Ways of Seeing: Kate Gridley, Confronting death a healthy move
My mother-in-law, Lorraine, taught me how to die when I was just entering my forties.
Before that, it was dark and scary.
When my mother’s mother died, she was far away in Wisconsin, and even though I caught my mother crying for the first time one afternoon when she picked me up at school (I was ten), she went off to the funeral alone. In those days, one did not speak of death, especially in front of children. Adults didn’t cry, either, and when they did, it was scary.
Six weeks later, my mother’s father died. They always said it was from a broken heart. It was right before Christmas, so we went to Wisconsin for the funeral that was on Christmas Eve day. The casket was on a large cart with wheels, draped in a black shroud. The adults were all tall, pale and quiet. I don’t remember what happened the next day, Christmas Day.
My mother lost both her parents when she was thirty-six. And even though she never talked about it until we were much older, we could hear her crying when she thought we were asleep for a long time after.
When Great Uncle John died (I was eleven) my mother said, “It was a good death. He died living.” He had gone to get the morning paper across the river in his little VW beetle. I remember it was pale gray, and the paper came from “Finerty’s” where sometimes I got to go with him for the paper when we were visiting for the weekend, and sometimes we would also buy English muffins. Just turning into the driveway he had a heart attack, so he pulled over to the side, under a huge maple tree near ivy covered ground and a stone wall, and died.
My baby Cousin Johnny, who was five, found him a little while later because the car was just sitting there running and Great Uncle John looked like he was asleep, so he climbed onto his lap. Great Uncle John had a card in his wallet that said he wanted to donate his eyes to someone, so soon a team of people carrying a small cooler came and took his eyes. We weren’t allowed to go to the funeral because everyone thought it would be too upsetting. We saw more pale and tired grownups, my grandmother (his sister) crying, and everyone had on dark suits.
I wondered if along with his eyes, they might have also sent his glasses.
Where had he gone? The sweet man who used to come visit us on Sunday afternoons with a box of cookies in his pocket, a black doctor’s bag full of possessions in hand (he was not a doctor), who preferred playing jazz on the piano to talking.
So when my mother-in-law appeared for lunch on her last solo drive from Shelburne to talk about how she wanted us to please take care of her body because she had figured out in Vermont it was legal to do so — well, that was different.
She had just been diagnosed. Twelve years after a melanoma was removed from her neck (which, strangely, we have discovered we can see in photos in the family album), the cancer came back, and by the time it was discovered, it was too late for treatment — almost. The one option had side affects that would make her feel as if she had the flu for whatever time she had left. She said no.
A couple days later, brandishing a pamphlet, Lorraine arrived at our house. “You know, in Vermont, you can take care of me!”
“Of course we can, and we will,” John responded, smiling. He and I had already started talking with his siblings about how we might help her through the last months, but we hadn’t gotten very far, yet, and we had not begun the conversation with her.
“That’s not what I mean, dear. I mean my body. You can take care of my body for me after I die. If it’s the last thing I do, I don’t want to give my business to the mortuary mafia!”
She always had been a revolutionary.
She even wanted to pre-pay, but Mr. Ide at the crematorium ended that discussion when he asked, “Are you making a reservation?”
Thus began an exploration. Where do you take a body to be cremated when you are on your own? What do we put the body in? What are the dimensions of said box? Can we make it ourselves? Where do we get a permit for transporting a body (you have to have a permit)? How would her residence feel if we took care of her body instead of the usual? Could a friend make the urn for the ashes?
From that discussion about how to take care of her body (which we did), we moved on to helping her die over the next three months. Actually, we didn’t help her; she helped us. For some reason, she was not scared. She went forward eyes open, unafraid. My sister-in-law took advantage of the Family and Medical Leave Act, and moved in. Her children and grandchildren were in and out, and friends.
Four of us were with her the night she died while the wind howled outside and ice grew on trees (it was the ice storm of December 1997).
Since then, we have taken care of other loved ones, and I have become a hospice volunteer. A few weeks ago, two friends and I hosted a Death Café, where people come together, drink tea, eat cookies and talk about death. No agenda, no hierarchy; just talking, sharing and listening. It helps to talk about death and to hear other people’s stories. We’re all going to die.
Kate Gridley is an artist residing in Middlebury. She is currently working on a new series of paintings, “An Iconography of Memory.”
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