The Death Watch and Harkening Back

Have you noticed that I’ve been a little quiet lately? My publishing goal is for one genealogy related DNA story each week, typically a 52 Ancestors article, and one other technical article as well. I’ve been a little shy recently, and will be a for a little while longer.

In my world, August has been a brutal, brutal month.

I have trouble with August anyway, truthfully. August 26th is when my father was killed in an automobile accident when I was 7, and my dearly beloved step-father died over Labor Day weekend 31 years later. Those kinds of deep wounds never heal entirely, they simply scar over a bit and we remember them with both sadness and fondness forever. But in reality, we never forget, either the person or the pain of their absence – or the circumstances surrounding their death. In the vernacular of days gone by…the death watch.

In early August, this year, we received news that a family member had been diagnosed with cancer after a routine colonoscopy. Now, that could even be construed as good news, if you’re a glass-half-full person, because it means they found the cancer early enough to do something about it. In other words, while cancer is horrible and terrifying, finding it early increases the survival odds dramatically.

At that point, I did what quilters do – I set about making a “care quilt” for the family member, Mary, with help from my quilt sisters – to let her know the family is thinking of her, to send positive energy her way, to let her know she is loved and to give her something to take with her to the hospital, rehab, chemo…whatever. Being wrapped in a quilt is being wrapped in love. Need a hug, grab a quilt.

I’m glad we made the quilt and shipped it when I did, because little did we know time would be so short.

Mary with quilt

The Dentist and Never-Ending August

Have I ever mentioned how much I hate going to the dentist for dental “work?” Well, I do. It almost never goes well and there is always some complication. That could partly be due to a car accident many years ago, but whatever the reason, it’s always some flavor of quite unpleasant.

So, of course, I was on the way to the dentist’s office when I received the text on August 9th that subsequent scans indicated that the cancer was more advanced than originally thought, but that surgery was scheduled for the 17th. Not good, but still hopeful. I was a bit shaken, understanding how unsettling this news must be to her immediate family members.

A few minutes later, standing IN the dentists lobby, I found out that my friend’s house had burned to the ground that morning and her son did not escape the fire and perished. The terrible irony is that my friend is a firefighter. I will also say that thankfully, Andrew, her son, did not burn to death, but died of smoke inhalation. I know, that is small consolation but it is some. Additionally, I later discovered that the family pets perished as well. Needless to say, it was a horrible, horrible day that rocked this entire community.

I had what I think is known as a meltdown, right there, in the lobby. Thankfully my friend works there. They graciously rescheduled me because the dentist cannot work on a sobbing blob.

The next few days were consumed with trying to figure out how to help. How to help the family who lost everything in the fire. How to help my family member with cancer and the other family members caring for her.  How to be useful but not in the way or overbearing.

And truthfully, I felt like a zombie. I spent some time with my friend’s daughter and her fiancé who had escaped the fire. Loren, the fiancé, had tried to rescue Andrew, but a middle-of-the-night fast moving fire offers very little opportunity to do anything – even to escape yourself. The family members who survived barely escaped – with maybe 30 second to spare. If not for Loren, they wouldn’t have escaped either.

And so, two more quilts were delivered, and I am still finishing the third.

A four quilt week, in total. I never, ever want to live to see another four quilt week. But I wasn’t done yet.

My cousin’s husband had a stroke. This isn’t a distant cousin I’ve never met, but a couple we’ve traveled with. We saw them last fall at a reunion. Yep, a fifth quilt is in the works.

On the 17th, Mary, the cancer victim, underwent surgery which, as they say, did not go well. She was consumed with cancer and died eight days later, August 25th. Needless to say, this was not the result we expected and two days before her death, optimism and hope turned to resignation and immediate family received the “come now” call. Thankfully, most of the family did make it in time, by the skin of their teeth, and she retained enough consciousness to know they were there.

Mary had asked for her quilt to be brought to the hospital. The quilt was doing its job, bringing her comfort.

Andrew’s memorial took place in the midst of all of this, and I discovered that another friend had lost both her husband and father within the past few months, on Christmas Day and Father’s Day, respectively.

And of course, the anniversary of my father’s death was mixed into this painful brew.

Is August ever going to end???

The Death Watch

I’ve been thinking a lot about death this month. It’s OK to laugh at this slight understatement.

My last ancestor story that was published, about Daniel Miller, recounted that his death, on August 26th, was probably unexpected. (I told you August was a rough month.)

