fare thee well, dearest shirley

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.”

Alex and Shirley in healthier days at the Melting Pot, December 2008
Alex and Shirley in healthier days at the Melting Pot, December 2008

Here is her obituary from the Washington Post: Shirley Iris Dutchak.

Shirley in her backyard with Bailey in May 2011
Shirley in her backyard with Bailey in May 2011

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.

Adam, me, Shirley and Alex, with Bailey in front ~ May 2011
Adam, me, Shirley and Alex, with Bailey in front ~ May 2011

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.

Her potted plants, July 2014
Shirley’s potted plants, July 2014
Shirley's garden this sad July
Shirley’s garden this sad July
Shirley's garden
Shirley’s garden
Shirley's garden
Shirley’s garden

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.

July 2014 in Shirley's garden
July 2014 in Shirley’s garden

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.

Shirley's garden, July 2014
Shirley’s garden, July 2014

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.

A sea of black-eyed Susans
A sea of black-eyed Susans

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.

Shirley's front garden
Shirley’s front garden

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.

Shirley's garden in May 2011
Shirley’s garden in May 2011

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.

May 2011
May 2011

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.

Shirley's garden in May 2011
Shirley’s garden in May 2011

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.

One of many bird houses in Shirley's yard
One of many bird houses in Shirley’s yard

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.

Shirley and Alex in her living room, Christmas 2013
Shirley and Alex in her living room, Christmas 2013

Bon voyage and rest in peace, dear Shirley.



30 thoughts on “fare thee well, dearest shirley

  1. It’s so difficult to watch someone you love slide away, but how nice for you and for Shirley that you could have that time before she passed. I believe she is now in a beautiful garden, easily breathing in the fresh air and gentle scents of that garden. Hugs to you and your loved ones.

    1. Thank you so much, Carol. I believe that too. She loved flowers so much, I like to think of her surrounded by them and the singing birds. I’m really glad I was in the country during this last year and got to spend so much time with her. She will be dearly missed. xxx

  2. So sorry to hear about your mother in law’s death. She was obviously quite a character and a great support, especially when your kids were small. She was feisty to the end it appears.

    I do admire your ability to share youe emotions with your readers. I feel I know you well altho’ we have never met. Hope you enjoy China!

    1. Thank you so much for your condolences, Vee. She was quite a character, very feisty till the end, and a great support for me and my children. She was a wonderful grandmother, and for that I will be forever grateful.

      Thanks for your comment about sharing my emotions. I’ve been told by some readers they don’t care for it, but for me it’s important to share myself. I think we all experience common emotions during the phases of our lives, and some people appreciate a writer who can give voice to those shared emotions. I feel more connected to readers when I encourage them to share something of themselves in return. Thanks so much again, Vee, for that comment, and for visiting me in my little world. 🙂

      I’m looking forward to China, albeit with a little bit of trepidation. I am always nervous before embarking on a new adventure, but I know I’ll learn something new from the whole thing. 🙂

    1. Thank you so much, Eileen, for your comment. I’m sorry I moved you to tears, but also glad to have hit a chord on some level. Yes, Shirley lived a good long life, and for that we can be glad. She will be in my heart forever. Thanks for your condolences. xxx

  3. It probably seemed endless while you were all living it, Cathy, but her debilitating illness was quite swift in the end. She seemed to have a full and happy life, and what more can you ask at 88? The obituary was beautiful and I know you and the family will have a couple of days full of wonderful memories of Shirley. My commiserations to Mike and to your youngsters. Her absence will seem strange. Hugs, Cathy! xx

    1. Jo, you’re right, it did seem endless while we were living through it, but then her life ended so swiftly. We can never predict how quickly death will sweep in. Shirley did have a full and happy life and we will miss her dearly. Her absence will seem very strange, as if a big hole has been taken out of our lives. But she was a blessing while we had her, and she’ll always be in our hearts. We had the memorial service yesterday and it was lovely. Mike and his sister Barbara wrote and shared beautiful eulogies. Thanks for your hugs and condolences, Jo. xxx

  4. Your mom-in-law sounds like she was a very valued and loved member of your family and an important part of your life, Cathy. Condolences to you and Mike and the rest of her family. You wrote a wonderful obituary, and your love for her shines through your words. RIP Shirley
    The pansies are so gorgeous. Hugs to you.

