“Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.”
— James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room
The rural house sat at the end of a fork of the south bay of Puget Sound. It was an unremarkable house; but exiting the backdoor, like the closet into Narnia, my first childhood home was anything but ordinary.
Through the banging wooden screen door and down the steps, past the lattice-fence that divided the tamed yard from the less-tamed yard—the posts catching falling snow in a pot to be mixed with sugar and vanilla in winter and disappearing under my mother’s redolent trailing roses in summer—beyond the huge homemade swing set and the brick fireplace my father built, between the log cabin playhouse and the muddy sulfureous flats of the bay at low tide, lay the woods. I spent long summer days in that strip of trees where make-believe flourished in the hollow log of Mr. Bear’s House, tree lookouts to be climbed, and berries to be stripped for mud pies. In the front yard, my sister and I waited for the bookmobile, the borrowed books flaming more imagination. Kids and fathers played softball in the meadow next door and little girls played restaurant in the neighbor’s abandoned chicken coop.
We left that home when I was eight, the thirty miles of interstate between it and my second home bisecting my life into its first before and after. I lived in the new house on the side of the hill the remainder of my childhood. But the home by the bay remains irrevocably my soul home, the one I will remember when short-term memory eludes me.
My mother lived in fourteen houses with her family of origin, her father following work and running from creditors. She moved, alone, across the country for a civil service job as World War II began and relocated several more times, waiting for her new husband to return. Her dream, she tells me decades later, was to stay in one place.
She got her wish. After the war, she and my father bought the house I was born to and lived there until we moved to our hillside house, where she stayed for fifty-five years.
My own nomad years began in adulthood, with five brief stays between college and moving across the country as a newlywed. I moved nine more times before returning to my family home to care for my nonagenarian mother, where I’ve lived again for a decade—as long as I lived here the first time, longer than I lived in any house in the forty-two years between.
After four years of accompanying my mother in her home, I reached the end of my line. I couldn’t be primary caregiver any longer—a role I had reluctantly taken on in the first place. Moving her to assisted living seemed like the best of suboptimal choices. Now, five years after her death, I’m still questioning that decision.
I’ve been sad we didn’t bring her back “home” to die as my sister and I promised ourselves we would to get us across the decision bridge. But is that practical? And would it have been disorienting and stressful? The hospice nurse said she was home, that after eighteen months it was the place that had become familiar. She was in her own bed, the one she had shared with her husband, surrounded by her things and new friends.
Everyone says they want to die at home. What does that mean? I am contemplating the question for myself, to make known my hopes to my own children. And I am considering it now, at seventy, while I am, hopefully, far from the need. I’m considering it in the light of having been the giver of care. I hope not to be in a hospital, with bright lights, beeping machines, an unfamiliar bed; but if that is what happens, I can live with it . . . or die with it. I don’t want my children to sacrifice their living to keep me in any particular place. I want to free them to be my beloved children.
Home is not a place. Family is home. Home is inside me in all the places I’ve been and the people I’ve known. Home is playing in the woods, rolling down slopes of grass between beds of pansies and violets, waiting for the bookmobile. Home is inextricably connected to heart.
I think my mother was home. I have made my peace.
You can read a longer version of this post on my caregiver ally website here.
4 thoughts on “Connection to Home at Life’s End”
I love the reconsideration of dying “at home”. You are right, it’s not necessarily THIS home that I am used to that makes it the place to die for me, it’s more that I don’t want it to be the hospital, with lights and beeps and unrestful sleep, pokes and jabs, etc. If it were at a hospice facility or a long-term care home where there are gentle hands and views of the outdoors that’s what will help me feel peaceful. And if I am so lucky as to have loving family around me, that would be great too.
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I’m sorry my father died in the hospital, hooked up. He surely did not want that. I console myself that it was quick in its unexpectedness, and that he hadn’t been there long. He was looking forward to being home the next day, and surely it was “home” that was on his mind. We don’t always choose, and I hope I can be grace-filled with however my last days/weeks/months go down. Thank you for your presence here, my friend.
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It is a really beautiful piece, Gretchen. I hope others will weigh in on this. It is an important conversation to have with others and some really good food for thought for ourselves. Thank you for your wonderful website for care partners. So many gems in those pages 💕
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Thank you, Bonnie Rae. And for your beautiful words on the website version. I especially love: “I see choice as being able to step into the river at a place where the current is calm. On the other hand, not choosing, is to step into the river when the current rages and it’s all we can do to keep from being swept away.” It’s a perfect metaphor.
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