As some of you are aware, the road trip that was to begin on June 26 to the University of Alabama Birmingham hospital for a one-month followup on Kitty's heart valve replacement had taken a long and convoluted detour through three hospital and two private facility stays ended a week ago, August 7, when Kitty passed away.
It has been a long and frustrating journey marked by hopeful advances and devastating losses. And it all happend so fast. A few months ago, she was healthy...going out on her own, shopping, relaxing at the beach, enjoying life and her family. She had been being treated for autoimmune hemoglobin anemia, something that required monthly infusions of a "chemo-lite" drug; her numbers had improved and stabilized to the point that treatment was no longer required. Her recent tiredness was diagnosed as aortic stenosis, something that was taken care of with the aortic valve replacement. The procedure was successful and the doctors were amazed that she had recovered so quickly and so well. The stenosis also placed a strain on her breathing, but chest x-rays and tests showed that that problem had also cleared up. Every major problem that she had seemed to have been resolved.
Then something happened. Following her valve replacement she had to use a walker, basically as a precaution. But two weeks after the valve replacement, her legs gave out on her. She was not able to stand. She then moved to a wheelchair but was still able to use the walker to get up and to get in and out of the wheelchair. Then on June 26, as we were about to get into the car for our road trip to Birmingham, she collapsed in the driveway and was not able to get up. The local fire department (bless them) came and helped us get her into the car. Instead of heading to Birmingham, we went straight to the local emergency room and she was soon admitted to the hospital.
From that point on I would not leave her side. Sometimes I slept on the floor of her room, sometimes on a pad, sometimes in a recliner, and sometimes on a cot. The pont was that I was there if she needed me and that I was there because I had to be stay close to her, to care for her.
She had a lot of fluid build-up in her body, something that can happen after an aortic valve replacement. They removed four liters of fluid from her stomach the first day. The fluid had been pressing on her diaphragm, making it difficult to breathe. The next week or so was spent reducing the fluid build-up. Kitty was then released to a rehab facility to help regain use of her legs. Rehab did not work out -- the place was understaffed and not equipped to meet her needs. Her breathing got worse and she was sent back to the hospital (actually, a different and slightly larger hospital). Again, she was stabilized and was eventually sent back to rehab. And again, rehab was a bust. She developed pneumonia and rehab had EMS bring her back to the hospital. (Rehab kindly told me that they will hold her room open for $70 a day; I kindly told the where to go.) The hospital placed her in ICU, where she stayed for seven days before being moved to a regular room.
During all this time, two disturbing things were happening. First, she would not eat. I'd be able to get a small forkful of whatever was being served in her -- and that was if I was lucky. She just was not interested in food or drink, although she would be quite thirsty. She would take a small sip or two of water or juice but that would be all. Trying to devise ways of getting protein in her proved to be a frustrating exercise. Second, she began a steep cognitive decline. Often she would not know where she was; more often she would not realize she was ill and would want to clinb out of bed and walk around -- even if that had been at all possible, it just was not safe by then. She would "remember" imaginary events and imaginary conversations and would make statements that made absolutely no sense. Her situation rapidly worsened -- and by "rapidly," I mean with the speed of an out-of-control truck racing downhill. A brain scan edliminated the possiblity that she had had a stroke. Until that last week, we had hope that she would be able to pull a rabbit out of her hat and recover. She had always been a strong, determined person -- a force of nature -- and if anyone could get out of this, it would be her. But during that last week in ICU, we realized that the ending we were hoping for would probably not happen. The doctors also began talking about possible liver problems, kidney problems, and so on.
So the day they moved Kitty out of the ICU, the girls and I sat down with a representative from hospice. We all agreed the time had come. Hospice came and set up a hospital bed for her, Our queen bed was moved out and one-half of Jack's bunk bed was moved in for me. At last Kitty was home where she belonged.
But by this time she was confused and scared and was not able to communicate. I stayed by her side, stroking her forehead and talking to her calmly. I just kept repeating the important stuff that she need to hear, the things that would help calm her down and relax her. It's okay. I'm here. I love you. You're home where you belong, with us. You're safe. Nothing can harm you. I will take care of you. There is no reason to be afraid. I'm here. I will protect you. Close your eyes. You can rest now. Relax. You're home. You're safe. We are here. We all love you...
The quiet repetition of these affirmations and the gentle stroking of her head would relax her and for that I am so grateful. That first night home, I had maybe ten minutes sleep. (It was four in the morning when she finally appeared to be sleeping so I laid down on my cot; at 4:10 she woke up again.) Christina and Jessie would spell me over the next few days so I could get what rest I could but rest did not come easy -- I needed to be by her side.
