My parents never taught me how to cope with death. It was clearly a taboo topic in our household. Someone died and the adults may or may not have told us kids, and our parents never brought us to a funeral. That wasn’t the place for children, I once overheard dad say. I even remember at age 15 sitting in the car of a church parking lot while my father went inside to attend the funeral of his aunt — a woman who had babysat my brother and I when we were little and who sneakily waited until my parents were out of the kitchen to gobble down the black-eyed peas my mother insisted we eat before she departed for the evening.
As an adult I have had to learn over the years how to handle death. It’s been a rather haphazard learning process. First I had to confront the passing of my grandmothers, each of whom I saw hours before they passed. At 19, I opened the hospital door to see my grandmother hooked up to a maze of tubes. Her eyes flew open and stared at me. I fled the room, past the nurses’ station and down a back stairwell that forced me to depart through a fire escape door and set off an alarm. When I was about 28, my other grandmother was propped up in my father’s guestroom when my husband and I arrived in town for a final visit. She was ghostly frail in the final stages of lung cancer. I sat across the room for a few minutes and quietly stared as my sisters talked to her. Then I dashed out.
I’ve lost both parents and this year lost my oldest sister, and each time the process became a little less mysterious and frightening. Yet each death came as a surprise and I wasn’t knowingly in the position of having that final conversation.
So when my Reminiscence and Life History certification course this year delved into lessons on dealing with various challenging situations with the elderly, I read through chapters on talking with those in the final stage of life but thought, “Well, that’s not going to be my market.”
They forgot to tell me it’s often unavoidable in this business of personal history.
My first client is a woman with an inspiring story of survival, persistence, musical talent and devotion to community service. The roots of her character, of course, in part lie in the foundation created by her parents and grandparents. So when I asked if family members would agree to be interviewed, suddenly all were onboard. Including her 93-year-old mother in Independence, Missouri.
Her mother grew up in the early part of the 20th century on a farm in a small town in Texas. She walked a mile or two to school each day, picked cotton with the hired hands in the afternoons, taught herself piano, observed her father help those less fortunate, and idolized her older sisters. But she desired more.
After high school, she boarded a train to Washington, D.C. to go work for Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s staff as a clerk in the War Department during World War II. She later married a fellow she met there — only after attending college — and raised six children (one adopted) as a missionary’s wife. I was eager to meet her and hear her stories.
As winter quickly approached, my client and I decided I should make the trip. I booked the tickets and made plans to spend five days in the area the week before Thanksgiving. I envisioned relaxed one-hour conversations once or twice daily, more if she could handle it.
A couple days before my arrival the mother had a bad fall that badly bruised her head, sapped much of her remaining strength, and diminished her voice to nearly a whisper. I knew none of this when, after my flight landed, her oldest daughter pressed me to get to the house soon because she didn’t know how much time her mother had left. Hospice would be coming by and nurses were in and out, she said. My stomach tightened and my heart raced. How would I deal with this? I’ve interviewed hundreds of people in my career, from small town businessmen to high-powered politicians and national leaders and I have never been nervous. Not like this.
Once I got there I never considered running. This 93-year-old woman was, yes, weak. She quietly (sometimes not so quietly) acquiesced as family members and nurses moved her from couch to bed to bath and periodically pressed her to eat. As the family and caregivers handled phone calls, talked with doctors and managed schedules, pain medications and food, I sat with this woman and traveled through time. Sometimes we were in Lexington, Kentucky, in the 1960s. Sometimes we were on her father’s farm in the early 1930s and her grandfather was rocking her in his lap. Occasionally we were in the woods by her childhood home where she liked to pray. On our last day she told me about her previous night and the funeral of her husband. He had passed more than 50 years ago, but in her mind it was yesterday.
She had told many of the stories to her children. Some were new stories she hadn’t shared before. A few stories she never told — either the memories were gone or she chose not to relive them. I enjoyed hours of conversation interrupted with long moments of quiet contemplation. I feared I was robbing the time from her family, but her daughter said she thought it gave her mother some peace as the end approached. I hope it did.
This lady, her body tiny and frail after her decades of adventures and hardships, loves and losses, passed away last weekend — just a couple of days after I started to weave her memories into the family story. I think of our discussions, of her chuckling at a memory and tossing her head back slightly as if she was that young woman talking flirtatiously with her young coworkers as they dined or explored D.C. I feel lucky to have spent those final days with her, and I look forward to spending the next several months with her memories and those of her family.