Tag Archive | death

“We’ll Always Have Ditchley”

Kilmarnock library maple tree

We passed Ditchley House after an evening drive around the interior of the Northern Neck Peninsula, to entertain the dogs and to enjoy the last of the fall colors. 

“Have you been to the ferry?” Auntie had asked. I hadn’t yet. So the Corotoman River ferry provided our initial destination. The river flows softly flat past the ferry dock at the end of the road. Beside the dock lies a small triangle of river sand, below a bluff with opulent private homes on top. We let the dogs out to run on the sandy beach before continuing our ramble.

We wended our way back east and a little south, in the general direction of home, along small roads getting smaller, crossing the peninsula on Goodluck Road. It was almost my last day there, and I hadn’t yet taken a detour to see the hamlet of Ditchley, on a point flanked by two creeks.

At Hughlett Point, Raven looks across Dividing Creek toward the hamlet of Ditchley.

I saw Ditchley from across the creek on my walks out to Hughlett Point sanctuary along the Chesapeake Bay. The historic Ditchley mansion, up Dividing Creek from the bay, was once the home of Jessie Ball duPont, a teacher and philanthropist who helped create the Hughlett Point Audubon preserve, where I walked as often as possible during my autumn in Virginia.

Boardwalk from the parking lot to Hughlett Point beach

From the sanctuary parking lot in the woods, you walk east through a short strip of lovely swampy forest, cross a grassy strip and a low dune, and arrive at the Chesapeake Bay, a couple of miles north of Hughlett Point. There’s nowhere to go if you turn left, but if you turn right, it is a different walk every day, every tide, every weather. The dogs run, Stellar flies, Raven runs away, and I walk and walk barefoot in wet sand or dry, wade in turnunder waves or tidal pools.

Ditchley lies across the water in the trees.
Stellar mastered flight at Hughlett Point.

Most days I walk all the way to the point, savoring sea and sky and solitude. From the very tip of Hughlett Point I can see Ditchley, so I’d always wanted to drive down Ditchley Road and check out Hughlett Point from there.

It was cocktail hour when we drove past the mansion’s driveway toward the village dock, so we didn’t turn in, though Auntie insisted we should do so on our return. I thought it looked more like a private drive and I said so a couple of times, but she said, “No, this is Ditchley, it is a private home, but they use it for all kinds of public functions. I just want you to see it. We can drive through, there’s a turnaround.”

Then she pulled another friend out of her magic hat and said, “Let’s go have cocktails with Jan.” Jan lives on Dividing Creek, almost to the bay. She wasn’t home, but we walked out on the dock behind her house and watched for a few minutes as the water pinked up, then greyed over, and the sky to the west lit up. The dock had a great view of Hughlett Point, our main objective anyway, so after enjoying that we headed for home. It was dusk, and I was hoping she’d forget about Ditchley House.

A different happy hour, with the same view of Hughlett Point from Jan’s dock. The solitary tree on the far shore marks the turnaround at the southern tip of the beach, where Stellar likes to fly.

As we approached the Ditchley mansion driveway, a sporty red car turned out of it and zipped past us toward the bay. I didn’t like the idea of turning in while they could see us. I was hoping nobody was home. I resisted.

“Turn in, turn in!” Rita insisted, so I made an acute right turn and drove slowly down the colonial-style brick drive through a huge lawn, toward the brick mansion on the right. The driveway narrowed suddenly as it approached the mansion, and passed directly below the foot of the front stairs. I saw with dismay that there was in fact nowhere to turn around but the perfectly smooth green lawn, that the driveway went right up to and around behind the caretaker’s cottage, across a concrete carport, with a grill, bikes, a basketball hoop, and worst of all, a pack of barking dogs. The moment I saw the dogs, I said, “Cover your ears!”

The driveway funneled us through this very private domain: we were bayed up by a large black lab, a midsize gold dog, and a little cocker spaniel. Our dogs were snarling and snapping and barking their heads off trying to get through the car windows. It was a tense cacophony. Our car was so big, and the carport so small and so crowded! I was afraid I would hit one of the dogs snapping at our tires, or knock over a garbage can, or that someone would run yelling out the door. After we slowly, carefully, rounded the back of the house I sped up as fast as I dared and we lost the gold dog, but the big and little dogs pursued us another few hundred feet, Raven and Stellar still snarling and barking.