My sister-in-law Carmen flew down from Massachusetts to help us out. She is an experienced hospice nurse and her knowledgable support was invaluable. Jessie, Christina, Ceili, Amy, Mark, Erin, and even 10-year-old Jack were all amazing with their love and support. (Of course, nothing comes easy -- the day after we got Kitty home, Christina's husband Walt tested positive for COVID, so that threw a slight monkey wrench into the works. He's fine now.) Erin's boyfriend Trey, who had just lost his bloved grandfather just a month ago, was also helpful in his support.
The first time I saw Kitty she was sixteen and had just moved into the neighborhood one street down. I was working for my father and we werof building a house in the neighborhhood and there she was...a pretty young thing walking down the street sipping a cup of coffee (I thought it was tea,,but she later told me it was coffee). I was working and she was walking so I did not get that good a look at her, but there was something in that sprightly walk that fascinated me.
The first time I actually met her was several months later. She had gotten a summer job as a lifeguard at a local beach. We talked while she kept scanning the beach. She had the most beautiful eyes, green with golden flecks and hints of just about every color in the rainbow. She was beautiful. She was smart. She was funny. She interrupted our talk once to put the fear of god into an older teenager who was acting up. So, yeah, she was tough. She wore a red one-piece bathing suit that had a sort of puffy thing on the fanny. (The things you notice when you are falling in love.) It turns out she read Marvel comic books and that she loved folk music (this was the Sixties, after all). She even had a membership card for the legendary Club 47 folk music venue in Harvard Square; I, who was big into folk music, had not even been to Club 47 at the time. I brought over some albums to her house and we sat in a small room with hideously painted orange walls and listened to music. It took several days before I worked up enough courage to kiss her. At the time I thought it doesn't get any better than thtis. I was wrong. For most the next 56 years it just kept getting better.
Speaking of Club 47, we often were able to get seats directly next to the stage. something that was a definite advantage when Maria Muldaur was performing in the world's shortest mini-skirt. One performance, Jackie Washington stopped mid-song and looked down at Kitty and me and said, "Ah, they're holding hands." Kitty immediately pulled her hand away from mine and Washington told her, "Don't do that, dear. I don't want him upset. He's way bigger than me."
Like many of us at that time and age, Kitty was an idealist, passionate in her beliefs and empathetic to others. I kept swimming in the closeness of her and not caring if I might drown.
At heart, she was a very shy person but she had a talent for putting others at ease. She would talk to anyne and she would listen to anyone. Kate Mattes, of Kate's Mystery Books, would throw several big multi-author events a year, usually around the holiday season. Whenever we would arrive, Kate would swoop down on Kitty and place her where she was most needed. ("Oh, no. Lokk. So and so [insert popular uthor's name here] is sitting alone. Kitty go up and talk to her." And Kitty would, often not knowing who the author was, and they would have the most amazing chats. A number of authors would later go up to Kate and praise Kitty wildly.) Kitty's father used to take her to gatherings where he knew few of the peope in attendence, relying on Kitty to start the conversational ball rolling, setting everyone at ease.
Have I mentioned her smile? And her laugh? Nothing like it in the entire world. Never has been, never will be.
I went off to college in Nebraska and she went to Lowell State (now UMass Lowell) and we were apart for a couple of years. She became involved in student politics and the anti-war movement. Not that Lowell State was a hotbed of radicalism or anything, but for the first few years we were married there were strange noises coming over our phone and she was convinced the FBI had tapped it. Maybe they had.
I came home over break my senior year and a friend suggested we stop by Friendly's restaurant for a bite. What he knew and I didn't was that Kitty had a part-time job at the restaurant. She came over to take our order and her jaw dropped. I just stared at her and she stared at me and we were together from that moment on.
Kitty roomed at the dormatory at Concordia Hall while in school. The place held many good memories and many close friends for her so that was where we got married. The lounge at the dorm had also been used for Catholic services and thus had been consecrated by the church. In the middle of the lounge was a statue of Orpheus that had a trickling water attachment. During the ceremony someone forgot to turn off Orpheus' water. We were married while surrounded on three sides by family and friends; the fourth side was full of the girls from the dormatory whocame down to watch, many of them in threir bathrobes. Some college friends of Kitty provided the music; she entered with Phil Ochs' "Pleasures of the Harbor" and we left together to Dick and Mimi Farina's "Pack Up Your Sorrows." Kitty's brother Stephen made a mix tape of some of our favorite songs for the reception. (Many years later, when I met Joe Frazier of The Chad Mitchell Trio I mentioned that some of the group's songs were included in that mix tape; he seemed very proud of that.) The reception served champagne (no liquor, as I recall), but people kept showing up (with or without invites) and the venue soon ran completely out of champagne. Kitty's father sent the restaurant staff to local liquor stores to keep the bubbly flowing.
