Her pending death
makes the lives of all the family teeter with uncertainty.
...as a young woman
Is there a final
to learn from this ordeal?
By JOYCE KIEFER
In late summer the high Sierras become a Garden of
Paradise. The woods and open slopes are filled with lush displays
of lupine, Indian warriors, mules ears, larkspur and, near the
snowmelt, pussy paws and snow plants.
My husband, Bill, and I pack up for a trip to the mountains to
hike through the purple, yellow and orange of these flowers on
a trail that will take us to a series of alpine lakes backed
by jagged, show-spotted mountains. Cameras, boots, trail cookies
are set out, ready to go.
So is the black garment bag that hangs on the door. It looks
like a body bag. Funeral clothes are inside. We take it in case
we get The Call that Florence, Bills ailing
mother, has passed away. Then we will put aside the hike and
drive on across the Sierras to western Colorado to join his family
for funeral services.
For over a month Florence has clung to life in a nursing home.
She hangs on despite a stroke, congestive heart failure
or...? The doctors in her small town arent sure what caused
her to go weak and struggle to breathe. She survives on sips
of water and on a good day, a dish of ice cream. Some days she
keeps her eyes closed. But she knows her visitors most of the
time. After each downturn the nurses take Bills sister
aside and tell her that Florence will not last more than a few
days, two weeks at most.
She has outlived several rounds of these predictions.
She is too weak to lift a fork or walk to the bathroom. She has
no power over the functions of her own life but has enormous
impact on the details of ours.
Her pending death makes the lives of all the family teeter with
uncertainty. I return videos the next day instead of three days
later. I hand my Lion King tickets to my daughter-in-law
so that she can take the grandchildren if I cant. I catch
Bill rolling his eyes upward and begging, Please Mom, let
us enjoy the mountains this weekend.
Hardest for us and for all of his siblings is deciding whether
or not to proceed with our summer plans. Bills sister had
arranged to take a group of music students to Italy. Since she
was responsible for them, there was no way she could suddenly
depart for the funeral. His younger brother and extended family
looked forward to a 40th anniversary trip with their children
and grandchildren to Las Vegas and Disneyland. One of the girls
was dancing in a national competition in Vegas. Another brother
and his wife had signed up for a conference in Hawaii followed
by three weeks exploring the islands for the first time. Bill
and I had planned to visit Alaska for the first time.
All of us decide to go through with these plans, but they feel
We actually lost Florence four years ago. Her physical death
will bring closure to her sufferings. It will finalize our sense
The real Florence died at her 65th wedding anniversary. We had
gathered in Colorado to honor the occasion at a Sunday Mass,
followed by a party we arranged in their back yard.
People remarked they had never seen a better marriage than that
of Florence and Jeromeit was truly a relationship to celebrate.
But on the big day Florence seemed fearful and uncertain about
getting out of the car or where she was supposed to go next.
Afterwards she became completely strange. Then her emotions simply
vanished. The personality of this vibrantly engaged woman who
energized the whole family seemed to evaporate, leaving behind
an expressionless shell. This shocking change was a mystery to
the doctors as well as to everyone who knew her.
Since then, Bill and I feel the loss of her every time we visit.
Yet as long as shes alive, we also feel the presence of
the person we used to know. Its a gut comfort to know that
mother is still around.
The family will not postpone her funeral for anyones arrival
because they assume that would be too hard on 91-year-old Jerome.
In their Catholic tradition, she will have a rosary, Mass and
burial within three to four days.
So the family is left to play a waiting game with Florence. She
suffers several bad days and the news goes out. In response we
plot contingency moves to cut short our travels in order to get
to the funeral in time. Then she prays the Hail Mary now
and at the hour of MY death . . and shows a keen awareness
no one expects. She may last a few weeks longer after all.
Im convinced she has a strategy.
Florence wants us to teach us an important lesson before she
decides to die: No one, not even the strongest of persons can
predict or plan the next day, the next week, the next year of
his or her life. Carefully plotted schedules do not guarantee
certainty. Neither does the joy of anticipation. By keeping us
waiting for her final move and the call home for her funeral,
she reminds us that the God she has always seen so clearly before
her is the one who delivers the ultimate decision on what occurs
in our lives, no matter what age we are.
My grandmothers favorite caution to anyone describing big
plans was si dios lo quiereif God wants it.
One mustnt tempt fate.
Perhaps Florence, the thoughtful woman who spent family dinners
serving others and then eating after most people had left the
table, will hang on to life so as not to interrupt anyones
cherished vacations. Then after weve settled ourselves
back home, she will decide its time to leave the table
where she has celebrated life for 89 years, always in the midst
Or maybe she will choose to jolt my husband and I out of Alaska
and his brother and wife from Hawaii in order to teach us how
precarious our well-planned lives truly are.
©2004 by Joyce Kiefer.
The photo is courtesy of the
Kiefer family. All rights reserved.
Florence Kiefer passed away December 1, 2004 She was 89 years
old. Ever thoughtful, she "chose" to depart after
Thanksgiving and before the rush of Christmas celebrations.
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