Death by Angel Food Cake

Beth Patterson from an old blog post, now gone, but preserved in part

As I live into the pilgrimage of Patti Digh's 37 days exercise on what we might be experiencing if indeed we had 'only' 37 days to live, I've found myself going through layers of experience. I'm dreaming a lot, and not remembering any of them. I'm all over the place in my daily life--content, anxious, exasperated with myself, feeling sick in my body (for real), and sometimes very at peace and knowing that today, indeed, is a good day to die.

So it comes as no surprise that when I went to write this post the experience that is uppermost in my memory at this stage (we're in the countdown of 37 days on day 23) is a story about my mother-in-law Edie. I am no longer married to her son, Tom, but along with Tom and other members of his family, Edie will always be an honored, admired and loved part of me.

Edie was a woman ahead of her time. Born in the early 1920's and raised with some means in rural Oklahoma, she stood out from other young women of her class and locality. She was bright, funny and bold. One story of her was that as a teenager she was an excellent marksman and during an invasion of sparrows, walked through town shooting the pesky sparrows that were eating the fruit from neighborhood trees. (Regardless of my feelings about sparrows, this story still brings a smile to me!)

Edie attended law school and was one of only 2 women in her class. She quit school and married another law student, Bill. They did well, had 3 children and Edie found ways to keep herself occupied, although from conversations I had with her as she neared the end of her life, I think she never really got over the fact that she gave up her promising career to support her husband's. Nor would she have changed a thing about her life. She could hold both of those opposites with grace. Edie wouldn't have said it this way, but the concept that she lived her life with went something like this (my interpretation): never trade a good question for a simple answer.

They did well, though, and eventually began to spend summers in another home in the mountains of central Colorado. Edie was always active in local affairs, the Methodist church and an accomplished artist. She and Bill traveled around the world multiple times. Bill died of cancer in 1990, just before I met their son Tom at Iliff School of Theology in 1991. Edie maintained the summer home in Colorado and also lived outside Austin, Texas.

Edie was in poor health by the time I knew her. Even though she had never been a heavy smoker, and had quit smoking 25 years before, she now had advanced chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) of a variety called pulmonary fibrosis. She was thin by nature, but had become thinner as the disease progressed. She struggled for every breath, but never complained. She was sometimes cranky, but never without acknowledgement or apology. When Tom decided, after discussions with Edie, that they wanted to build an adobe bed and breakfast in Hotchkiss, Colorado, Edie bought in in a big way--not just with finances, but with every ounce of strength and will and creativity in her little body. She knew this was to be her final home and she put everything she had into making it lovely and inviting. She helped design the beautiful structure and grounds, shopped and planned and made the furnishings be 'just-so'. Her touches were everywhere, along with Tom's and his sister Susan's.

By the summer of 1995, we opened the Leroux Creek Inn and Vineyards and Edie helped Tom do as much as she could. She had a suite on one side of the house and Tom and I and my niece lived over the spacious garage. When my niece hit a very rough patch during her adolescence, Edie touched my heart forever by climbing the stairs to our apartment (it took all she could do to do this, pulling her portable oxygen tank with her) to come be with me as I was working to find D. and literally bring her home and get her the help she needed.

Leroux Creek Inn and Vineyards, Hotchkiss, Colorado We sold the inn in 1999. It is a beautiful place! That was Edie's suite to the far right.

Note from Sandra: I've found another photo to go with this, of the lodge later. This might not be the same view, so I don't know about Edie's suite.

As Edie's disease progressed, she could do less, eat less, and breathed with ever more difficulty. In addition to the COPD, she also had a gut disease called celiac sprue which didn't allow her to eat things with gluten in them. Edie loved sweets and we'd go out of our way to find sweets that she could eat and that would not activate the sprue. I can see her bent over the dining table, her face almost touching her plate, as she struggled to breathe and somehow eat bird-sized helpings at the same time. The fact that our home was at 6100 feet above sea level made it more difficult for her to breathe, and she took that in stride: it was a choice she'd made--to live her life out in the beauty of Colorado, surrounded by family. We all took the unspoken oath with her: if she could do this, we would help her.