Those early years were interesting, job-wise. My degree was in English and Comparative Literature, preparing me for no possible job whatever. Kitty's was in Education with a minor in History, so ditto. When she graduated there were no teaching jobs; the kids she graduated with went into banking and construction and other non-teaching careers. Kitty worked retail sales, then substituted briefly (something that was not a financially viable career choice; you had to available when they called -- if they called -- and that meant you could not hold any other job on a steady basis). Then she got break. The Massachusetts Division of Youth Services was starting an innovative (and long over-due) process of closing down many of the youth detention centers in the state. Kitty was selected as one of a handful that would introduce the program on a trial basis. What this meant, in effect, is that we would take kids into our home and work with the court system and the schools to reintroduce them into their families and society. We met and worked with some really great kids who just did not deserve to be warehoused by the state. Yes, there were a couple of bad apples, but very few. Kitty was proud of the work she accomplished during the two years she was a part of it, and she had every right to be.
I was working construction for my father but had become too accident-prone. When the people at the oemegency room began to know me by my first name I figured it was time to move on. I got a job reporting for a local newspaper, eventually becoming its editor. When I was shifted to start a new paper, cimjltaneously becoming the exective editor of a subsidiatry chain, Kitty took over my position as editor and did a marvelous job. Less glamourous jobs included driving for the Boston Globe delivering newspapers at 3:00 a.m. (something she did to help finance our girls' school trips to Europe), more retail sales jobs, and whatever else might help keep our finaincial ship afloat. For a number of years, the two of us were therapeutic foster parents, again taking kids into our home and working to place them back with their parents. (In some cases, their homes were absolutely not the place for these kids to be, so we worked to find the best alternatives for them.) We had kids both on a temporry basis and kids for the long-term and, of all the kids that went through our home, there was only one (a sociopathic piece of protoplasm) we could not help. Kitty was in her glory, working with, nurturing, and guiding these children.
In the meantime, our own kids grew to be fantastic adults -- something I attribute far more to Kitty's influence than mine. And they married and they had kids. Both girls had problems with their pregnancies. Jessie developed heart problems while carrying Ceili, and after Amy (her second) was born she was forced to say no more. Christina had the most wonderful pregnancies and the worst deliveries. During Mark's birth, Christina's blood pressure bottomed out and we came close to losing both of them; he was born with a number of holes in his heart that evnentually closed up. Erin inhaled some meconium during delivery putting her health at risk; in addition, she wouldhave been a breach birth had not talented OB/GYN manage to maneuver the baby's position at the last minute. And there we were, with four of the most wonderful grandchildren on God's green earth. I cannot put into words Kitty's love for each of them.
After Erin's birth, it was a wise decision for Christina not have any more babies. But Christina, like her mother, had a heart that demanded nurtuirng more children, so she and Walt became foster parents. And along came Jack. Born to a drug-addicted mother and no known father in the offing, Jack had spent the six weeks of his life detoxing at Washington Children's Hospital. Immediately after that he went to Christina and Walt. After three long years, during which state policy mandated that attempts be made to reunite Jack with his birth mother, Christina and Walt were finally able to legally adopt Jack hen the birth mother's parental rights were revoked. The just made legal what had already been cler -- Jack was their son. Because of his troubled birth, there have been a number of physical and emotional issues with Jack, but with patience and love, these all seem to be going away. Today, Jackis a bright, loving, and warm child -- a tribute to Christina and Walt's patience. H still has a ways to go, but I have no doubt he'll get there. Jack has also been another blessing in Kitty's life. She loved him dearly and was an integral part of his turning out so well.
During those last few days at home, Kitty's mind kept going back to "Michael". She would call out to "Michael," pleading with him to help her, or begging "Michael" to take care of whatever problem her mind was conjuring up. Michael was her older brother by three years. and mentally Kitty was going back in time to when she was a little girl and her older brother would take care of all her problems and protect her. I'm glas she had those thoughts to help her. As I would soothe her and try to relax her, she at times would not recognize me, conflating me with "Michael." But then she would call me by my name and I knew I had not completely lost her.
Over the long hospital stays, her toenail polish would start to crack and fade. At the time it her toes were blue. A few days before the end, Amy borrowed some toe nail polish from Erin's room and did her nail with a bright sparkle polish. Kitty looked cool.
