A few weeks ago, Hospice called to let us know Dad was entering into his last stages. He had been winding down for a long time and often the end stages of the death process can last weeks. We kept visiting, but did not see a precipitous decline the way my own mother had died. After some consideration, I decided to take a quick trip to Muskegon while Mike visited Dad. His first visit found Dad sleeping so he came back in the evening. Dad was still sleeping so Mike stayed with him about an hour just talking to him. He decided to go and come back the next day. Half an hour later, when the aides checked up on Dad, he was gone.
Mike felt he should have stayed longer. I felt I shouldn’t have gone to Muskegon. But the truth is, we took good care of Dad, loved him well, and a few days short of his 98th birthday he was ready to go.
The following day found us taking care of business. Contacting the funeral director, calling friends and family, arranging with my sister-in-law to come and stay with us, contacting the church to arrange the funeral, and by the end of the day we were spent and sad.
I was staring out of my office window when I noticed a butterfly in the back yard. Frequently, there are monarchs or cabbage whites in our yard but this one was unusual. It was an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. Usually butterflies will flit from plant to plant and then leave. Photographing them has always proved challenging. This one stayed in the yard for over twenty minutes. It was if she were posing for the camera. I called Mike to see it and we watched for several minutes. I decided to get my camera and take some photos. I opened the window, hung out the side of the house and took about fifty shots.
There is a tradition among some that believe that the happy dead in the form of beautiful butterflies will visit their relatives to reassure them. A sign for those who are grieving. It is a comforting thought that Dad stopped by to say goodbye. There are those who would criticize me for being superstitious at this point. I prefer to look at it as a gentle kiss from God assuring us that all is well. After all, God is an artist and a poet.
I’ve covered a lot of miles this. week. Last Friday we drove to Chicago to pick up my sister-in-law at O’Hare and then we continued on to a northwest suburb of Chicago to celebrate our uncle’s life with friends and family. The original plan was to stay through Sunday, going to church with our aunt and cousin and. linger a bit longer before coming back to Grand Rapids.
The weather report had said some rain and snow, but by the time we were done with breakfast, our car was buried. I went to clear it off while Mike went to collect everyone’s luggage and Anne Marie went to check us out of the hotel. By the time I got back to the lobby, there was two inches of snow piled on my head. I caught a glimpse of myself in the glass doors and saw a bedraggled mess. My hair - which for once had been perfectly coiffed - was dripping wet and stuck to my head. My makeup was running down my face. As my sister-in-law glanced up to greet me, a chunk of snow slid off my head, onto my shoulder, and then plopped onto the floor. It was perfect comic timing and the look on her face as she beheld me was priceless.
We had a quick conference in the car. I was willing to drive to the church, but it was with the understanding that this was not a brief spring dust up. We were in a blizzard and the streets were not being cleared. A unanimous decision was made to send a text with our love and to head for home. It turned out to be a good decision. Normally a three and a half hour drive turned into a trip that was closer to eight hours long, with tsunamis of slush washing over the car whenever a truck passed us. We passed countless wrecks and ambulances from Illinois to Michigan. About twenty minutes from home the snow finally let up. It was an epic drive.
Once home, I checked messages and learned that a cousin had passed away. She was elderly and had just entered hospice, so it was not a complete surprise, but my small family group is dwindling even more and it breaks my heart.
After a two day respite from the road I was off again. Leaving Mike and Anne Marie to look after Dad and one another, I got on the highway heading east this time. Perhaps it’s because I was tired, perhaps it was the harrowing drive from Chicago, or perhaps there was grief upon grief, but I was not looking forward to the trip. Normally, I’m always up for a road trip. I love driving and I love going from place to place. But not this time.
Once I got to Rochester Hills, though, things felt better. As I drove the back roads to the funeral home, memories from my teen years popped up. Bike rides, friendship, and youthful angst joined in with memories of family. By the time I got back to the hotel that evening, I was on a more even keel and was able to get some rest.
In the morning the sky looked dirty and uneven - a bit sad, actually. A fitting day to mourn. The funeral was touching and I gathered with my cousins to share memories and catch up. After lunch I was back on the road and back into another storm. This one was only heavy rain but there were still accidents and the drive had its challenges.