Unexpected. The norm then. Aside from accidents, few deaths are unexpected today.

My ancestor Joseph Bolton reportedly got up from the breakfast table and walked out to the fields to work and died of a heart attack. That’s rare, very rare today. He was probably having warning symptoms long before that fateful and fatal attack, but had no way to recognize them, and nothing to do medically in 1920 in Claiborne County, Tennessee if he had.

At that time, most deaths weren’t protracted. Today, it’s a different story.

The following death information was extracted randomly from a dozen chronological Claiborne County, Tennessee death certificates from 1917 beginning in May and ending in late June. 

Name Cause of Death Duration Contributory Cause Duration Comments Death Watch
Nancy Roark Asthma 30 years Acute indigestion 10 days Probably a heart issue 10 days
Demis? Cosby? 7 month child No medical attention 0
Lonie Cosby Tuberculosis No medical attention, mother of child above ?
Esker Brooks Whooping cough No medical attention ?
Shrelda Yeary Dropsy No medical attention ?
Child Fulty Stillborn No medical attention 0
Ansel Ellison Diphtheria No medical attention ?
Alexander Welch Homicide by shotgun Right groin, left side chest 0
James Carr Pernicious anemia 2 years Was a physician ?
Jordon Welch Suicide by shotgun Heart wound 0
Gareth Overton Bowel complication 4 months Tetanus 1 yr 4 months 4 months
James Kivett Drown 0

Looking at these records, it’s easy to see how many of these deaths today would have been preventable, or the disease curable or at least treatable.

When I first started visiting Claiborne County, Tennessee in the 1970s and 1980s, many people still eschewed going to the hospital in Knoxville, about an hour away. When antibiotics were first introduced, people began to seek doctors and medical attention more routinely, but by the time you were bad enough to go to the hospital, it was assumed you were going to die anyway. People gave reasons like “didn’t want the family to be split apart,” but in reality, it was hopelessness. Hospitals, at that time, couldn’t do any more for the ailing family member than the family could do at home, and hospitals were viewed as simply places to go to die. Then, it seemed that going to the hospital “assured your death” and people became even more afraid and superstitious with the stigma of a “wives tale” attached.

Looking at Indiana death records which began earlier than Tennessee death records, we find the following for Elkhart County, Indiana beginning in 1902 where records were clearly kept in alphabetical order:

Name Cause of Death Duration Contributory Cause Duration Comments Death Watch
Elizabeth Miller Inflammation of bowel 12 days Valvular insufficiency of heart Several years 12 days
Harry Miller Typhoid malaria 3 weeks Typhoid ? One week 1-3 weeks
Baby Miller Premature birth 4 hours 4 hours
Jacob Miller Typhoid Intestinal hemo??? ?
John David Miller Senile gangrene 7 months ?
Joni Miller Inflammation of bowels 10 days 10 days
Ruth Miller Malignant jaundice 2 weeks 2 weeks
Solomon Miller Abscess in liver 2 months Probably cancer ?
Rettica Minnich Collapse 10 hours 10 hours
Sadie Michler Bloody flux 11 days Followed by cerebral meningitis 3 days 3 days
Jessie Mitchell Cancer of stomach Don’t know ?
John Mitchell Brain lesion 14 days 14 days
Rebecca Mitchell Old age Dysentery One week One week

In terms of the length of the death watch, Indiana records are more informative.

Today, medicine can “save” many, and I put the word save in quotes on purpose.

Before I say what I’m going to say, I want to be very clear that I am an advocate for medical care, both preventative and remedial. However, sometimes medical care simply extends the death, not extending a useful, meaningful life that has quality.

I was speaking with a physician this past week who is also a friend. She told me that she had “finally” lost her father. She is not an insensitive woman, but it took her father 10 years to pass away. His life was repeatedly “saved,” only for him to go back home to wait for the next medical disaster to befall him. He was immobile, diabetic, had kidney failure and finally died of sepsis. His life had no quality – and the family literally had a 10 year death watch with no hope of real recovery. Should I even mention what that, along with 10 years of 24X7X365 caregiving, did to her mother’s life???

Our generation is the first generation to experience these truly prolonged death watches. In my own family, my 4 grandparents passed as follows:

  • Mother’s mother (1960) – heart attack, death watch 4 days
  • Mother’s father (1962)– liver cancer, death watch about 10 days
  • Father’s mother (1955) – congestive heart failure, death watch probably days to weeks
  • Father’s father (1971) – old age, heart failure, death watch just days

Contrast that to 10 years for my friend’s father, or two years while my brother died of cancer, multiple surgeries and chemo rounds one after another. I surely wonder, in retrospect, if my brother wished that he had foregone all of that and lived just a few months, but pain free and with some quality of life as compared to two years of one bodily insult after another. I guess the price of opportunity and possibility was surgery and chemo.

