Events: A Neighbor's Passing
Monday, October 27, 2003
Saturday: drove to Burlington, found my way to the Fletcher Allen health care facility where Kay, one of my downhill neighbors, is receiving treatment. I found her in a two-patient unit on the fourth floor, the room's occupants separated by a white curtain. Kay had the bed by the window -- when I entered the room, her eyes took me in, her face settled into a smile, an expression of quiet radiance.
She lay on her back, head cushioned by two white pillows, the sheets on the bed white, her hair a white corona around the thin oval of her face. Her body had grown even slighter than her normal slender state (which is saying something), the muscles on her arms had withdrawn beneath the skin so that the flesh hung loosely. And yet she shone, with a loveliness I'd never seen in her before, as if during the course of this possibly life-ending experience she'd released her grasp on the things she often worried and fretted over, surrendering to a situation that had pulled her out of her home, her normal routines, her accustomed ways of seeing the world and reacting to life. The smile on her face was not tinged with emotions that often seemed to play about her features in the time I'd known her -- frustration, restlessness, fragility. Instead, it hinted at a genuine appreciation of her existence, her situation, the people in her life.
I pulled a chair over to the side of her bed and sat down. She lay a hand on my arm, I covered her hand with one of mine. And she talked, easily, the words coming as if she had plenty to say, as if this last week or two had been a hell of a time, a period in which she'd experienced amazing things. She couldn't speak loudly, her words sometimes became inaudible -- I'd lean closer, I'd concentrate, I'd lean closer still, but the ambient hospital noise overrode her in those moments. Asking her to speak up only provoked efforts that seemed to strain her physically, with little result, so I simply listened, letting her volume fall and rise as it would.
She told me about having cancer, about being the only person in her family to have developed it. She related the tests that resulted in the diagnosis, about the treatments, about the medicines that had brought physical relief, about being unable to use her legs (that last the product of a tumor pressing on her spine). She told me about the experience of being brought to a medical center near Montpelier, then to this hospital in Burlington. She talked about her husband, Mo, about her kids, about nieces, nephews, grandkids. She spoke about growing up on a farm, about living here in northeastern Vermont.
And during all this, I was struck by her distinct resemblance to my mother, or at least to the version of my mother I saw during her final days. Her hair, her features, the overall look of her shrinking body, of her arms and, in particular, of her hands. That last really caught my eye -- my mother had distinctive hands, with long, expressive fingers. It felt strange to find myself in contact with a pair of hands so reminiscent of the maternal ones, in a situation so reminiscent of the last times I'd seen my family's maternal figure.
My mother's final months were not exactly a peaceful time, Herself not being exactly what might be described as a peaceful individual, though the physical limitations of her last years calmed things a bit. She was accustomed to worry, seemed to hold tenaciously to a lifestyle of worry, believing this world to be packed with danger, with the need to be alert, vigilant. Much of her basic take on things tended not to encourage serenity or restfulness. Her prime method of coping: try to control as much of her world as she could, try to impose her will on as many elements of it as possible -- an approach that consumes energy and results in poor, fitful sleep. Which did not deter her from sticking to her customary m.o.
She struggled, she sometimes seemed to wrestle with a deep, hard disappointment in life. But she hung in there. She took care of herself as best she could, and she lived in her own home right up until her passing. (Down in Florida, a long way from the rest of the family, but still her own place -- paid for, under her control.) And at the end, at what many would consider a ripe old age, she waited until she'd seen the people most important to her -- me one weekend, my brother, my niece and nephew a few weeks later. And then she let go and passed over, suddenly, quickly, her lungs abruptly filling with liquid, her system packing it in, giving out.
Within 24 hours of her death, I felt her around. Or, for those who might cock an eyebrow at that kind of notion, I felt a vivid energy around me that I could only describe as hers. Happier, more curious and enthusiastic about everything than I'd ever known her to be.
Think what you will about it, that was my experience.
Kay mentioned that she didn't think she would be going home. Both she and her husband, Mo, had told me it was possible she would be leaving the hospital this week, moving to a nursing facility not far from here in Barre, Montpelier's working-class neighbor city. That prospect seemed to please her. Beyond that, time will tell.
After an hour, Kay's lunch arrived, hospital staff materializing to set up the tray and move Kay to a sitting position, working in friendly, exceedingly kind fashion. I left at that point, finding my way out of the building into a crisp, gray day, thinking. Absorbing a lot of input. Heading off to spend the afternoon with a friend, for a walk around a lake, in woods still full of color, a nice contrast to the late autumn look prevalent in this corner of the state.
This life of ours -- it packs a punch.
[continued in next entry]
Thursday, November 06, 2003
The last several days: gray, wet, cold. Overcast, temperatures in the low to mid-30s. Rain falling through much of it, fog coming and going. All of which has its own beauty in this rural, mountainous country -- fall colors long vanished, the landscape now a blend of browns, grays, greens. Vermont, late autumn, winter not far off.
On Tuesday, the lying bastards in the local weather service (and I mean that in the nicest possible way) predicted that yesterday would bring sunlight and higher temperatures. Yesterday, when that didn't pan out, they predicted the same thing in stronger terms for today. When I woke up in this morning's pre-dawn hours, a glance out a window showed a few lonely stars shining through thinning cloud cover. Thin enough that the daylight hours brought some actual sunshine. Wan, diffuse, thin, but still sunshine. For a short, fleeting while anyway. Then the cold gray reasserted itself. No rain, though, for which I'm grateful.
