Monday, August 03, 2015


My mother was the oldest of three girls in her family; they came with great regularity every five years.  Her middle sister Nancy was a graduate of Agnes Scott and was the one who introduced my parents to each other.  She had a busy life being a sister, mother, grandmother, musician, and a fabulous children's librarian.  Nancy and mother have had very full lives, surrounded by family, work and love.

Mother's sister Roberta followed a different track.  Roberta was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in her late teens/early twenties.  Their father was able to deal with the effects of the disease, but when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in the mid-1960's he and Grandma had very limited options and made the difficult decision to have Roberta placed in institutional care.

Many years later when Grandma was in her 90s, Mother and Nancy were faced with some decisions.  They decided that Mother would care for Grandma (who died in 1997 at the age of 98), and Nancy would care for Roberta.  Geographically it made sense.  Roberta lived in a home in Vermont and Nancy lived near Boston.  Grandma had moved to North Carolina and Mother lived in South Carolina.  Mother was older than Nancy, so Nancy was more likely to live longer to care for Roberta. 

Except that in 2010, at the age of 76, Nancy had an unexpected and fatal heart attack while traveling.  Mother was 81 at the time and Roberta 71.  Mother was still in South Carolina ~ about 90 miles inland ~ and Roberta was still in Vermont, 25 miles from the Canadian border.  That's about 1,060 miles.  Mother had her lawyer draw up papers to assume Power of Attorney, had the nursing home start calling her for reports and needs.  She became Roberta's person to call when she was lonely, sad, bored, or had news to share.  Visits, however, were just not possible.

In 2013, my parents came to visit and I asked Mother how Roberta was doing.  We had a brief discussion and then went on to other things.  A week later my father called.  My questions about Roberta had spurred some concerns and he and Mom had discussed the possibility of her making a visit to see Roberta.  They agreed that Mom could not make the trip on her own, and Dad was at the time Pastoring not one but two churches in their area.  Dad wondered if I might be willing to make the trip with Mom?  A TRIP?  With my mother??  To see my Aunt???  I was thrilled!

That began the month of quite frequent phone calls to figure out how to make the trip.  Due to my many medical accoutrements, plane travel is quite difficult for me.  We decided to take Amtrak.  After weeks of planning and discussions, I got up one morning, finished packing my bags and took off.  I caught a train from Birmingham to Charlotte where I met Mom and off we went to Vermont.  You may read about the trip here, here, here, and here.

It was a revealing trip.  Mother's hearing is failing, so when Roberta or the nursing home would call, it was almost impossible for her to hear or understand what was being said.  The decisions that needed to be made and the business that needed to be handled were overwhelming to Mom on top of all her other responsibilities as the Pastor's wife, handling the book-keeping for a ministry my parents have, and just the day to day business of managing a country home.  Mr. Marvelous and I talked and prayed and decided that I needed to make the offer to handle Roberta's needs.  Mother accepted with some relief.  This began my season of Roberta.  It was not always an easy season, but it was one of great joy and love.  Mom's lawyers drew up another set of Power of Attorney papers adding me on, I talked with the Social Worker at the nursing home, and made sure that Roberta ~ Aunt Bobbie ~ had my phone number.

Aunt Bobbie called me a minimum of once a day on average.  My day was not complete without an early morning phone call as Mr. Marvelous was headed out the door to work (or occasionally before we woke up!).  It was just how I started my day, on the phone with her and with Gracie-Kitty in my lap.
Roberta loved animals.  In the past she had a pet chipmunk, an assortment of birds and hamsters.  The Nursing Home staff had dogs that they brought in to work with them, and Roberta's day started with her waiting at the front door for the Social Worker to come in with her little dog Missy.  When Roberta's day went bad (not an unusual occurrence), a visit from Missy often perked her up.  When the phone rang in my kitchen, Gracie-Kitty would run in and jump on my lap; she knew it was time to talk to Aunt Bobbie!  Gracie would talk to Roberta, and Roberta would talk to Gracie.

Roberta LOVED jokes.  Our morning talk almost always included her reading me the jokes from the daily paper the Nursing Home put out.  We always got a kick out of sharing these.  She also loved to pull jokes on people.  One day she called and she was laughing so hard she could barely talk.  Somewhere she had found a toy mouse that was apparently quite realistic.  She found a coffee cup with a lid and put the mouse inside.  She went to the front door and waited.  When the social worker came in, she asked her to help her take the top off the cup.  Marie's response was, "Roberta, you know you are not supposed to have that kind of cup; you might choke!  Here, let me take that back to the kitchen and get you your cup"  As she walked down the hall, she took the top off the cup.  According to Roberta, the cup went flying through the air as Marie shrieked!  Once she was able to breathe again, she dared Roberta to pull that same trick on the doctor when she came in that day.  Of course Roberta was happy to do that.  That was a best-day-ever-happy day for her!

Roberta had bad days.  She would call me sobbing so hard that I could barely understand her.  She was lonely, she was frustrated with her illness, she missed her family and it made her sad and angry.  For those battling mental illness, I believe that the emotions are so large and overwhelming that they are frightening.  Sometimes Roberta would call me and be so angry that we would spend the time with me listening to her scream in rage.  The nurses were always afraid that it bothered me.  It didn't.  If the only way I could express my love was to listen to her yell or cry, I was happy to do that.  It was such a little thing to do.

