Death Leads the Way
On the first day of spring of 1984, I was 18 years old when my great-grandma Leavy was dying in a nursing home in Escalon, California. That skilled nursing facility had been her home for years. I’d visited it many times during my childhood and that was where I first learned about how we house the elderly and infirm when they can no longer take care of themselves. It was also the place where, as a young child, I became aware of the looming death of others. I associated death with old age, the body wearing out, and a natural process. Incidentally, I also learned in that nursing home to turn off my olfactory system which became quite helpful later in my work life in hospitals and visiting nursing homes!
Born in Monticello, Kentucky in 1893, Leavy was 90 years old. She’d lived through the turn of the century, every war and “conflict,” the Great Depression and Roaring 20s, the Dust Bowl years in Oklahoma, the murder of her first husband, and the death of her second husband. She’d endured these experiences and the deaths of two of her children and all four of her siblings long before 1965 when I, her first great-grandchild, was born.
There are moments in our lives that influence our future selves. We may not be aware of it at the time, but looking back certain scenes become part of the bigger picture in finding our meaning and purpose in life. In my search, death leads the way.
On that vernal spring equinox in 1984, I sat at Leavy’s beside in a visitor chair squeezed between her bed and the window that faced north. Soft late afternoon light came through the window behind me as I watched her shaky hand on her tummy and listened to her soft moaning. The nurse had just told me and my grandmother, Anita, that Leavy had stopped eating and she was dying. They didn’t know how long she had.
Leavy was sitting propped up in a hospital bed, dressed in a faded snap-down-the-front gown, and covered up to her hips in a hospital bed blanket. I could see her chin whiskers needed shaving again. This wasn’t the room on the other side of the facility where she’d lived all those years. Her personal belongings were nowhere to be seen. The nursing station across the hall was busy and I could hear staff talking to other residents making their lost way to dinner.
Upon hearing the nurse’s evaluation of the situation, my grandma Anita freaked out. She fled the nursing home in a flood of tears and never came back. I sat still. I watched Leavy. She immediately became a bit more energetic in her shaky hand movements and was clearly distressed. On pure impulse, I said, “It’s okay for you to go. She’ll be okay, we’ll take care of her.” Then I asked Leavy if she’d like me to rub her tummy. She put her hand down at her side and seemed to relax. With fingers as light as feathers but touching her firmly, I rubbed my hand in large circular motions around her tummy. She had been a good eater! Her face went soft and she stopped moaning, which I interpreted as relief from being upset over her daughter’s dramatic departure and an easing of some ache in her belly.
Leavy had not opened her eyes during the entire time I was there. She had not spoken but was clearly aware we were there. She understood what was being said. Still, she seemed to be partway to somewhere else.
After rubbing her tummy for a while, she seemed to fall asleep. I sat quietly for some time, then I left. I drove back to my grandparents’ house, 10 minutes down a country road, to the farmhouse where I lived at the time. My grandparents’ farm and almond orchard sat across the street from a large old lawn cemetery. I’d spent many childhood days walking there in the shade of the big trees on summer vacations and Thanksgiving weekends. Leavy would later be buried there along with several other family members.
Around 630am on the second day of spring in 1984, the call came that Leavy had died. The person on the other end of the line told my grandma she’d not awoken after I left, did not suffer, and her body had already been picked up by the mortuary. Relief washed over me hearing that she’d not suffered, while simultaneously regretting that I’d not remained planted in that chair until the end.
In 1971, my brother, Wes, was born on July 28th. He shared Leavy’s birthday. His death in August 2002, during the heat of summer, is yet another story that leads the way. I also regret that I left his side within 24 hours of his death. Even though he wanted to spare me seeing certain things he associated with death, I saw some of it anyway when I arrived three hours after his death. I wish I had been there. I wish I had known his last breath was coming in the wee hours that morning when I’d gone home to rest.
Perhaps even more so, I wish we’d had more time with Wes after he died. I wish we had known we could have more time, a home funeral, ritual. As it was, it all happened so fast and my last memory is of sitting on a couch in another room consoling my mother when the van took him away. She’d washed his body before I got there and that was all she had. That was all we had besides sitting at his bedside for a short time.
Over the course of my social work life in medical settings, I’ve been in the midst of various death scenes. I say “in the midst of” because I was there as a support person, but these were not my people. It was not my loss that was happening. I was there to help ease the suffering of patients, families, and loved ones whom I didn’t know until the very end. Many of them were traumatic, unsettling and/or sudden, while others were expected, as when turning off life support.
While I no longer work in a medical setting, death still leads the way.
Volunteering for Full Circle of Living and Dying is, in a profound and unexpected way, coming full circle for me. While my social work career has been about easing the suffering of others, sometimes just with my presence, and often not related to death, I have found that this calling is not just about a career. It’s personal, as you may already know if you’ve heard me talk about my mother or my brother’s death. Death continues to lead the way in finding new depths of meaning and purpose in my life. As I follow and accept the invitations, I find myself in enlightening places I’d never planned or imagined.
I am whole-heartedly thankful for the volunteers in Full Circle for what I’ve learned from them since 2016, and I hope to give back while paying it forward in ways that are helpful and unique from my experiences. I so much appreciate the openness of everyone I’ve met as I continue to learn while finding my place as a volunteer and board member.