My other brother spent 18 months on a liver transplant list and then died of liver cancer, without a transplant. My sister had surgery for breast cancer which had returned when she died of a heart attack.

These protracted deaths make for an extremely long and draining death watch for anxious family members who so desperately want the person to be healed, especially if more than one death watch is in process concurrently.

More Deaths Than Births

As my physician friend and I continued to discuss this situation, we were talking about how our generation is the first to routinely experience this phenomenon of the extended death watch.

The death watch used to be characterized by the family sitting by the bed of the person who was going to pass over shortly – usually for hours or a few days, generally after they were too sick to get out of bed anymore. Today, the death watch is very different and often significantly prolonged.

One observation we made is that there just seems to be so MUCH death now. It surrounds us. We realized that this is, in part, because of the lifesaving measures that are underway. We never had these opportunities before, and yes, they do turn into death watches in many cases. But not always. My sister-in-law has had cancer twice and remains cancer free today – 15 years later.

Another observation is that there are a lot fewer births today. That same sister-in-law has 7 siblings, and only one has passed away. My step-father had 12 siblings and my father was one of 10.

By comparison, my sister-in-law had 3 children, I had 2 children that lived, my mother had 2 children that lived, my uncle had 2 children and my other brother had 2 children. Much smaller families today.

By virtue of simple math, in our generation, there are simply more deaths to experience and fewer joyous events like births. The scales have tipped, for now. In the next generation, the balance should be more even, although that doesn’t make the deaths any easier to handle – but there should be fewer of them. That also means fewer family members to love.

Another item of note is that when a joyous event like a birth or marriage does occur, it’s over rather quickly and everyone goes back to what they were doing. Death watches have become prolonged, along with the grieving.  So yes, it does often seem that there is much more death than before, and that the negative outweighs the positive.  In terms of the number of days we are feeling the immediacy of grief through a death watch as compared to the joyful days, the number of grief days has increased while the number of joyful events has decreased with smaller families.  This phenomenon isn’t imagined, it’s real.

How does this stack up in your own family?  How has it affected family members?


Empathy, according to the dictionary, is the distinctly human ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Sympathy is when you feel sorry for another’s misfortune, but empathy means putting yourself in their shoes.

How to we acquire empathy? From experiencing those same things ourselves. Those experiences are what give us the ability to be empathetic. Sitting those long days and nights in an uncomfortable chair by a hospital bed holding a death vigil ourselves – watching the breath becoming shallower and shallower, more irregular as the hours and day pass, until there are no more breaths and the heart beats for the last time – as the last bit of life slips from our loved one and we know they are gone.   Passed over to the other side.

As my husband said, tears welling in his eyes, on a particularly difficult day this past week, “I can’t hear about this without harkening back to my own experiences of when my parents and grandparents passed away.” That’s empathy.  Harkening back.

Empathy is how we know how the other person is feeling, not just feel sorry for their misery. In essence, it’s how we make lemonade out of the lemons we’ve all experienced and continue to experience as humans.

Based on this, the current generation of older adults should be extremely empathetic, helpful, understanding and willing to lend that helping hand.  I find that empathy often increases with age, as people experience more of these events personally.

Empathy – it’s how we know that people need care quilts, and why we make them.  Many times, it’s all we can do.

In Summary

August is nearly over, thank goodness.

Please bear with me as I catch up with my hundreds of unanswered e-mails and write new articles – along with finishing those two quilts and a sixth quilt that is needed now. I’ve used all of my reserve – emotional, blog articles and quilts.

On the other hand, I’m very grateful that I can write these articles and make care quilts. I much prefer this to being the person in need. It’s just that I have not yet figured out how to forego sleep entirely to harvest those extra hours.

There are exciting things that have happened and come my way over the past couple of weeks that I haven’t been able to attend to. For example, I have finally had my 23andMe account transitioned. I need to look at that, along with a new tool developed by a genetic genealogist. I’m looking forward to getting back in the groove. I miss the sanity/insanity of genetic genealogy.

As I said to my husband yesterday, “You got to work.” He replied, “You say that like it is a privilege.” It is actually, especially when you can’t for whatever reason.