Roberta had great empathy for the people she loved.  When our Meaghan died last year, Roberta made a sympathy card and sent it to me.  I believe she also sent cards to Meaghan's parents and to my Mother.  One day soon after Meaghan died I called Roberta.  Her nurse Megan answered the phone.  When Roberta came to the phone she was rather subdued.  Finally she asked me, "Did it make you very sad to hear the name Megan?"  Another day her doctor decided that her blood sugars were doing so well they could stop insulin shots.  Roberta called and we rejoiced together in this good news.  She was so happy!  But then she said to me, rather quietly, "I wish you didn't have to take insulin anymore!".  

Every conversation we had included prayer.  There were a few times when she was so angry that she would hang up on me as I began to pray.  She always called me back and apologized for that.  We talked about different Bible passages that the visiting Pastors taught in the regular Bible studies.  She always went to Worship and to Mass when it was available (she was completely ecumenical!).

Last December Roberta became very ill.  Her symptoms became alarming and she was shipped off to the hospital in Newport.  She had a serious infection and was on the verge of septic shock.  I knew she was rallying when she started bragging about all her visitors.

In February the nurses called with a regular report and expressed concern about her frailty.  This was the first I was able to admit that she was dwindling, and called the nursing supervisor in some alarm.  I was reassured after talking with her, but was still a little concerned.  Over the next month, Aunt Bobbie became worse and I made the decision that another trip was necessary.  My oldest sister and I had planned to go up in early June, but I was concerned that I needed to go sooner than that.  Mr. Marvelous and I talked about it and I went to my Dad to talk with him about it.  In the end, Mom and I made another trip to Vermont via Amtrak.  I was pleasantly surprised at how well Aunt Bobbie was doing.  She was alert, she was eating and drinking, we played Bingo together and had a wonderful time.  The last day of our visit we talked about her code status.  The nurses did not want her to be a code in case her heart stopped and had asked me to talk with her about becoming a DNR ~ Do Not Resuscitate.  I had assumed that the laws there would allow me to step in as her Power of Attorney and give them verbal permission to stop if they started.  I was wrong and I was glad to find that out.  We talked with Roberta and her doctor, and signed a DNR order.  I also took the opportunity to make sure that all her final arrangements were in place.  I did not expect that Roberta would die soon, but I did question if she would last another full year.  Her health was declining, there was some question about some type of cancer and it just seemed prudent to take care of all this while I was there.  This was the end of March.

In April she declined again.  The doctor and the nurses grew more concerned.  On April 21st I received a call that she was in quite bad shape.  She was not even able to swallow water and take her medicine.  The doctor and I talked and I was able to choke out the question if we were talking about weeks at this point.  "No Virginia," the doctor replied gently, "I think it is a couple of days at most".

At 10:10 that night the nurse called.  Roberta had died.

Life was very hard for Roberta.  She had so little.  She had lost her parents, her sister, two nieces and a great-niece.  She had so little independence.  She had so few friends.  She loved animals, music and art but was not able to surround herself with these things.  The loss of being able to make her own decisions hurt and frustrated her.

After her death, Mom and I asked the nursing home to dispose of things like her walker, her wheelchair, her furniture and her clothing to folks there at the home who would be able to use them.  They sent us her papers, her books and movies and the rest of her "stuff".  It took three boxes to ship those things to us.  Three boxes.  Three small boxes packed up her life.

After a death, one of the hardest things to do is to contact people to let them know that someone has died.  It seems to take so long to gather the bits and pieces and find the people and their addresses and phone numbers.  Apart from the community where she lived and her family, I found two people who needed to be contacted.

Three small boxes and two people.  Apart from missing Roberta and her daily phone calls and jokes (and I miss these things dreadfully), this is what makes me cry.  The thought that such an amazing woman's life is wrapped up with nothing more than three small boxes and two friends.  Which is why this is such a long post.

I know that Roberta trusted Jesus.  I am reassured that she is with Him now.  She is reunited with her parents and grandparents and she and Meaghan finally got to meet each other (when Meaghan would wake up scared in the middle of the night, she would start praying for Aunt Bobbie).  She is there rejoicing.  She will be reunited with Mom one day, and with the rest of the family.  I am looking forward to seeing her again.  Her life here was small.  Her life there is infinite.  She had so little here of the things that were important to her; family, beauty, animals.  She is surrounded there by family, by beauty, by animals, and best of all by her Saviour's love.

Here are some of my favorite pictures.
 The three sisters, Miriam, Roberta and Nancy.
Probably 12, 7 and 2

Roberta with Grandpa.  Winter of 1943 or 1944, Boston

 8 or 9, still in Boston

Roberta with her parents, shortly before moving to Switzerland.
About age 11.
Geneva, Switzerland

With a family friend on a visit to Grandma.  Probably in her late 30's

A Pearl of Great Price, all dolled up for the winter ball 2014.
As you can "sea" the theme was....

Roberta with her good friend Missy.

 2013 at the General Store showing off the big moose

Roberta and me 2013

Roberta and Miriam, October 2013

Roberta and Miriam, March 2015


Liz McNutt said...

Thank you! This is such a beautiful tribute to Roberta - thanks for sharing that. I am chocked up but so happy to read this.

Melanie said...

This is so beautiful!! I can't wait to meet Roberta one day!!:) Love you Aunt Virginia!