East and west, through grief and bad weather, I persevered and made it home. A perfect metaphor, I think, for life and for death. You travel this world, you persevere through all the challenges life presents, and you make it home.
Rest in peace, Bob and Gerda. You’ve made it home.
While we were waiting for the results from my biopsy, we received the news that Mike’s uncle had passed away. He had been fighting cancer valiantly for three years and his time had come to an end. The last of Mom Kemper’s siblings were gone.
Bob had had a good life, a wonderful wife, and a great son. They were with him as he died. A good life, a good death. Still, it’s hard to accept the news.
I was at the studio when I got the call. My surgeon has me under some restrictions but I can still putter around with paper and pen. After the phone call, though, I wasn’t feeling very creative. The sun was shining so I went for a walk, trying to sort through my emotions. There is the promise of spring in the crips air, but I couldn’t really soak that in.
Loss is inevitable - a part of life. I’ve certainly experienced my share of it over the years. I won’t say it’s easier but I am starting to accept it more.
Is that a sign of growth?
The next call was from the surgeon. She called me personally to let me know the lump was cancer free. So thankful for that news.
Life and death in one afternoon.
Saturday was bright and sunny as we went to Mom and Dad’s apartment for the last time. The charity has come and picked up the furniture. Now, we filled up the cart with the last load of bits and pieces, I vacuumed the entire apartment while Mike washed down surfaces. Once I was done, I walked back into their former bedroom and tears softly welled up. They don’t come so suddenly in a rush anymore. Now it’s a gentler flow. We loaded up a cart, gave the poinsettia to one of Mom’s friends, and went downstairs to say goodbye to the friends they made over the past five years. Everyone asks after Dad. I tell them he’s doing the best he can under the circumstances. We promise a visit when my sister-in-law comes back into town and then we’re off to empty the car and fill our house halfway to the ceiling with boxes.
We drop off the keys and access cards the next day after church and after dinner go to visit Dad. He’s in good spirits but very confused. He’s still unclear about Mom, although now when we tell him she’s gone he’s not as surprised, nor as upset. He realizes he’s heard that before and now wants to know the details of their will. Then we skip to Mother again and for a few minutes we go around and around. I pull out a photo album I made of the time a few years ago that he, Mike, and I went for a ride on a B-17. This was the type of plane he was a gunnery sergeant for during World War II. This brings back memories. Both of the war and of that day. The memories are a bit scrambled, but pleasant and gets the conversation off things that worry him. But when we’re done, he’s back to being confused and worried. To the point that he asks about Mom’s husband. But when I point out that would be him, he throws back his head and laughs and says he’s glad I reminded him of that.
And so we’ve transitioned to a new phase of the journey.
It’s 5:30 a.m. and the phone is ringing again. Mike is so exhausted he doesn’t hear this time and I don’t hear his sister stirring, either. This is an answer to prayer because I want them to be able to rest. I get up to take the early morning shift.
I’m not quick enough and the answering machine is getting it, but I’m not concerned. It will ring again and as I reach the bottom of the stairs, it starts. I’m thankful he’s forgotten about the cell phones. Mike’s is in the bedroom and it’s jolted him awake several times already.
“Hello?” I answer.
“Uh, well…uh, is this Mike?”
“No, Dad. It’s Donna.”
“Can I talk to Mike?”
“No, Dad. It’s 5:30 and he’s in bed. He needs to sleep and I’m not waking him up.”
“Oh. Uh. Well, do you have a minute?”
“Yes, Dad,” and I sit on the stairs. It will be a while.
“I’m completely bewildered. I can’t find Anne.”
“No, Dad. She died.”
“No, Mike’s mother. Anne. Your Anne has died.”
“My mother, Anne?”
“No, Dad. Your wife.” His mother’s name was not Anne.
“How did that happen.”
“Her lungs wore out, Dad.”
“Where was I?”
“You were holding her hand.”
“Here in the house?”
“Yes, Dad, the apartment. You were holding her hand, I was reading the psalms to her, and Mike was stroking her hair.”
“Did she suffer?”
“No, Dad. It was peaceful.”
