Saturday, October 26, 2013

Aunt Mary

More apologies first! All of you who turned out to hear me in Silicon Valley or at the i-Lab know I was moving fast -- thanks for coming, I can't ever remember such nice audiences! The event at the Computer History Museum was very emotional -- most of the audience seemed to have taken a course from me, and the time span went back to 1975. There were lots of people I had not seen in decades, and several people told me things I had said which they believed to be meaningful. About the nicest thing anyone told me was one fellow who told me how "validated" he felt when I paused in the middle of my proof of Turing's Theorem to describe the tragic circumstances of Turing's death (look 'it up if you don't know). He then introduced me to his male partner. Anyway, thanks again to all.

Some of you read or heard my little Morning Prayer service homily about my aunt, Mary Kowal. I delivered it two years ago, after I had moved Mary into Clark Retirement Home in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Mary passed away on October 19. It is not my intention to turn this blog into a series of memorial tributes to my friends and relatives, but it's what's on my mind at the moment. (And fellow H'68ers, it was fun to see you --- sorry to have missed the rest of the reunion for the funeral.)

Something about the experience of knowing Mary over the past few years has left me with hope for humanity, hope that balances my frustration over the meanness of the political process. (For awhile I was really fascinated with politics, but lately I have actually started watching the news less and listening to sports radio more.)

Mary was pretty reclusive and went to Clark only after a great deal of trust-building and persuasion on my part. She was supported by two saintly friends who had gotten to know her, and she finally agreed. We dug up a dogwood tree from her yard when we sold the house and planted it outside her window in the retirement home. Once she began eating three meals a day, her health improved, and her skin and face came back to life. And she became quite social. After living alone for thirty years, she started talking to people and about people, and she loved the visits my children and granddaughter paid her when they could. She got her hair done every week. For what must have been the first time in years, she felt good about herself. Not that she was at all saccharine; 75 years after the fact she wanted me to know how mad she still was at my mother, who died 35 years ago, for walking out on the family.

I am hard pressed to say how much of the  simple niceness of Mary's last few years was the result of a very well run retirement home, which Clark surely is, and how much is simply due to the fact that EVERYONE in western Michigan is nice. The waitresses in the same chain restaurants don't call you "hon" in Boston the way they do in Grand Rapids.

Watching life go by in this retirement home was different from my last experience of the kind, with my father in Boston. All the residents seemed to be compos mentis, if physically enfeebled. And they were all old enough that they knew very well what was coming; people were leaving and new people coming every month or so. Mary, for certain, knew that her days were numbered and accepted it fully.  She had planned and prepaid her funeral thirty years ago. Now, she said, she had led a long life, perhaps because she did not have a nickel during the Depression with which to pay for the bus. She walked everywhere, to school, to work, to shop, and as a result was stronger than her small frame might have suggested. But 95 was old.

About two weeks ago she developed abdominal pains. A visit to the hospital yielded no clear diagnosis; exploratory surgery was the only option for figuring it out. Realizing she would probably not want a colostomy or other drastic surgery (and might not survive it anyway), she chose to go back to Clark under hospice care and wait for the end. Again, the help was superb. She received painkillers, but I and other family members were able to talk to her on the phone several times, and she was chipper to the end. One day I called and was told that she was "actively dying," a turn of the English language I had never heard before. Sure enough, she slipped quietly away a few hours later. Here is the death notice.

We should all be so smart and so lucky.

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