Tuesday morning I hung out with my downhill neighbor, Mo, for a while. His wife, Kay -- in the hospital with cancer a couple of weeks back [see entry of October 27] -- passed on last Thursday night. Since then, Mo's had plenty of folks around, family and friends, keeping him company through this major life passage. I stopped by during a lull in the activity, no one there but Mo and his two small dogs, Sally and Corky. Sally: a fat beagle who has Mo wrapped around one of her little, er, toes; Corky: a smaller pooch, maybe a Chow -- thick reddish-brown fur; small, bright black eyes; pointy ears, a pointy snout. Kind of cute, not terribly bright. Mo dotes on them both, they dote on him and take advantage when they can -- especially Sally, running off whenever she can manage it to cavort around the hill here for an hour before returning home, pantingly happy, free of shame/guilt.
It's an odd phenomenon: Mo is a hunter, has been for most of his 80+ years. Loves to hunt, will go after just about anything that runs, flies or swims. Except his two designated companion canines: a half-bright carouser and a half-dim lap dog.
Considering the turns his recent existence has taken -- getting a knee replaced four or five weeks back; Kay coasting suddenly downhill healthwise, getting diagnosed with cancer, spending a week in health care facilities before making a graceful exit from this mortal coil scant days after their 60th wedding anniversary -- Mo seems to be doing all right. (He is as close to being indestructible as any human being I've ever met, and I sometimes think that after everyone else here on the hill lives out their days and topples over, he'll still be tooling around on his ATV, shooting squirrels off our headstones.) He wasn't ebullient, he wasn't prancing about in joy, but he was all right. Able to talk about the impact of Kay's passing on his life, able to talk about other things, able to laugh when the conversation turned to subjects that warranted laughter.
It turns out that Mo and Kay had agreed they would both be cremated, their remains mixed together in a double urn which would then be buried. Which means that Kay's ashes will reside in that urn in Mo's living room until he punches out. It turns out, he said, that not everyone in his family is crazy about that arrangement, and he doesn't care. He's got the urn, her ashes are in it, and that's how things will remain until he drops off the twig and they toss his body into the fire. At which point the rest of the plan will go into effect and their names will grace a joint headstone poking up out of a bit of Vermont countryside.
I'll say this: Mo, at 82 or so years of age, is healthier, clearer, more mobile than either of my parents were when their respective odometers showed that kind of mileage. He's a crusty, capable old guy, and as far as I'm concerned he should enjoy the rest of his 3-D tenure however he sees fit. Not that my opinion matters. I'm just saying.
Tonight there's going to be a wake-ish type of event at a funeral home twenty minutes north of here. I'll make an appearance, pay my respects, enjoy the people-watching to be had, remember conversations with Kay around their kitchen table. Tomorrow's the funeral service -- I'll skip that. Funerals don't do it for me.
To each their own. You know?
[continued in next entry]
Saturday, November 08, 2003
Two nights ago: pulled on decent clothes -- gray dress shirt, black dress pants, black pointy boots -- and drove north to the town of Hardwick for Kay's wake. Or observance. Whatever it's called when there's no body in evidence and everyone just passes the time talking instead of hanging about a heavily made-up corpse, formerly inhabited by the person we all knew.
It's a small, slightly rough-edged town, Hardwick. A pair of two-lanes pass through the village center, joining at a traffic light to run together for a while as a single road, providing the visible nucleus of town life, a stretch of businesses that give way to a handful of empty storefronts as the road curves around to the east and heads off through the Vermont countryside.
The funeral home lay across a small river from the downtown, tucked away on a side street. The night was cold, dark, mostly quiet, though the parked cars lined up along both sides of the side street indicated activity going on somewhere. In the funeral home, it turned out. Stepping inside, I found myself enveloped by the noise of voices in conversation, many, many voices, belonging to a crowd of people all packed together in one or two rooms. The place was jammed. I scribbled my name in the book near the door, turned to scan the scene. A nearby late-50s male addressed me -- weathered face, dark pants, white shirt, dark leather vest -- turning out to be one of Kay's three kids, one I'd never met in person. Ralph. He extended a hand, we shook, he pointed out where Mo was stationed, talking to a married couple from here on the hill. Without a casket as a focal point, Mo and his kids had set up a large framed collection of photos of Kay in its place, backed by flower arrangements, another larger studio photo of Kay, and hanging above all that, a strange, lit-from-within painting of Jesus. Apart from that, apart from the many people in attendance, the room was plain, unadorned, practically featureless.
Mo stood in front of the photo collection with a couple who live up over the hill from my house. I made my way through the crowd, attached myself to their small group, hung there until the couple drifted off to speak with one of Mo's daughters (having not said a word to me during the entire time I stood there). I watched the gathering for a while, recognizing faces I'd seen at Mo and Kay's on different occasions. I checked out the photos of Kay, who turned out to have been a genuine babe in younger years. I spent some time speaking with Mo's two daughters, both quite a bit older than me, both very attractive, very good-natured. We swapped stories about their parents, learned a bit about each other, talking for a good long while, surprisingly easily. I met Mo's sister and her husband, both appearing to be in their late 70s. Many of the people there looked like real country folk, the Vermont version. Hard-working, pick-up-truck-driving folks, marking the passing of a friend/relative. Several people apologized to me for having turned around in my driveway in recent days, due to a full driveway at Mo's, to which I didn't know how to respond apart from giving full dispensation.
And after 45 minutes, the crowd thinning, I said good-bye and stepped back out into the cold November night. Pleased to have spent some time at this event, glad to be going home. Thinking about how everything passes, how people, events, days, months and years come and go.
It passes deceptively quickly, this life. And it is deceptively rich and deep, the fleeting moments alive with things to experience. That's how it feels to me anyway, in my better days, my better moments.
Darkness has fallen as I've written this, a bright, nearly-full moon rising above the hills to the east. I hear a lunar eclipse is set to get underway this evening. Right about now, I think. Time to drag on a coat and go take a look.