When they fell off, my dogs settled down. We drove a long silent stretch under arched trees, both of us looking straight ahead, until we turned onto the road. Then Rita turned to me and broke the silence by saying, with a satisfied smile, “Well, now you’ve seen Ditchley!”

I laughed so hard I almost lost control of the car. We laughed all the way home. We laughed through our cocktails. Six months later, we are still laughing about Ditchley, when one of us mentions it over the phone.

Auntie turned 85 yesterday. I cherish every laugh with her and every memory of our wonderful autumn together. What I treasure most about that moment, that smile, that “Well, now you’ve seen Ditchley,” is that it was utterly unexpected. I should know by now to expect the unexpected from my Aunt Rita, it has always been the way she rolls. But in that moment, after the violence of the barking dogs, the awkwardness of our intrusion through a private home, the tension of our escape from Ditchley, and my anxious sense of guilt, her sweet satisfaction was the last thing I expected.

Eight years have elapsed since I wrote that. I visited Kilmarnock again, but not for the past few years. Occasionally through those years Auntie and I will be chatting, and she will say, “Well… at least we’ll always have Ditchley!”

Auntie died Thursday, after months of suffering. She had a stroke three days after Raven died, the Sunday before her 93rd birthday. After struggling to recover, she courageously chose to relinquish her attachment to living.

There’s been a lot of loss in my world since May. Of them all, I will miss the most my dearest Auntie Rita, my last mother in this world, my friend and role model, my drinking buddy, my favorite person on the planet, whose flair and humor and kindness showed me the way so brilliantly.

Going through photos from our visits through the years, a lot more memories are coming up, bringing laughter, tears, gratitude, joy. She loved to play cribbage, and delighted in a great winning hand…

After cousin Leslie told me that her mother had died, I hung up and walked a few steps farther into the woods, then laughed out loud: in my head I heard so clearly, in that sweet satisfied voice, “We’ll always have Ditchley!”

I’m not claiming that it was she speaking to me; just that I heard her, from within my heart at the very least, though I didn’t realize for two days how much that moment has helped me cope with the loss of her. Having this trove of memories is a gift beyond measure, an enduring connection with her beautiful, mischievous, loving soul.

Rest in Peace, Rita Stephens, May 24, 1927 – August 6, 2010

Goodbye, Raven

Of all the many things I thought I’d write about next, getting high on lilacs, Stellar’s last days, a neighbor’s sudden death, being an introvert on lockdown… Raven dying in my arms last night wasn’t even on the list.

Something must have happened while I was inside making dog food around six. When I called them in to eat, she didn’t come. I called and called, and saw her rise from a strange place by the fence, but she wouldn’t come. I walked up to get her, and coaxed her down and into the house, where she lay on her bed and wouldn’t eat even a cookie. She was moving oddly, all tight and slow. I thought she might have had a stroke.

At the canyon in March

Over the next few hours, she seemed to relax, then she got up on the sofa and I thought that signaled improvement. An hour later she got off the couch and collapsed on the dog bed next to Stellar, unable to move her back end. I lay beside her for the next few hours breathing deeply and calmly myself, massaging her spine and hips the way she likes, telling her what a good girl she has always been, and how I love her. She struggled to turn a few times, her breath coming more labored. Her gums paled, her paws cooled. Her breaths came farther apart, turned guttural, then thinned to a whistle. I prayed for her to be reborn in the best possible life, and rubbed sand from the monks’ mandala on her forehead, to guarantee her a human reincarnation.

In two weeks we would have celebrated her fourteenth birthday. She’s been a joyful, delightful, challenging, loyal companion since she came to me at six weeks old. She died peacefully in her own bed, in my loving arms, at 11:40 pm, of unknown causes.

Grooming her baby brother in March. I don’t know what he’ll do without her.
Double rainbow and the last ice, three weeks ago at the canyon.

