelings in witnessing this. It was touching, it was tearful, it was good. I wondered at all the personal stories behind these figures. At the conclusion of the theme, the audience would clap for these heroes, and then they would sit, to be followed by the next group of soldiers. What really stuck with me was one man in particular. I’d passed three Fourths of July there in that park, each time in my own little spot by a certain tree from which I could easily see the stage, yet could avoid the thick of the crowd. Beside me, about twenty feet away, I would see the same man, sitting in his lawn chair, bedecked with pins and emblems on his casual summer outfit. He sat alone. He registered nothing on his face. Yet each year, when the Navy theme played, he slowly rose from his seat and placed his hand on his heart. I saw in his face, read in his entire body, a story of intensity. What his story was I will never know, but the meaning was hard and real. I watched nothing but him, as carefully and tactfully as I could so as not to make him aware of my attention. But nothing could have distracted him from the world he was reliving in that moment. The first year I saw him I was intrigued. My second year there I was happy to see him, the third year I was fascinated. Talking to people is usually quite easy for me, but as I pondered how to approach him, what to say, how to even begin, I just gave up. It just didn’t feel right. My witness was enough. Enough to honor him, enough to open me up to a world I’m usually quick to disdain.

I think of that man now each Memorial Day, each Fourth of July. Through the ether I send him my love and my gratitude for the actions he took, but mostly I thank him for the conviction of his beliefs – the sense of real purpose that inspired him to serve in spite of the fear and danger he faced. I myself believe that not one war since the Revolutionary War has been about the protection of our country’s freedom. In my mind, this man served a false cause, a reality contrived by very few, but bought, sold and believed by the multitudes. The need to protect was real for him, and so it was real on some level. But for me, war can never be real. It is a game played with living chess pieces, flesh and blood pawns that serve not their own interest, but those of the men choosing the strategies, making the rules. The only rules on our tiny planet should be to live, love, encourage the same in other creatures, and look for understanding when there is none. If everyone had the same shared goals of helping their neighbors to live as well as possible and if no one could find it remotely tolerable to see fellow earth-citizens living in lack, war would not be an option. If these truly were core, unshakable beliefs in each person, if we treated the welfare of others exactly as our own, then we wouldn’t need a Memorial Day. Many may say I’m naive, that it’s not that simple. But I believe it is. When one is tuned in to one’s connection, one’s similarity to all others, one knows that war is simply not a choice. Sadly, the folks we look to for rule-making and value-setting have a lot of airtime and money. These influential people have lost their sense of connection to fellow humans and found instead a malignant yet seductive substitute for it in the realm of power and self-protection, which in their minds fully justifies such violence. It looks like it’ll be awhile yet before we can experience a world-wide paradigm shift together. But it’s coming. This internet world will reach further and further, connecting more people than we can imagine today. When we are all finally able to see each other, to connect, to witness each other’s sameness, each other’s humanity, then we will all realize the illusion for what it’s been all these insane years.

But my sincere thanks and gratitude go out, nonetheless, to all those who willingly accepted the duty of service in the armed forces. And my love goes out to all the families torn apart by the loss of those who chose to serve.

God Bless America. God Bless Afghanistan. God bless every last one of us. Even George W.