That last day or two, I kept the television in our room on YouTube, continuously playing the folk music that she loved when she was younger...Tom Paxton, Peter, Paul and Mary, The Chad Mitchell Trio, Gordon Bok, The Kingston Trio, The Limelighters, The Brothers Four, Judy Collins, Leonard Cohen...
Sunday evening, about 8:40, some group (I dont even know who) was singing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." I was stroking her head.
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free
His truth is marching on...
Before the song was over she was gone.
She passed, I firmly believe, with the knowledge that I loved her, that I would let nothing harm her, that she was safe, and that she could rest...
Fifty-two year ago we made made a promise to love and honor (not obey -- we kept that word out of our vows) in sickness and in health...
Over the years I held steadfast to that vow. I came naturally to me and it wasn't until the past few weeks that I realized how hard that vow could be at the end. The pain and the anquish of seeing her so confused and scared made be realize that vows are meant to be kept until the very end and that I would be there for her. how could I do otherwise?
I am still numb. I'm apt to break into tears at any moments. It is almost impossible to control my emotions.
School started for Jack on Wednesady. I'm driving him to school every morning. It helps having something to do. It helps having Jack there beside me.
Kitty loved to dance. Sadly she married a galoot with two left feet. One season I got tickets for the Boston Balet. At the first performance of that season, they were selling ballet shoes that had been used by various members of the troupe. We bought a pair that had been used by one of Kitty's favorite dancers of the seson -- for the life of me I can't remember who. No matter where we lived, those shoes hung on the doobknob of our bedroom; they were Kitty's own little good-luck charm. When Christina and Jessie cleaned out our apartment and moved us into Chrisitna's house (she was in the hospitl and I was by her side), a lot of things got stuffed in boxes willy-nilly, inlcuding those ballet slippers. I found them as I was going through some of the boxes this past Wednesday. The slippers are now back hanging on the bedroom door. Just as it should be.
It's been a rainy, drizzling week here. None the less we made room for some beach time this weekend. The beach soothes the nerves, and relaxes you as you try to put things in perspective. I didn't spot any dolphins -- that was Kitty's job. Nonetheless there were dolphins (at least two) in the far-off distance; the girls and the grands were able to make them out. If there are dolphins around, that mean that kitty's spirit is around also.
Chrsitina has a glider on her front porch and I've been sitting out there sometimes during the morning or late afternoon. Friday morning I watched the two-year-old boy from across the street discover the absolute joys of stomping in rain puddles. His laughter carried over the neighborhood. That afternnoon, he was running counterclockwise in circles about a tree in this front yard -- he just ran and ran and ran, going around that tree over two dozen ties. laughing. That pure innocent joy remided me of Kitty.
Last year, at age 72, Kitty got a tattoo. A smallmone onher ankle of the sign language symbol for 'I love you," to match the tattoos that Erin and Christina had gotten a little early. I have decided to break my life-long anti-tattoo stance and get a similar one later this month. Meanwhile, on their own, Jessie, Ceili, and Amy all decided it was time for them to get the same tattoo. Maybe we'll throw a party...the family that inks together, drinks together...
There will be no service for Kitty here. She will be cremated as per her wishes. Later, perhaps in the spring, we will hold a memorial service for her in Msschusetts and her ashes will be laid to rest in my family's plot. She will be home once again, where she belongs.
My father came from a large family. Whenever tragedy struck, as it would with any large family, he would be one of the first to show up to provide whatever aid and assistance he could. Onr thing he would do every time was remind us that life was for the living. We -- and those who depend upon us -- still live and our obligation is to continue on. This does not mean that we not mourn and weep for our loss, what it means that we honor our loss by continuing on and by taking all the parts of those we have lost with us into the future. Those we have loved and lost are now part of our framework and we move on the better from absorbing their memories and kindnesses.
Life is a beautiful gift that must not be squandered. The world is a wonder, mysterious place -- sometimes cruel, to be sure, but more often beautiful and full of meaning that we just do not have the power nor abilty to eplain.
So as I carry her love, her essence, and her memory within me it will soon be time to fsce the world again. I'm writing this on a Sunday ngith and it will be posted shortly after midnight. I have no idead idea what tomorrow morning will bring, It may be sunny and warm, raining and cold, but the morning will be there waiting for me and I will greet the day. It may not be the easiest thing to do; few things are, but I will carry her spirit within me and the knowledge that for over half a century I had her love and she, in turn, managed to make me a much better peron.