Thank you everyone for your understanding during this difficult period and while I catch up from under a seemingly bottomless pile. I’m back at work!



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74 thoughts on “The Death Watch and Harkening Back

  1. Roberta, as I have said in the past – you write beautifully and from the heart, a rare combination. I appreciate reading your posts.

  2. Roberta, I’m so very sorry to hear what an awful month August has been for you. Thank you for your wisdom and sharing your reflections, which I think we all need to hear. “Life’s but a walking shadow,” as Will said. As family archivists, our job is to try to catch the light from the shadows and shine that light into the present day. But we’re frequently reminded of the fragility of it all, even with the strength of the human spirit. I hope getting back at work makes you feel a little better.

  3. My heart aches for you, your family and friends, so much pain and loss. Sending love and light.
    Your distant cousin, Bonnie

  4. Sending my condolences, Roberta, and this poem that the minister read at my father’s memorial service, which was on August 25, 2012, and was written by Robert Weston, former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association:

    Beautiful are the youth

    whose rich emotions flash and burn,
    whose lithe bodies filled with energy and grace

    sway in their happy dance of life;
    and beautiful likewise are the mature

    who have learned compassion and patience,
    charity and wisdom,
    though they be rarer far than beautiful youth.

    But most beautiful and most rare is a gracious old age
    which has drawn from life the skill to take its varied
    strands: the harsh advance of age, the pang of grief,
    the passing of dear friends, the loss of strength,
    and with fresh insight weave them

    into a rich and gracious pattern all its own.

    This is the greatest skill of all,
    to take the bitter with the sweet and make it beautiful,
    to take the whole of life in all its moods,
    its strengths and weaknesses,
    and of the whole make one great and celestial


  5. Roberta, thanks for sharing. My husband is a distant cousin of yours. Unfortunately, many cousins on his father’s side have dealt with cancer. I am hoping you related to him on is mother’s side, but I don’t know.

    We do feel empathy and are praying that good times are ahead for you.
    Donna Turner

  6. I am so sorry you have had to experience so much loss, especially in a single month. Thank you for sharing your personal grief, feelings and thoughts since they have given me new insight into situations with my family and friends. Your care quilts are a beautiful idea and must mean so much to everyone.

  7. Welcome back! We missed you. But I did have to laugh at the story of your friend’s father taking 10 years to die. My mother, who did pass at age 84, also took over 10 years to die, but not from anything she thought she had over the 10 years. After all, she was a Christian Scientist who did not visit doctors and so never knew if she had anything to worry about. Still, I’d periodically get phone calls from her saying she was leaving. I’d ask her where she was going, and her response was, “This is the end. I called to say goodbye”. My response would be flip, such as well, don’t forget to turn the lights off. You see, my mother had been on the stage as a young woman and never lost that ability. She was an enigma in a way, a hypochondriac Christian Scientist. But no matter her complaints, she always refused to see a doctor. After years of this, the end began with a gradual deterioration that was obvious to everyone and she spent the last year in a nursing home, always the actress but never seeing a doctor. I do miss her and the laughs she gave me. One can spend a lifetime crying, or rather celebrate the memories of those we now miss, and laugh at some of those memories.

    • Mark, I emphasize with you. As my cousin said when I asked about his mother “She’s enjoying her symptoms as usual”, It ran in the family as my Mom had lifelong problems as well. We special ordered a new manufactured home, Large enough for both my husband and myself to have a private master bedroom and bath and at the the other end of the house a 2nd master suite for Mom with handicap accessible door ways and bathroom. We would share all the common areas. Long story short she passed away in her sleep exactly one week after we placed the order! We were able to canceled the special accommodations but we were committed to the purchase contract so we sold her very old mobile and moved the new home onto the same footprint. This happened in July 1999. I think about her and miss her so much but she is still very much a part of my life..when I have been alone in the house watching tv I have left the room for a minute or two and have come back r to find the channel has been switched to the Game Show Network…which was her absolute favorite!

  8. Roberta, I agree with all the above comments and am grateful for those who can express their feelings so beautifully. I do think of you often, especially when I am researching my Moore ancestors who seemed to name all their children by the same names. You have taught me so much about the Moore’s and DNA testing for genealogy. You are a wonderful person, and I thank God for you. Sincerely, Janice Moore Cronan

    • Janice Moore Cronan….I have the same complaint about my MOORE ancestors..would you be willing to compare notes? Shelley Moore Hallman .if you use ancestry my user name is Gramshel. I wish I could post my email address but ….Am also on FB using First and Maried name.s

  9. Your words strike several chords with me this morning. My father died on Aug 25 forty-nine years ago. He suffered a sudden, unexpected heart attack at the age of 41. My mother was pregnant at the time, and I was fifteen years old. The shock took our breath away.

