Davis: A good death


In rural Vermont the concepts of neighbor and neighborhood are fluid. Neighborhoods are not defined by geographic boundaries and neighbors are connected more by a common spirit than by a common road. I was reminded of this recently when I heard of the death of my neighbor Eleanor Adams.

Although we lived miles apart, I considered Eleanor my neighbor because we shared a vision of the world that meant that you knew you could call on someone if you needed their help and that they would respond and be there for you.

A few years ago Eleanor, then in her early 90s, called me because she wanted to talk about options for dying. Her body was falling apart and she was slowly losing her eyesight and she wasn't sure if she would want to keep on living with such debility.

Eleanor never lost her keen insight into the human condition and her ability to be in the moment. That kind of spirit kept her going for a lot longer than she expected and it resulted in the creation of a special kind of community that grew around her.

That community would best be described as the community of the slow death of Eleanor Adams. She taught those close to her that death is not a point in time but a process. She revealed the gifts and burdens of aging and how death can be experienced to its fullest as long as the mind remains sharp, even though the body is decaying.

Years before her death Eleanor commissioned Jason Breen to make a coffin for her. Once completed, she kept that coffin in her living room the way other people might have a piece of furniture be part of their daily life. It was odd but not morbid, and I suppose it reminded everyone who saw it that they too were mortal and that they would have to face death someday.

Eleanor thought about the assisted suicide option available in Vermont but in the end she decided to wait for nature to take its course. In order for that to happen she needed a special kind of support, the kind that only a group of tight-knit rural Vermonters can provide.

When it became clear that Eleanor needed help with meals and daily routines a network of friends began providing meals and checking in on her daily. They knew she would never leave the old farmhouse where she lived alone. There was a degree of backup because her son Kevin lived next door.

As the weeks passed, Eleanor became weaker and it became clear to her team that she was passing into a more active dying mode. A local home health agency was summoned and they put their hospice team into action. That team helped the network better prepare for Eleanor's death and they were not only able to provide comfort to Eleanor but also made sure the entire community of death was prepared to do the best for Eleanor.

During the last two weeks of her life the network went online so people could sign up to make meals and to stay overnight with Eleanor. They were devoted to this woman who they loved as a mother. They were devoted to this woman who they loved as a free spirit who was able to make her vision of the world real and tangible.

Eleanor picked out the clothes she wanted to be buried in and she even made sure that no money would be wasted on a conventional funeral and burial. She consulted town officials and was able to make arrangements for a cemetery to be created at the Franklin Farm in Guilford. She became its first permanent resident.

She named her sheep farm in Guilford Cosmic View and her body was laid to rest on a piece of sheepskin in the coffin that she had become so close to over the years. It was fitting that her head rested on a pillow that had the words "Cosmic View" on it.

Eleanor Adams had a cosmic view of life and she also had a cosmic view of death. At 99 she experienced her death as fully as she lived her life and she helped to create a community that was able to participate in a good death.

Richard Davis is a registered nurse. He writes from Guilford and welcomes comments at rbdav@comcast.net.


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