“Why can’t I remember?”
“Your memory has been bad for a few years, now.” He will accept this from me. He called Mike a liar last night.
“I can’t remember any of this.”
“Is Mother with you?”
“No, Dad. She died.”
“Was there a funeral?”
“No, Dad. It will be Friday.”
“What day is today?”
“What should I do?”
“Go back to bed, Dad.”
“I found a note here. Did something happen?”
“Mom’s gone, Dad.”
“I have to go get her.”
“You can’t, Dad. She’s died. We’ll have a private viewing today. Your daughter came to town yesterday and spent the day with you and we’re going to go see Mom one last time.”
“At 11 o’clock.”
“Will I go?”
“Yes, Dad. We’ll come get you.”
“Has there been a funeral?”
“Has something happened?”
And on it goes for another five minutes or so. Suddenly he’s done and hangs up.
I go to make a cup of coffee and clean up the kitchen a bit.
The phone rings.
It was Christmas morning in the sick house. I’d been ill for days with no relief in sight and it looked like Mike had come down with this virus from hell as well. Dad was moved to memory care and was not doing well and I’d yet to go over to visit. We had to clear out the old apartment within a month but I could barely get out of bed. I did not send out Christmas cards, I did not finish my Christmas shopping, I had not made any meal preparations, and frankly had no desire to eat. I was watching the Nutcracker the night before and thought of calling my mother-in-law to tell her it was on when I remembered she was gone.
This was possibly the worst Christmas ever. I know for sure it was the worst one for Mike. My own mother made Christmas a nightmare until she disconnected from me for a blessed decade. Up to that point, I would go into the season wondering what sort of mayhem she would create. She never failed to disappoint.
As a result, I don’t have high expectations of the season. I don’t have children or grandchildren to lavish gifts and time on, the family I do have left is greatly diminished, and due to caregiving I have no spare time for volunteerism. The church I was attending decided to close, and even if I had a place for a Christmas Eve service (and there are plenty to choose from in this city of churches) I am too sick to participate.
These thoughts caused me to wonder if I could remember a good Christmas. I had to go back to my childhood when I was living with my grandparents. Christmas eve service at midnight and as we left each child would get a box of candy. There was always one really good piece of chocolate in that box. The night would be quiet and crisp and the car would be warm as we drove home. This was in the days before car seats and I could lie stretched out on the back seat looking up at the stars as Grandpa drove.
The next morning the tree was up and presents were under it. Grandma had been baking Christmas cookies for weeks and now we could have as many as we wanted. The house was filled with the aroma of food cooking. Mom had driven in from Detroit and we were all together. Grandma kept things on an even keel, but once she was diagnosed with cancer, things went downhill and Christmas was never the same.
This virus that I’ve been railing against is actually a gift. It’s made me stop to consider where I am in life. I’m coming toward the finish line. Who knows how many years we have, but I’m definitely past the half way mark. My mother-in-law is gone, and I suspect my father-in-law will die of a broken heart. He’s 95 with Alzheimer’s and can’t find his wife. My time as a caregiver is drawing to an end for now. It is time to plan on making good memories.
Happy New Year.
There’s an expression I recall from the Old Testament. “And when he was full of years, he was gathered to his fathers.” It is such a poetic expression of death. I love the imagery of it. Being gathered into the arms of those who have loved you and gone on before. I find it beautiful.
Mom Kemper was full of years. Ninety five and a half, to be exact. Now she has been gathered to her mothers and fathers. She had a very smooth transition at home in her bed with her husband of seventy three years holding her hand, her son stroking her hair, and her daughter-in-law reading psalms sitting next to her. We were so blessed to be together as she passed.
We are deeply grieving. Dad doesn’t remember the experience and finds out over and over again, grieving anew each time. He calls in the middle of the night to tell us Mother has gone somewhere and do we know when she'll be back. It is heartbreaking.
Because of all a death entails with the addition of caring for a grieving dementia patient, this blog will be on hiatus. Prayers are always appreciated.
Donna Kemper put aside her art career to care for a mother she hadn't seen in over a decade. For seven years she followed her mother's journey into dementia, caring for her and putting forgiveness into action.