    Fast forward to this morning at 4:00 am when my mother-in-law passed over. She did not quite make it to the age of 97, and often wondered why she was still alive. For the last year and a half she lived with my husband’s sister. As she became more and more frail, she also sank further into dementia. Her care was becoming too difficult for my sister-in-law. (Caregiving is one of the hardest jobs around.)

    Each of these deaths is sad. One was quick and the other took so long. In both cases I believe the loved one is now in a better place. I have no answers, but I do have empathy.


    PS We received my mother-in-laws DNA results just a few days ago. Thank you, Roberta for your urging to get older relatives tested NOW.

  10. Roberta,

    I had wondered if something was up. I thought you might be overloaded from the new matching algorithms etc. I am truly sorrowful of your many trials- hopefully rest and comfort can come to your family and friends. In my family, the last 30 days saw both ends of the spectrum. It seemed surreal buying two cards at the same time. The first, a dear couple who went tragically too soon. The second, a cousin who celebrated her 100th birthday party with friends and family. The gatherings for both family members fell consecutive days. I heard someone ask why tragedy seemed to run in their family. It has helped me stop and think of what I LET be important instead of IS important. Reading one of the earlier posts, as family nuts/historians, I feel like I have so much “work” to finish. The “Century Cousin” and I visit many times a week – arthritis has made her storytelling challenging if not near impossible. She talks and I write. She has said many times giggling, “l’ve been doing family genealogy for fifty years…there are so many more stories I have to share- it may take another fifty! Later.

  11. Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
    Matthew 11:28

    God’s angels bringing quilts of love to comfort those that rest. That’s wonderful beyond words.

  12. Quilting is such a great hobby! I have gotten into the Row byRow project, If you have time and there is a shop near you participating I would appreciated if you would pick up the free pattern for me. I would be delighted to send you some from my area, WA state if you are interested. I know you are very busy, so if you are unable to do this, I do understand. If you go to, click on ‘start here’, and select your state you will see where the shops are located and perhaps find one near you. My personal challenge is to get a pattern from the 18 states where I qualify for pioneer status, and arrange them into a quilt. Thank you for all you provide to us regarding DNA, it has been very helpful!

  13. Writing this all down has to have helped. August has been bad for me also but not as bad as your month. Take care.

  14. Mom had her thank-you note picked out, and brought it to the hospital with her. She planned to write it as she recuperated. So, from Mom, and all of our family- “Thank-you for the quilt!”
    Mom hugged it tightly as she rested…
    Mary Jo’s daughters

    • You have no idea how touching this is for me. Also to know that visiting family members will sleep under her quilt as they visit. I hope it continues to bring the family comfort as well. I know that is what she would want.

  15. Sorry you had such a tough August, Roberta, but thanks for sharing it with us. My father’s first cousin died a couple of weeks ago, after spending almost four years in a nursing home. He was one of my favorite people in the world, but I think all agreed that it was time. He was the last of my father’s generation (none left in my mother’s) and yes … I got his DNA several years ago.

    Nancy Crane

  16. I certainly do know how to empathize with you but I have not had to go through all that trauma. My father had Parkinson’s and it did take 10 years to die. The first five were not that bad, but a mind trapped in a body that will not work is pure torture for the patient. He was always cheerful and when he could talk always said as his generation had been taught, “I’m fine.” But he wasn’t. As for the caregiver, my mother and sisters, it was hard. My mother had her first heart attack and it defined her health for the rest of her life, ten more years. And he felt guilt for that
    We made a cousins club love quilt for my niece who died of ovarian cancer. You may remember her as she did genealogy obsessively ,with some of your Brethren ancestors, she was Cindy Owens, and I see you on the Brethren list often.

  17. I am sorry to hear of all your grief this month. It seems to have been a rough summer. Many people I know have been touched by sorrow and death of loved ones. I wanted to say that I have had a negative opinion of how we treat cancer for many years. In the future I believe our current approaches will be considered barbaric. But I am hopeful. The very DNA you are so knowledgeable of is also causing great strides in cancer research. They have had success at altering cancer cell DNA to resemble other diseases we have immunity to so that our bodies own immune system not only destroys the cancer but remembers it so that it can immediately take care of it should it return. For all the sadness of our generation with our long death watches, I see a brighter future in regards to the loss of loved ones and the quality of life toward the end of life.