Full of Surprises


My friend Deb is allergic to cats, but has ended up with a few over the years because we live in the country with lots of feral cats and she has a soft heart. Currently she has only one, Shadowcat, who has wormed her way into the house. But last winter a couple of black cats started showing up on the porch, a short-haired bow-legged boy who’d run to greet you, and his long-haired more skeptical sister. We discovered that Deb’s neighbors had moved away and left the young cats behind. Within a few months, the boy was predictably run over, and the girl was adopted.

The friends who adopted the girl left on a long trip a few weeks after they took her home, with our promise that we’d take care of her in their absence. Since we were sort of the reason they adopted her. And because that is the kind of place we live, where we all pick up the pieces. They set up a nice bunch of beds and roosts in their garage, with all the things we’d need to care for her with the utmost convenience, including a free-feed station where she could eat all the kibble she wanted. She was a prickly little thing, hissing at Deb when she tried to pet her, and just ignoring me.

After a week, I thought she was getting too fat on the free feed, so started rationing her to one cup a day. A week later, she was even fatter! I was pretty sure what this meant. So Deb and I hauled her off to the good doctor, who confirmed that she was pregnant.

"In thirty years I've only done five or six C-sections on cats," he said. "I do that many every year on dogs. Don't worry about it, she'll do just fine."

“In thirty years I’ve only done five or six C-sections on cats,” he said. “I do that many every year on dogs. Don’t worry about it, she’ll do just fine. Cut a door or window in a box, give her some privacy.”

“Not just one or two pregnant,” he said, “more like four or five. And you can expect them in two or three weeks, closer to two I think.”

The neighbors were still a month away. They had no idea! Clearly there had been a miscommunication when they’d had her checked out. They hadn’t settled on a name before they left, and gave us license to name her if it came clear to us. We laughed all the way to the vet playing with names, and on the way home the name did come to us: Heidi. Heidi Ho.

I went into midwife mode, committed to building her trust before her time came. If there were any complications with the birth or afterwards I wanted at least a chance of being able to handle her and the kittens. And I wanted to start handling the babies shortly after they were born, so the proud grandparents didn’t come home to a shop full of feral kittens with a hissing mother that wouldn’t let them close.

For a couple of weeks she looked like she had a football stuck inside her sideways. Last week she started that legs-wide pregnant-lady waddle. Then one day the football had shifted.

For a couple of weeks she looked like she had a football stuck inside her sideways. Last week she started that legs-wide pregnant-lady waddle. Then one day the football had shifted.

I brought a quarter can of wet food every day, and sat across the room while she ate. I set up three nest boxes, two carrying crates with blankets, and a cardboard box arrangement lined with towels. I talked and sang to her (“oh she’s da heidi heidi ho!”) and stayed with her for ten or twenty minutes after she ate, watching her waddle around the garage and check out the nest boxes, or sit and clean herself. Eventually she’d take a treat from my fingers and let me rub her head a little, but I never heard her purr and she never wanted a lap or a real petting.

I set up nest boxes.

I set up nest boxes.

Last week I eased into touching her belly while she ate, checking her nipples and letting my hands rest on her swollen sides. On Sunday I felt one of the kittens move, and more action on Monday. Tuesday I opened the garage door and she didn’t come running. Across the room I heard little peeps and mews. Two weeks four days.

As I cleaned the litter box she came trotting across the room. She gobbled her wet food as I snuck a peek into the cardboard box she had chosen for a nest. She ran and checked on me a couple of times but let me take pictures. After she ate she curled back around her babies and let me watch them nurse. I couldn’t get an accurate count the way they were squirming all over each other, but thought I counted eight. I was surprised at how huge they seemed, to have been out of her less than 24 hours. I congratulated her on the wonderful job she had done.

How huge they looked.

How huge they looked for being out less than a day. How had they all fit inside her?

She rolled over and let me watch her nurse.

She rolled over and let me watch her nurse, purring loudly all the while.

Naturally I was smitten the moment I looked in on the little wad of wiggling kittens. But right now my hands are full and my pockets empty. The Colonel always advised me never to take responsibility for more lives than I could manage to care for adequately. I went into this thing knowing that I would not take a kitten out of this litter. I was sorely tempted to think about it, though, after watching them for just a few minutes.

