We moved to Central Falls; named after a waterfall in the Blackstone River, 1.5 square miles, the
most densely populated city in the nation, home to the textile mills of the 18th century, known as old mill
town. Living in a white hobbit cottage, with a chain link fence around our small grassy yard, looking
like a normal home; trying to keep death at bay. The neighbor’s trestle grapevine canopy shaded her
picnic table, creating a scene of serenity and peace; comforting us by sharing yummy treats, of stuffed
grape leaves, and fresh ripe fruit from her trees. Always playing with our cousins, who lived up the hill
from us; having snowball fights, creating snow tunnels through snowdrifts on the sidewalk, and sliding
down the hill on linoleum, the hula-hoop craze, the slinky that goes down stairs, Easter egg hunts, and
family celebrations .Everywhere we walked was within a half-mile radius of our home; the place of
bittersweet memories and feelings that ran like melted chocolate.
Father was an amazing and a positive person, no matter how difficult things were; propelling the
wheel chair through the 3 small rooms, approaching me when I was withdraw, saying, “I want you to be
able to tell me anything”, having surgery on his paralyzed hands then learning to repair watches; when
just two years before, he was completely paralyzed and unable to do anything for himself. I watched a
man who never gave up, making me aware of my own difficulty sticking with things I found hard,
giving me encouragement to push on through obstacles, admiring him and following his example. We
were told father was very ill and would die, and so we moved here so that mother would have her three
sisters around for support.
This is the place where death came knocking; getting my attention, seeing it through the eyes
of a child 8 years old. On that dreadfully anticipated day, a week before thanksgiving, my sister and I
were walking home from school, pressing our fantasizing faces against the shop display windows in the
old brick buildings on Main street, suddenly hearing the sirens screaming, announcing the impending
demise of our father, we run through the thick gluey air around us, feeling we can’t get home fast
enough. As we turn the corner, our neighborhood has turned chaotic, the ambulance speeds past us,
straining to see in, we freeze in place, gasping for air, struggling to break free of our paralyzing fear, we
run towards the small cottage surrounded by menacing triple-decker buildings: reaching home, our worst
fears come to life, and an overpowering cloud of grief descends down upon us.
Being in the back seat of the car give me a drive-in theater view; we pull into the Charles
Chapin hospital’s drive-up, large bay view window, keeping the polio monster away. My vision alters,
the scene becomes surreal; we are at a drive-in movie, father is a TV. actor, lying on a metal table,
surrounded by masked people all in white, closing the curtain on his last act, his final curtain call.
Mother returns and tell us “your father is dead”. We hold onto each other crying, not fully gasping her
meaning, just knowing he was gone from us forever.
Here I’d like to consider the word dead; it is a four-letter word, considered obscene, not easily
talked about, defined as the end of life, whose meaning brings fear, dread, loss, grief, anger, disbelief
denial, anguish, and maybe even acceptance, of the loss of a loved one, or when facing ones death. Since
my first contact with the grim reaper back in 1957, I was drawn by the gravity of the situation, always
aware when the angel of death was just around the corner, learning not to hide from it.
I was an adult, when my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer, and given the death sentence.
While death was knocking at the door, we were together in the 2nd story yellow sears siding house,
where her mother had stared death in the face; spending our days sharing our life stories, determined to
leave no unfinished business, opening up and connecting with each other, hearing her say “ I know my
daughter as an adult”; learning the importance of closure. I supported myself working at RI hospice,
caring for the dying and their love ones; being the on call nurse from 5pm to 8am, covering the state of
Rhode Island, in the deep dark nights of the soul, going to their homes, sitting with them while they
experienced the valley of death, and staying with the family till the body was taken to the mortuary.
Learning to be with those who are dying, in an open supportive way, was what I experienced that year.
I was a hospice nurse for 10 years after the loss of mother, working with a team, we were a
family who gave excellent care and learning to enjoy life and not take things for granted. Dying is the
state leading up to the place called Death, an area shrouded in mystery. Death comes in all shades and
colors; good deaths for those who have lived a loving life, transformational deaths for those who have
lead exceptionally unselfish aware lives, peaceful deaths for those who are ready, and bad painful deaths
for those not able to let go; learning we die the way we live. We can be holding on to attachments, not
being able to let go! Our resistance, pain, agitation and anger can mobilize energy, temporarily. During
the final 36 hours, it is not uncommon for the dying to rally and have lots of energy to do things they
have not done in awhile; eat a large meal, wake up and say goodbye, get out of bed, walk outside; then
suddenly pass on; while the family are in shock, having believed that they had gotten better. There may
be unfinished business; waiting for someone to visit, for someone to give permission to die, to say that
its OK, that everyone will be OK, and will miss them. There is a thin curtain between reality and altered
states of consciousness during the dying process; they may describe seeing those who have gone before
them, coming to assist them through the transition. Some eventually get so exhausted that death creep in
and steals them away, not able to keep death at bay. Death is not at our beck and call.
Today I interact with Alaskan pioneers, who live well beyond their 90s, asking, “why am I still
here?” wondering, “what use am I?”. They are strong people, having a great ability to adapt to the harsh
environment, who live with diseases and illnesses that kill others, with a strong life force that is slowly
evaporating into the ethers, while they share with us, their final gifts of wisdom, acceptance and love. Is
it so difficult for us to just sit with them, listen to their stories, and enjoying them, before death comes
and takes them away?