  18. Roberta, you are a beautiful person and all of us blog readers love you. I’m sorry you had such a bad month, but glad to hear that you’ll be posting again.

    Live long and prosper.

    Larry, distantly related (FF) to the Estes

  19. My father-in-law’s parents were from Claiborne County, Tennessee. He had never been to a doctor or hospital until he was 91 years old. When my husband and I drove into the hospital parking lot with him, he said, “So this is where you come to die.” A few hundred miles away from Claiborne County and more than 91 years later, the belief lived on. He did not die on that visit to the hospital, but a little more than a year later, he suffered a massive stroke and died in that same hospital. He was right, but the time was delayed a bit.

  20. Thank you so much for writing this insightful piece. It was especially poignant for me as my brother went to the clinic at his local hospital for what he thought was a sinus infection which did not go away with antibiotics. The P.A. ordered a chest x-ray, an MRI and several other tests. She found several abnormal masses and set up an appointment with an oncologist. This was July 29. He has now been diagnosed with metastatic adenocarcinoma, which most likely started in his lungs and metastasized into his brain and bones. His doctors give him 1-6 months, a year at the outside.

    I am very thankful that while medical science has helped some people continue to live a quality life for many years that there are options for those who do not want to spend years of suffering with no quality of life. And research has helped provide the tools to give more accurate prognoses. My brother wants to die with dignity and some states allow that choice. He chooses to die when he is ready and medicalized marijauna can help relieve his pain so he is less dependent on pain meds that cloud his thinking and put him in the hospital this weekend by causing such severe constipation and making his bladder shut down.

    This came out of the blue as my brother does all the healthy things – no smoking, gym every day, etc. I feel helpless because I broke my right ankle and sprained the other on June 30. My son has come to be with my brother.

    This in no way compares to what you have been through this month. But your story really touched me and the statistics really made me think about the “death watch” and the deaths of my ancestors. For me, the deaths of my own closest family members and closest friend all have happened in the summer months, June, July and August. You provided us with a lesson and an inspiration. Thank you so very much and take as much time as you need. We will be there.

    I am sending this post to my family members and close friends. And thank you for all the thoughtful responses that have been posted as well. I really liked the poem from the Unitarian minister.

  21. Roberta, you write so well about your troubles. I’m sorry for all you’ve experienced. I learned something new today from you. Smaller families mean more deaths and sorrows and fewer joyous occasions. Got me thinking that I partially agree, but smaller families also mean fewer sad events and people to leave your life. Also, I always wish for a long life and a short death someday
    Anyway, when I was going through breast cancer treatment in 2012, there was only one thing that completely took my mind away from thoughts of cancer–genealogy. I hope the rest of 2016 is much better for you.

  22. Roberta,
    I have been following your blog for some time but this is the first time I comment. I am deeply sorry for your losses and I understand only too well. August is not a good month for me either. Early morning three days ago I was lighting a candle in memory of my mother who passed 14 years ago way before her time and in a totally unexpected manner. She was my best friend. She had no health issues so it was a horrifying shock to us as we had assumed that she would be with us for decades to come. I live in another continent and within 24 hours was flying to the US knowing that I was already too late. In my case the lack of a death watch is probably what is keeping me from being able to get closure. I never had a chance to say goodbye or to see her for one last time. I had enjoyed a lively phone conversation with her the day before and my silly sense of humor made her laugh as it always had. Life was good. The next day it was not: I experienced a sudden unexplained horrible illness at the office serious enough to send me home to bed. It felt like my head was about to explode and it hit me out of the blue, with absolutely no warning: one minute I was fine, the other minute my colleagues literally had to lift me off the ground when I suddenly collapsed. A couple of hours later I receive a call informing me that she was gone: double cranial aneurysms and that was it. I am over 50 years old and it makes no logical sense but I still feel like an orphan.

    My heart and thoughts are with you.