When I checked the pictures at home, I could see there was a little foot that never moved in all the images and videos. Uh oh. A little dead one. So I ran back over, tricked Heidi with another blob of food, and reached in quickly to the back of the box to remove the kitten carcass. Poor little cold dead one. I brought it home and buried it under the peach tree.

There was a little cold dead one.

There was a little cold dead one.

I buried it under the peach tree.

I buried it under the blooming peach tree.

That was my kitten, the little dead one. Holding its cold little body for just a few minutes, stroking the soft dead fur on its little head, looking at its little open paws… I felt a little surge of love and grief. I said a few words about what a good kitten it would have been, such a good cat, how much it would have meant to me, and then covered it with dirt and straw, inside the tree fence so the dogs can’t dig it up. I placed a tiny bouquet of apple blossoms over the grave. A silly tiny thing, but still: one small thing I could do in a world of endless death. Lately I’ve been remembering that child I was at nine, and thinking maybe that was my prime. Before everything else. At nine, I would have buried that kitten with somber pomp and circumstance, deep and heartfelt ritual. And so I did something like that yesterday.

It was so much easier! So much easier to bury a stillborn kitten that could have been mine, than to love and live with it for five years, or ten, or fifteen as I have with other cats, and then lose it to the inevitable death that comes for all our pets before we’re ready. We’re rarely ready for death, even when we’ve had weeks or months to prepare. That first final emptiness when we look at the dead body of a beloved pet, or person, is always a shock, at least for me. So I got that loss over with preemptively, bringing home my share of the litter, living that little moment of might-have-been, and laying it to rest. Whew.

Seven little warm unnecessary adorable kittens.

Seven little warm unnecessary (adorable) kittens.

I went again today to tend the little mama, un petit d’un petit herself, and her litter. While Heidi was eating I took the top off the nest and folded up the damp, birth-stained towel, set in a clean one, and started to move the babies. MWEEE! MWAAA! they shrieked, and she came running. She stepped in and watched anxiously as I hastily, gently, moved them all onto the new bedding and removed the old. Then she curled around them, and I settled the box back over them. She purred and purred on her nice dry towel. Seven of them! Seven little warm unnecessary kittens. Deb and I have already lined up homes for most of them. Maybe, just maybe… Day Two, and already the wheels of rationalization are turning. No! I will not!

Helping Joanie Die

Miss Joanie with Little Doctor Vincent on her lap during a visit to my house a few years ago. Both of them are gone now.

Miss Joanie with Little Doctor Vincent on her lap during a visit to my house years ago. Both of them are gone now.

January was a hard month for me. A lot of things overlapped, most of them quite challenging. The most challenging was helping Joanie die. Miss Joanie to me, and to most who know her now. Once, she was Joanie D, married, living in Florida with a sailboat, traveling the world with her second husband. Before that she was Joanie G, young and in love, marrying, giving birth to three sons, raising them. Before that she was Joanie someone else, her maiden name. 

Joanie in high school was a cheerleader, and she had incredible legs until she died. I saw them the night before she died, stretched out straight on the bed, her still shapely calves in their loose skin pressing a line of shadow against each shinbone. Miss Joanie used to sit outside in her wheelchair on summer days in shorts, tanning those beautiful legs. All us girls admired them. That, and they, her legs, pleased her, but she was never vain. We laughed with her about our envy of her great legs and she laughed with us, with never a smirk or hint of vanity. And before she was a cheerleader, she was a little girl growing up in the 1930s.

She was my neighbor and my friend for more than four years, and I was her Hospice volunteer for almost three. We played cards a lot until her vision deteriorated too far. For a couple of years I took Miss Joanie to church, until my back prevented me from transferring her in and out of the car. Her son picked up where I left off there; she made a couple of good friends at church, and by the end, one of them told me, people vied to hold her hands in the circle that closed each service.

While I was taking her to church, I watched a lot of well-meaning parishioners come close to talk cheerfully to her, too loudly, too slowly. At first I explained to them that she could hear them just fine, and understood everything they said but couldn’t articulate a response very well. Only a few of them would sit with us at fellowship after the service, drinking coffee and eating an often random combination of food, like brownies, leftover St. Patrick’s Day cake, cookies, fruit cocktail, and cheese and crackers. Joanie loved the coffee and snacks, though she took too-big bites, crumbled the cake everywhere, and drooled. Miss Joanie had PSP, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, the rare brain disease that also killed my mother.