We finally talked, then, Edie and I. We'd done a dance around each other as many mother and daughter in laws do. We made our peace, and began to love each other less out of obligation and more out of deep affection, shared experience and connection. I was working full time opening hospice offices first in Montrose and then Delta, Colorado. I was often exhausted, worried about D., worried about the load of the work on Tom, worried about Edie. But sitting with her, taking care of her plants, especially the rose bed she planted outside her bedroom window on the patio (and in which we planted some of her ashes after she died), we would both be at peace and find comfort--almost refuge--in each other. The winters were especially hard on her.

Summer 1997. Edie had declined even further. We put off all summer her visiting her other home because of her health. But come August,when it's very hot and dry in high-desert western Colorado, she insisted that she wanted to go to the cooler summer home higher in the mountains. Now we know that it was to say good-bye. We all murmured and discussed it behind her back, and then with her: Edie, this isn't a smart thing. You can barely walk, barely eat. You've no reserves left. She'd be there alone--even though friends she'd had for 25 years surrounded her home there in the community outside Gunnison. Finally, mid-August, we gave in. Tom drove her to Spring Creek, got her situated and came home. She was not supposed to drive, but we knew she might anyway. We also knew that Susan, Tom's sister, and her daughter Andi, were due to arrive in a few days, and we called Edie frequently to check on her. She seemed ok, and happy to be with her old friends. However, when Susan and Andi did arrive, they were shocked. Edie could no longer walk, she'd had a terrible case of diarrhea the night before they arrived and was in a very debilitated shape.

Edie refused to go to the hospital, wanted no life saving measures, so family conference said: bring her back to Hotchkiss. While Susan was closing up the cabin, she came across a half-eaten angel food cake. Edie had made an angel food cake for their arrival because Susan loved her mom's angel food cake. Then, before they arrived, Edie ate several pieces of the cake with the expected and certain reaction of diarrhea resulting from the celiac sprue. She knew that she couldn't successfully eat cake of any sort made with flour that contained gluten. And yet...after years of careful eating and being sick-to-death of the constraints and the narrowness of her life experiences, she gave in.

When I heard about this from Susan and Tom, I knew from my years of hospice work, that although Edie couldn't do anything like actually take her own life, she had passively done just that. She knew that she couldn't eat angel food cake with the wheat flour in it. And to eat a large helping of it—it was clearly a semi-conscious act to 'get this thing over with'. She had struggled all she could. Not giving up—she merely gave in. She had no more fight in her—she ate the cake.

We brought her home, cared for her in her suite for a week. She had a slight stroke soon after we brought her home, but she was still able to converse somewhat, and communicate. She was able to look out at the beloved landscape. Even though we were working hard to have hospice available, it still wasn't up that far in the North Fork valley at that point, so we had some home health assistance.

The vineyard at Leroux Creek Inn

And the family rallied around. Tom, Tom's daughter Lesly, Susan, and Andi were amazing caregivers. Edie ate some jello, and that's about it. She held court from her bed, seeing all the friends she'd become close to from her art classes, PEO, church, etc. She beamed with delight as they came to say good-bye. She held each one with special regard, it was clear to see. Everyone came in feeling tentative and sad, and left feeling lighter, comforted. She had no holds, nothing left to do, she was ready. And so, about 8 days after eating the angel food cake, she slipped on out. We had some glorious memorials for her—on the back porch of the Inn, and in the yard of the summer home so that her other set of friends could attend. We grieved, and laughed and held each other and told Edie stories.

Death by Angel Food Cake. What a lovely, aware, quirky thing to do. She went out like she'd lived: dignified, funny, loved and loving. Always the southern gentlewoman. Her faith held.

May I be that conscious, that measured, that considerate. May I have that much willpower and determination to live until I die. Here's to you, Miz Edie.

August 21st [2008] is the 11th anniversary of Edie's death. I toast her life today with sweetness of memory. You are loved, remembered, honored. You've taught us a lot about both living and dying. My prayer for you is that wherever you are that you have the equivalent of angel food cake whenever you want it.

Published Saturday, August 09, 2008 12:42 PM by Beth Patterson
Filed under: acceptance, openness to life, aging gracefully, blessings, angels, compassion
What's left of the original is saved here: Death by Angel Food Cake

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