    • I surely understand that. Our stories regarding our mother’s are not terribly different. I used to call my Mom to chat on my way home during a long commute. We lived in different states. I called her. We chatted like always. Up ahead, I saw a family of geese crossing the road. I knew they would get hit, so I stopped and told her to hold on. I blocked traffic with my car and myself and walked them across the road. I got back in my car and she was laughing, saying she would hear me talking to the geese telling them to hurry up and irritatedly talking to the cars who were impatiently honking. We had a good laugh. The next morning, I got the call that she had a stroke, a brain bleed, but she did not die right away. I got there, but she never regained consciousness. Two days later, after repeated MRIs showing us that her brain was half destroyed, we removed life support, but it took her 10 days to die from dehydration. That was living hell. There was no dignity in that death. In my case, I got the worst of both circumstances, and I too felt and still often feel like an orphan – and I probably would regardless of how she died. All of my siblings are gone too, which doesn’t help.

      • I guess that there’s no formula for getting over this. My one consolation was having the opportunity to bring back her ashes with me to Europe and then shortly after flying them to Brazil where she was born and interring them alongside her father.
        BTW, I neglected to mention that I lost my father in August as well. The researcher and analyst in me leads me to wonder if there could be something more to this month that we have yet to understand. There are just too many such events that I have encountered over the years linked to the month of August.

      • Roberta,
        I wrote yesterday and had to leave before I had a chance to say how very sorry I am that you and all your family had so many deaths and sorrows in the month of August. Or for that matter it is a bad time in any month. But some people seem to get piled on at times. I hope your writing about it helped. I was fortunate that my parents died at ages 79 and 88 and had full lives. Leaving was a relief for them but still a shock for us who were left. Now I am 79 and expect quite a few more years.
        My very sincere condolences for you and your family.
        Ruth H.

  23. Roberta,

    I knew this blog would generate lots of comments. Don’t know why I’m adding to them, just to say how much I agree, I guess. Susie died of colon cancer in 2003. We were together 36 years. Her last days were spent getting her family history/genealogy up to date. A dear friend and her club made her one of those quilts you mentioned with love in every thread.
    After she died because she was 8 years too late getting that colonoscopy, I wrote an open letter to Reader’s Digest in response to an article about Colon Canver. I told them about Susie and how an earlier colonoscopy could have saved her life. They published it. I hope everyone reading your article who is past 50 gets one at least every 5 years and more often if the doctor “finds” anything.
    I married Linda a little over a year after Susie died. We’ve served twice as volunteers for our church’s Family History Department (Linda and I, like Susie, are amateur genealogists also). I think of your quilts like I think of family history research — an effort of love. If you’re anywhere near as good making quilts as you are attending to family history, your quilts must all be masterpieces!

    Ron.V (at

  24. Bobbi,

    You have your August, I have my May. I empathize. Your words touched me in a way few have in the past. Thank you for expressing many of the thoughts I have had in such wonderful words. May all your Augusts be gentler in the future.


  25. Please accept my condolences for all the deaths. And thank you for your very insightful essay. I shall be pondering your insights for a long time, for sure.

  26. Hang in there sweet lady!! You have had a very trying month! It really is true that when it rains, it pours!

    Linda Gribben

    Sent from my iPad


  27. Roberta, I bet there are sooooo many people who are more than grateful to have you in their lives,either as family, friend, or even as an e mail “fan”. God Bless you and give you strength to keep on keeping on!

  28. Roberta sending armfuls of hugs your way. I think Mother Teresa said it best. paraphrasing…God doesn’t give us more than we can handle….I just wish he didn’t trust me so much. Interestingly she had quite a trial of faith at the end of her life. Having being on death watch with family members, I don’t know how we and they make it through…we just do the best we can. I always remember the old adage that birthing and dying is hard work. Don’t let anyine rush you with your grieving…its hard work too. Hugs.

  29. What a tragic and unwelcome set of recent occurrences. Sorry to hear about them. Stay strong and dive back into your work! It will help get your mind off things a little! I just started following you and so far have found you both interesting and informative! For this I thank you. Hope your mending process gets the job done! Take care… ~Steve~

      • Karen and Roberta, Don’t feel alone, there’s a lot of adult orphans out here. I guess the price of unconditional and accepting love is the aching heart and feeling of abandonment (which I know would make my Mother unhappy!) I try to do as Mark suggests, remember the memories and laugh at the silliness that makes life special (sometime crying through the laughter.) Roberta I KNOW we are related some how! I keep finding Estes living around ,near, and even married into relations on Dad’s side, though none that are direct probably our cousins are cousins! AND my computer beat yours to the punch. It died the 20th of July!

        PS. There is an ESTES Road on Highway 504 in Washington State.. it is fairly close to I- 5 on the road to MT. St Helen.,,,,Wanna say Castle Rock but don’t remember for sure.