In summer we’d go for drives up into the high country to enjoy the wildflowers, or out along the Black Canyon in autumn to admire golden aspens and red oaks. Eventually all we did was go for drives; her caregiver Ilene would settle her into the car and I’d take her out for a few hours, then bring her home. We’d drive to Hotchkiss or Paonia, stopping to photograph an eagle or some blooming cactus, a stack of old irrigation wheels glinting in the sun or a tangled deer carcass. In town she’d get a chocolate shake and I’d get vanilla, and we’d take an hour or two to drive back home, sometimes exploring up a side road like Minnesota Creek or taking the dirt road up over Scenic Mesa and winding down across the Smith Fork Canyon and back up on that tiny track clinging to the pink cliffs.

We didn’t talk much. It kept getting harder for her to speak and for me to hear and understand her. But we communicated plenty. Every now and then she’d get out a perfectly comprehensible sentence or two: How are your bees? She was fascinated by that endeavor, and so supportive of whatever I was doing in the garden, for work, travels. But when I’d ask how she was feeling, she often lost her voice. Sometimes she answered clearly: I’m afraid I’m going blind, or I don’t seem to be getting any better. And near the end, My spirit feels like it’s leaving my body.

“Are you afraid of dying?” I asked her then. It’s so final, she answered. And then her voice disappeared into a whisper so thin you couldn’t hear it, and finally just a breath.

From the beginning I had promised her I would be with her at the end. During her last month I visited almost every day. One day I asked if she’d like me to read from the book I wrote about my mother’s experience with PSP, and it was as though she’d been waiting years for me to ask. It isn’t a happy book, but I read pieces I thought might help her understand what was happening to her and come to terms with her inevitable death. The next few days, on a lighter note, I read from the rough draft of The Colonel’s Daughter, and after that stories, essays, poems.

“Do you want me to read some more?” I’d ask, and she’d answer with a long, guttural yes. In her last few weeks, we’d sit cuddled on the couch, my arm around her, sometimes reading, sometimes just sitting. When I arrived she would greet me with a searching look from her blind eyes; I’d bend close to tell her hello and she’d touch my face gently, reach for my hair, run her fingers through it.

Her last week, on Monday, I told her stories about things we had done together, remembering all the drives we had taken, wildlife we’d seen, adventures we’d shared. Her eyes were glazed and cloudy, her body stiff and still. She reached her left hand up and out into the room, and leaned forward on the couch.

“Do you see someone?” I asked. She turned to me, curled into me, wrapped her arm around my waist and plucked at the fleece blanket beside me. I covered her and held her. She curled tighter against me, her head on my chest, our arms around each other. We sat that way a long time, until she was ready to go lie down. Ilene tucked her in and I kissed her goodbye.

She got up the next morning and sat for a few hours, though by the time I arrived she was half asleep in her bed. She held my hand tightly as I sat beside her and talked softly. In the next few days, her friends came to sit with her, hold vigil, help her out, say goodbye. On Wednesday, the night of my birthday, I called her friend Millie to let her know it would be soon, and she showed up with a borrowed hymnal, from which we sang together. I kissed her goodbye again and she pressed her lips hard against mine.

The next morning I walked in the house and heard a number of voices singing “Over the Rainbow” back in her bedroom. Marla, Millie, Ilene, the singing Hospice nurse, and Miss Joanie’s son had been singing what they could remember of some favorite songs. From then on she was rarely alone. Between her son, her caregivers, her friends, and Hospice, she was attended by loving presence, comforting her through spells of agitation and anguish, singing softly, reassuring her, encouraging her on her next big adventure.

I’m not sure she believed in “the next big adventure,” and I think she was scared. Letting go was hard. For two days she remained apparently unconscious as we sat and talked around her. Her breathing changed, and changed again. It was short and easy, it was deep and labored, it paused for ten seconds at a time then resumed in gasps. We all thought it would stop any minute.

Her two sons who live out of state called again, and she opened her eyes and smiled to hear them; she also cried. She had a rough couple of nights. On Saturday night when I came, her eyes were open and anguished. She did not move, but I could feel her acknowledge my arrival. The others left for a dinner break.

