Storytelling, and The Art of Living and Dying Well

There are two days with sunny forecasts sandwiched between many October days of rain. I decide to spurn yard work to drive out to the almost-coastal town of Tokeland on the Willapa Bay, ostensibly to get the best-ever Shrimp ‘n Grits at the quirky, historic Tokeland Hotel, but the main attraction is the autumn drive on my favorite road: Washington State Route 6.

Although it’s still dark when I wake up on the chosen day, I can tell the Pacific Northwest weather has not held up to promise. I’m on the road with my extra-hot latte at eight o’clock, under overcast skies and occasional mist, with the promise of better weather to the west.

I’m listening to Katy Butler’s book, The Art of Dying Well: a Practical Guide to a Good End of Life (2019) while I drive. Her earlier book, Knocking on Heaven’s Door: the Path to a Better Way of Death (2014), was my guide in the years I lived with my elderly mother. This one is even better than the first; I wish I’d had it in my arsenal.

Listening, though, I realize I did a lot right with my mother and with navigating—and sometimes challenging—the medical system that doesn’t value natural death, or geriatric medicine. In fact, I found myself thinking my memoir could illustrate this book: the things I did well, the frustrations I had, the times I wish I could have done better. And there are plenty of that last. I don’t think anyone can navigate either parenting or elder care without regrets. They are (arguably) the hardest jobs in the world—particularly emotionally. The trick is to forgive ourselves and let it go.

The overcast sky drops down into fog, with glimpses of lighter sky and patches of blue in the distance over the Willapa Hills before plunging back into fog. Katy’s voice goes on, our loved one seems to rally, then return to the slow decline. One of my triumphs was getting my 100-year-old mother into at-home hospice care without the probability of death within six months from one of the few Medicare-approved diagnoses. One of the frustrations was she kept getting kicked out of hospice when she got stronger . . . because of being in hospice. Then she would decline and end up in the E.R. again. Our nurse told me it was not an uncommon pattern; that being in the care of hospice is the best insurance policy around, but Medicare doesn’t get that.

Passing through the tiny towns, slowing from fifty-five to twenty-five and quickly back to fifty-five, I leave the fog behind for good as I enter the wetlands, crossing river after creek after slough. I am completely in love with this drive. It’s the only place I go that isn’t destination driven. Unless shrimp and grits with bacon counts.

I head south on US Highway 101 in Raymond on the Willapa toward my first stop, the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge. Alone in the parking lot, I don rubber boots for the mud and start out the boardwalk through the slough. This is an art trail, created by public arts students at the University of Washington, and it’s beautiful.

I hadn’t read that one of the art installations is a labyrinth, and I am joyfully surprised when I come upon it. I stand at the entrance of the fir needle and leaf strewn circle, sun slanting through the stand of hemlock and fir, then step with a calmed mind onto the brick path.

The journey with my mother was like a labyrinth, and I relive it now as I wind around, approaching the center and then moving away again, not quite getting there, unable to see when I will. My mother’s final destination was the center; I was trying to find my way out and back into the world. Sometimes we would meet, passing close by each other, and then move apart again unable to find connection. I held her hand. Our fingers slipped apart. “I forgive you. Please forgive me. I love you.”

I arrive at the Tokeland Hotel with two delicious hours to sit and write by the fire and walk in the sunlight until the four o’clock dinner hour when I can get my dinner-to-go. Shrimp ’n Grits in hand, I head for home, back over the sloughs and creeks and rivers, back through the small towns. The trees that were yellow in the morning fog, are pure gold in the sinking sun.

I reach the end of my audio book. Katy says every fragile human should have access to palliative care, not just those with a particular diagnosis that includes imminent death. Change, she says, must come from the bottom up. We must keep making our voices heard. “Keep telling your stories.” This, I realize with a start, is why I wrote my memoir. This is my motivation for getting it out into the world. Our stories are important. Our stories drive change.

What is your story? Who will you share it with? I would love to hear it. Please feel free to write in the comments about your walk with your elderly parent. Let’s be in community.

Mother Lode, my memoir of life with Mama, will be published by She Writes Press in November 2022. I expect to resume posting on this blog from time to time as a caregiver ally. If you would like to follow all my post-mother care adventures, I invite you to follow me at www.WritingDownTheStory.com and on my Facebook writer page @GretchenStaebler.