  30. August. The last few days of August. All my mother’s genealogical dates are found in the last few days of August. They fill in the birth, marriage, death, burial blanks in our family database, but as mere numbers on the calendar there is so much the last few days of August cannot tell. Her birth date cannot tell of how much her parents rejoiced at her birth in their middle age after losing in infancy three of the four children of their youth. Her marriage date cannot tell of how she was the only love of my daddy’s life and how she grieved when she lost him first to Alzheimer’s and then to the grave. Her death date cannot tell of how I was the one, and the only one, who was there at the end, who kissed her forehead, who closed her eyes and who breathed a prayer of thanksgiving that she was safely and finally home. August. The last few days of August. I love them, and I dread them.

    • I’ve been having second thoughts about posting this because I am just not the type to be so open about such things. But I found as I read your story that I needed to share it with someone who understood about August. Thank you for being so honest and making me just a bit bolder.

      • I had the same reservations about writing the article itself. But I also knew that surely other people had experienced this too. Thank you for sharing. I think that helps.



  32. I’m so very sorry for your losses and all you’ve had to deal with this past month. My condolences to you and your family. Beautiful post — thank you for your words of wisdom. The first thing I did was call my 80 yr old mom. While I still blessed to have the opportunity.

  33. It’s remarkable how some windows in time are memorable and recalled easily. I’ve seen this often when interviewing older relatives about their pasts. August 24th is my day of reflection. It’s my older brother’s birthday, and the miles between us made had birthday acknowledgements less frequent. On August 24, 1990 my wife and I visited friends at the local hospital maternity ward, who were celebrating the birth of their son. That same day, my father-in-law lost his battle with cancer on another floor of the same hospital. August 24, 1990, one was already in this world, a new one entered, and one left this world. I called my brother last Wednesday to wish him a happy birthday.

  34. My deepest condolences to you. I enjoy your blog, your gift of the written word and your invaluable knowledge of genetic genealogy. Gratefully, Rachel

  35. Dear Roberta,thanks for sharing your experience and sadness.Thinking about trauma we going through.One german woman found a mtdna match with me.She was tracing down her mother line.Her grandmother’s grandmother name was Henrietta Krüger.In 1819 one willage was german willage was attacced in Prussland ,Posen(now Poznan,Poland).All the people were killed.Before that young parents managed to hide newborn Henrietta to a hollow tree.The next day one old man found the child,and his family rose her up.His family kept the child’s name.My mtdna last female name is An Krüger.H5a1a.And my lost father direct male line has Norwegian ancestry.R-A685 branch.Under DF98>S1911>S1894>S4004>A658>CTS9538. Be strong!

  36. My friends (i am almost 75 and more of them are . . . ) keep keeling over with no warning . . . some do have a protracted death tho . . . i know you are doing as well as can be expected . . . and please do not worry about us out here . . . . sending condolences . . . and we know you are helping people live on in the records and hearts of their families, which is a big contribution.

  37. So sorry to hear it has been a difficult month for you. I must say that this blog entry has certainly generated a lot of very interesting responses – some heartfelt and some quite humorous. It’s certainly important never to lose your sense of humour, is it. I wish for a good September for you.

  38. Dearest Roberta, I do not know you but have come, through your writing, to think of you as a family member. You remind me of my first cousin Betty Sue … wonderful sense of humor and a joyous zest for life. My Dearest Mother, who I miss more than I can say, always referred to Betty Sue as the “Gatekeeper” of our family because she always kept in touch with all the family near and far. Betty’s home as well as my Mother’s were the meeting places when out of town family came to visit. Such wonderful memories of being together. I am sincerely sorry for your loss. Thinking of you in Fombell, PA … Your faithful reader, Gloria Hull

  39. You have my most heart felt sympathy. To say I understand is probably wrong, we all experience this sort of thing in different ways. As Genealogists we have a special view of those now departed. Now for some joy, you can’t imagine my surprise, as I was adding new names to my Spreadsheet, to see the e-mail address of “robertajestes” pop up on one of my matches. I know you administer many kits and I’m not sure the best way to connect the dots. Would you want me to post the name and kit number to this blog?

  40. I sit here with tears as I too have had months or years similar to yours. Your quilts are a wonderful way of saying “I love you” to your loved one and a way to cope with the stress. I need to find a similar outlet. Just wanted to say that your post is a good reminder of how precious time is with everyone in our lives. Thank you for sharing with us.

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