She lay in a beautiful teal satin nightgown with a lace collar and cuffs, those hands that had touched my hair so delicately a few days before now still and fragile, a tiny figure in her sheets. Her half-open eyes looked toward me, her brows pinching and wrinkling as if she were trying to say something. I picked up Millie’s hymnal and began to softly sing Christmas carols. I sang for almost an hour. Her breathing calmed, her eyes eased shut. When my voice dried up I just sat with my hand resting lightly on her arm, sending quiet love, murmuring now and then how brave she was, what a good job she was doing, what a good life she had lived, that it was okay to let go.

The dog barked. Her eyes popped open. Her son came in the room. He wanted to be alone with her. There were also other reasons I had to leave, the overlap of other challenges. It was the hardest goodbye. I had hoped to slip away while she was asleep. I had promised I’d be with her at the end, and I felt she wanted me to stay. She forced some sounds from her throat; she was trying to speak, I was sure of it. She looked out, knowing but unseeing, pouring out her feeling, It’s so final, her eyebrows mobile and expressive between her frozen, clouded blue eyes, eyes that still knew.

I felt I was betraying her but I had to tear myself away. She was in good hands. I had done what I could. Before I was out of her driveway I was crying. On the way home sheets of emotion rolled through me in tingling waves. I slowed down, unable to see through tears that wouldn’t stop. I cried all the way home and then some.

No one can know what really lies behind the eyes of a dying person who can no longer speak. I have seen three women die, and all three have looked at me with eyes that seem to express unutterable anguish, some dark mix of sorrow, anger, pleading, or confusion. I hated myself for walking away from Joanie’s eyes, for doing what I had to do.

Sunday evening I came to sit with her again, while her son went home for dinner. Her breathing was rough, again with apnea, a fifteen second pause between a set of short inhalations and panting exhalations, sometimes accompanied by moans. In each cycle, her first and last inhalations were softer than the interim breaths, a reliable indicator of the pattern. She had her eyes open when I arrived, was present but not entirely inside the room. She knew what was happening.

Saturday I had left in despair. Sunday I left in peace, knowing I had found something to give her, something I believe eased her on her journey. I gave her a mantra. When my mother died, her last incomprehensible words to me had been asking for a mantra, a way of breathing I had showed her a couple of weeks earlier. I did not get it. I tried too hard, too far and wide, to figure out what she was asking for, and in the end I gave her an accidental alternative mantra that she latched onto and pushed out with each breath for three hours, until her last. As though she needed something for her mind to hold onto as she navigated the unknown transition.

I tried to give Joanie that mantra, starting months before when it became clear she was on her way out, and she tried but even then she could not form the sounds to sync with her breath. As I sat with her on her last night, I did that breath for her until something else occurred to me.

I said metta for her. I began to softly chant: May Miss Joanie be at peace. May Miss Joanie be free from fear and suffering. May Miss Joanie be happy and at ease. May Joanie be at peace, may she be free from fear, may she be happy. Peace, free, happy.

Peace, free, happy. I repeated the words with her exhalations, over and over. Peace, free, happy. She finally closed her eyes. Her breathing slowed. I did not stop. For an hour I repeated the words with her exhalations, and more slowly during the apnea; she calmed, she became at ease, she let go of fear.

Maybe. That’s what it felt like. Ilene came in and gave her some morphine before I started, I’m sure that helped. After her son returned I continued the chant as I left the room. I felt that I had given her that something for her mind to hold onto, a rhythm to carry her out, a prayer that eased her way.

Ilene called me two hours later to say that Miss Joanie had breathed her last. I am sad that I was not there when she left this world. It would have been a miraculous moment to witness. But she was not alone. Ilene was with her, and was amazed by the subtlety of it.

“It wasn’t long after you left,” she said. “Her breathing pattern changed again. The apnea went away. Her breathing got real shallow, and faster. I called the night nurse, then I called her son. He came right over. She was gone just before he came into the room. Her breathing stopped. I thought it was the apnea again, and I waited, and waited, and she just didn’t breathe again.”

May Miss Joanie rest in peace.