The Family Way of Dying


Grandma and Grandpa owned the farm that had been on family ground since forever, or slightly before.  One of their son’s and his wife and family also lived on the farm.  Sometime after Grandpa died, Grandma made Uncle Dick the owner of the farm with the guarantee that she would live out the rest of her life there.  Grandma feared the possibility of a nursing home so Uncle Dick promised her that she would stay on the farm until she died.  My mother gave him a hard time about this because Mom knew that things happen that you can’t anticipate or cope with.

When Grandma had a heart attack, the boys—her middle-aged sons—went upstairs and moved her bed down to the living room.  Without stairs and such to cope with, she lived well and much longer, including after a bout with breast cancer from which she recovered after surgery.

Then Grandma got cancer again.  It didn’t matter what kind.  It spread quickly.  It was before cell phones and computers and the Internet putting a world of information at your fingertips.  Grandma was in her eighty’s and it was 1970-whatever and it was all over but the suffering.  The doctor said six months till death.

Grandma got better and worse.  She rallied and failed.  Uncle Dick and Aunt Peggy, who both worked, were still on the farm but their children were gone.  Aunt Peggy called an agency and hired someone to be with Grandma during the day.  After while it became apparent that the day-sitter wasn’t coming.  Aunt Peggy called the agency, asked why not, and was told the service had been canceled.  By whom, she asked?  “Mrs. Richard Copeland,” was the answer.

Aunt Peggy was Mrs. Richard Copeland, Jr.; Grandma was Mrs. Richard Copeland, Sr., and Grandma didn’t want to be tended by strangers.  Who does?

So Grandma’s daughter and two daughters-in-law took responsibility for primary care.  Every six weeks, my mother would leave her home in New York to spend two weeks caring for her mother.  As Grandma got progressively worse, she was sheltered behind the 18-inch thick, fieldstone walls of the farmhouse where she had lived most of her life.  Her bed was tucked into the corner of the front room with windows on each side through which she not only could see the comings and goings on the farm, but also all the passers-by:  “The Stott’s went through this morning and waved—I haven’t seen them in a long time.”

When Grandma got too weak to make it to the bathroom, the “potty chair” was put beside her bed.  It was a nice armed wooden chair painted white that had a hole cut in the seat, a potty installed underneath, a wooden lid installed overtop, and a pretty handmade cushion placed over that.  It was entirely suitable for a guest chair as well as providing potty service.  It had been made for my Grandma’s grandmother after her stroke and had been stored somewhere on the farm, ready to be pulled out again when it was needed.

Grandma and her brother and two sisters all lived on adjoining land.  All their children and grandchildren were close family.  As Grandma approached death, all the extended family pitched in and did what they could.  Lester, Grandma’s nephew and the head researcher at the steel mill, cut wood for the fireplace across from Grandma’s bed.  I was the one who realized that Grandma had a tape recorder (which she never used) and got out the tapes of hymns that brought her enormous comfort.

Children, nephews, grandchildren—everybody gathered around and did whatever they were called to—cook, run errands, whatever.  My mother found herself wiping her mother’s bottom after bowel movements.  My mother said, “If you’d ever told me I’d be wiping my mother’s bottom, I would have said ‘no way,’ but somebody’s got to do it and I’m somebody.”

The doctor said Grandma would die in six months but she lingered a year and a half.  During that time, everybody who had known or loved her came to say goodbye.  My brother came in from Colorado.  I remember one day when I sat beside my grandmother in the living room and listened to her stories as she lay there weak and wasted, then I went out to the kitchen and cried in my mother’s arms.

We had time to laugh and cry and say goodbye in the farmhouse that had sheltered us all for so long.  We were deeply rooted in the eternal land.

Grandma suffered horribly.  It was before Hospice, before palliative care, before much understanding of the physical process of pain.  She lay in bed, listened to hymns, and prayed.  Then, finally the day came when she was removed to a nursing home so she could get frequent injections of morphine.

She lived three more weeks, and was not without family for an hour.  Quietly and without fuss, the family moved in to take shifts so that Grandma was never left alone with strangers.  My sister Mary was there till midnight when Cousin Marylou relieved her and, in the words of the Christian members of the family, “just prayed Grandma into heaven.”

In the words of my atheistic mother, “Well, if she could do that then why didn’t she do it weeks ago?”

So that’s how my mother’s side of the family handled dying.  My father did it differently.  He was an only child, with only three distant cousins.  His mother had been widowed early and left to live alone thirty miles away from us.  My father saw to her legal matters but rarely visited her or took us to see her.  When he got a call from the police that she was sitting in an all-night restaurant saying that her neighbors were trying to poison her, my father ended up with no options except to commit her to a state psychiatric facility, where he continued his policy of infrequent visits.

Both my grandmothers lived into their nineties.  One died alone in a state hospital, the other almost died at home, and did die in the constant embrace of family.

Here’s the thing:  caring for the dying is learned behavior.  How did you see your parents caring for their parents?  How much does your care of your parents resemble their care of their parents?

And what are your children learning from watching you?  How will they care for you when your time comes?

About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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