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.
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|
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.
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!