Thursday, July 17: This evening, my mother-in-law, Shirley Dutchak, passed away. Her 88th birthday was on July 1, so she was lucky that she was able to see another year through. She told me, while in the hospital on her birthday, that she knew this might be the end of her life. She smiled and said, “It’s been a good life, Cathy.”
Here is her obituary from the Washington Post: Shirley Iris Dutchak.
I’ve known Shirley since Mike and I started dating in 1987. We married in November 1988, and from the outset, Shirley was an involved and loving grandmother to my children. At the time we married, my 4-year-old daughter Sarah, from my earlier marriage, became her ready-made first granddaughter. Alex was born in 1991, and Shirley and Gene, Mike’s father, volunteered to watch Alex for me at least one day a week so I could have some time to myself. They continued taking the children one day a week after Adam was born in December 1992. I’ve always had a high need for alone time, so this offer to watch the children was a blessing.
Shirley loved to travel and she and Gene often went on trips with Elderhostel, a not-for-profit organization that provides lifelong learning opportunities for adults. Gene was an avid photographer, so that required some patience on her part. Because they lived in Vienna, less than a 20-minute drive from our house in Oakton, we always celebrated holidays with them. When Gene died of a heart attack in 1999, Mike’s sister Barbara moved in with her mom to keep her company. We continued to share holidays with Shirley and Barb. She will be missed as she was such a presence in my life for so long.
On Monday, June 30, Shirley was admitted to the hospital with a bad cough, and at a frail 83 pounds, she “celebrated” her birthday in the hospital. She had been losing weight over a period of several years and was on oxygen, which she had to carry with her everywhere. She suffered from COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a progressive disease that makes it hard to breathe. “Progressive” means the disease gets worse over time, according to the National Institutes of Health. COPD can cause coughing that produces large amounts of mucus, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and other symptoms.
On Thursday, July 3, she was released to go home under hospice care, with around-the-clock assistance. The doctors told her there was nothing else they could do for her.
Up until Wednesday, July 16, she was still sitting up in the bed that hospice had placed in her family room. From her bed, she had a view of her beloved backyard garden. Because of medication she was on, her eyes were ultra-sensitive to light. As she sat in bed reading the newspaper or the cards people sent her, she wore a dark pair of stylish sunglasses. I’ll always remember her propped up on a plethora of pillows on that convoluted bed, her stuffed teddy bear (which she named after our dog Bailey) by her side, and those dark glasses on, her hair all askew.
She desperately wanted to go to the beauty parlor on that Wednesday, when she was last awake and responsive. She called to make an appointment and asked the nurse assistant, Rosamund, to take her. We could all see she was too frail and weak to make an outing to the beauty parlor, but she kept insisting. When we told her it would be too much for her to handle, she waited until Rosamund was out of the room and she asked me, “Do you think Alex or Adam could take me?” I said, “No, Shirley. I can’t have them be responsible if something happens to you.” I couldn’t imagine the devastation they would feel to have her collapse while in their care.
On that Wednesday, she could barely talk because of the fluid in her lungs. She was also breathing laboriously and coughing a lot. At one point, after not having gotten out of bed for several days, she insisted on getting out of bed with her walker to check the oxygen machine. She was so frail and weak, it must have taken every ounce of energy she had to get up. She made it to the living room and sat in front of the oxygen machine, pushing the buttons, turning it on and off, pushing the reset button. It turned out she broke the machine. Luckily we had a back-up. What she couldn’t accept was that it wasn’t the machine that was failing, it was her lungs. It was so sad for all of us to watch her, in a panic, trying to gain control over her breathing.
In her last two weeks at home, we saw her fluctuate between confusion and lucidity. She became obsessed with buttons on remote controls. While Alex and I took a short break of several days to drive to New England, she kept pressing the buttons on the remote: “I have to push these two buttons at the same time to keep Alex and Cathy safe,” she told Mike numerous times. One time she told Mike she had to get ready to get on the helicopter with the four blonde boys. Yet. In the midst of all that confusion, the hospice nurse gave her a test for lucidity and memory, which she passed with flying colors. She knew the answer to every single question.
On Wednesday evening, she went to sleep and became non-responsive. Her breathing was labored and her skin was cooling and turning gray. It was difficult to watch. But Rosamund, who takes care of dying people all the time, said that Shirley could hear everything. She said she’d hear whatever we said. We all spent a lot of time with her on Thursday. Each of us took turns saying what we wanted to say to her. I held her hand and thanked her for being such a wonderful mother-in-law and grandmother to my children. I told her I hoped she would forgive me for the pain I had caused Mike. I said I hoped she could understand that I had a desperate urge to forge a life for myself outside of marriage and motherhood. I don’t know why I believed I couldn’t have the life I wanted within marriage, but at the time Mike and I separated in 2007, I felt there was no other way to do it. It was only when I went to Oman and met Sandy and Malcolm, a British couple who has lived apart for many years of their marriage, that I realized I could have my marriage and family, AND the life I wanted. That’s how we will try to work it out going forward. I told her all of that and asked for her forgiveness. I believe if she could have responded, she would have forgiven me. She was not the type to hold grudges.
Mike, Alex and I left the house around 8:00 on Thursday evening. Adam had been by earlier in the day. Barbara was holding Shirley’s hand and talking to her for about 40 minutes when she passed away around 9:30. I’m glad Barbara was with her at the end.
The photos in this post are from Shirley’s garden. It’s not at its prettiest now, as it’s been slightly neglected during her decline. Some of the pictures were taken several years ago. She loved her gardens, and she loved watching the birds congregate at the many bird feeders she has hanging throughout her yard. She always tried to identify the birds from bird books.
The flowers and the birds, her garden club and Holy Comforter church community, her grandchildren, her children and her daughter-in-law will all miss her very much.
Bon voyage and rest in peace, dear Shirley.