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words, Sylvia. Shirley was a big part of our lives and she will be dearly missed. My sister-in-law Barbara wrote the obituary that appeared in the Washington Post. I’m glad you enjoyed my post about her. I’m hoping Barbara can keep her garden up, at least as long as she stays in the house. Hugs to you too. xxx

  5. I’m so sorry to read of your loss. Shirley sounds like a very special lady who will be missed by all. As soon as I started reading this I thought ‘so that’s why things have conspired to keep you there’, Some things are just meant to be. Take care Cathy, my sympathies to you all.

  6. So sorry to hear this Cathy. Your MIL was obviously a huge part of your family and it is so good that you were able to spend so much time with her during her last year. 88 is a good long life and although her health was obviously a concern over the last few years it doesn’t sound as though she suffered much. At least I hope so. Take care. Take time to grieve. And spend some quiet time in that gorgeous garden.
    Jude xx

    1. Thank you for your condolences, Jude. She was a great part of our family and having her live nearby was a true blessing. I don’t know how her grandchildren will cope with losing her. I don’t think she did suffer horribly, but I know her life was increasingly difficult in the last couple of years. She had to carry her oxygen, roll-ator, bag, cane, etc. everywhere she went and each outing was a major expedition that required a lot of energy. She was a determined lady though! We just had her memorial service yesterday and it was a lovely farewell to a wonderful lady. xxx

  7. I’m so sorry for you loss, Cathy. This is a wonderful tribute to her. Her garden is beautiful. I hope you get some time to sit there and just be for a while.

  8. My sympathies to you, Mike and your family for your loss. What a great, loving and gifted woman your mother in law was. Her obituary and your testament to her life and last days spent with her were beautifully written,Cathy. Her garden was lovely as your photographs show.

    1. Thank you so much, Lynne, for your condolences. Shirley was a wonderful lady who we’ll hold in our hearts forever. Her garden was her pride and joy; I know it gave her many years of pleasure. Hugs xxx

  9. You’ve written a beautiful tribute to Shirley – I cried with you when I read it. I feel she was more like a friend than a mother-in-law. Amazing that she was able to live in her home and maintain such a beautiful garden right up to the end. My condolence to you, Mike and your kids.

    1. Thank you, Rosie, for your kind words. She was like a friend in many ways, but she was also like a second mother to me. She was in a hospice bed in her house at the end, in the family room where she could look out at her garden. She really wasn’t able to maintain it, and actually counted on my sons to do a lot of the weeding, etc. She really wasn’t able to tend it like she would have liked over the last year. Thank you so much for you condolences. xxx

  10. What a loving tribute to Shirley. I am so glad you could be here for her passing now, instead of this happening while you are abroad. It is so important to have closure, say everything that needs to be said, and to listen to everything, for everyone’s peace of mind. I know your family will treasure her memory forever.

    1. Thank you, Annette. I’m really glad I was here in Virginia for Shirley’s last year of life. And for my dog’s death yesterday as well. I guess there’s a reason why I needed to be home. We will treasure her memory forever. Thanks so much. 🙂

  11. Again with the tears! What a lovely tribute! I am heartened by your words about Sandy and her husband who spend a lot of time apart. How I wish I had that arrangement with my ex-husband. It takes a lot of trust and respect but if you and Mike are willing I know this will work for you. And I am sure Shirley forgave you a long time ago and if she could have told you this, she would have. xx Beautiful!

    1. Thanks again for your kind words, Mona Lisa. I hope she was able to forgive me. I guess I won’t ever know really. I hope Mike and I can work things out with me going abroad and then returning home, and him coming to visit me, much like Sandy and Malcolm have worked out. I guess only time will tell. Right now, I’m feeling a little sick with stomach problems. I don’t know if it’s just stress about going away again, or something else. I hope I get over it soon though as I have a lot to do in the next week and a half!

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