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What We Want For All Of Our Elders

Jane Holwerda

Hello, Radio Readers. I’m Jane Holwerda from Dodge City KS.

Throughout this fall, we’ve been talking about aging, death, and dying, most recently in response to the words and illustrations of Roz Chast who shares her efforts to care for her parents, as they transition from independent to assisted living to long-term and then hospice care and then their deaths. 

Toward the end of her memoir, she describes the storing of her parents’ cremains.  Because dispersing the ashes or consigning them to someplace to which there is no family connection discomforts her, she stores the cremains in her clothes closet. Here, she says, throughout her day, she can see their containers, wrapped in the packaging in which she received them, and feel consoled.

Growing up. I often visited cemeteries with family.  Sometimes to stand in silence before a headstone, but always to tend to family gravesites. Tending to grave sites included bringing flowers or planting something, or cutting back weeds and unruly grasses. Sometimes we washed and polished headstones. Usually, stories were shared, about family, of course, but also of neighbors and friends buried nearby. Sometimes, we tended a grave that seemed neglected, as if no one had visited in a while. 

Certain holidays, like Memorial Day, Christmas, and Easter, I learned to count on a drive to two or three cemeteries, one (very small), now probably overgrown and lost to most, where great-great-grandparents were buried, was more than a 90-minute drive. Looking back, I’m not sure I felt consoled, but I felt strengthened, from the time with family, both past and present. My uncle, in making his final arrangements, chose cremation. The first in our family to do so.  His remaining kin – my sister, me, a cousin—did finally decide to bury his cremains in a family plot, it being too difficult for us to imagine ourselves casting his ashes to the winds instead of consigning them to a place we can return to.

As I’ve become a family elder, of sorts, myself, I’ve found visiting family gravesites difficult to do.  While my family, to date, have been buried, in family plots, not many of the family I grew up with are buried in the same part of, much less the same, cemetery.  My parents, divorced when I was in high school, are buried in different states, one in Kansas and the other in Colorado, which, means, much like when they were living, it’s very difficult to visit them both on holidays. 

It was also difficult, for the usual reasons of time and money, for me to be there as much as I wanted as they were dying. Others, mostly family, took on most of that responsibility. And while I know that my visiting and tending a gravesite does little to compensate, those rituals mean something. To me.  So, I stop in, when I can, tidy up as needed. I stand in silence. Remember. Think on the passing of time. 

I’m not sure I’ve mentioned this yet, but reading and talking about these books in the Radio Readers Fall 2018 book series has helped me move past some of my feelings of grief and guilt and loss for those for whom it feels I’ve been more present in their deaths than I was in their dying. I’m thinking, too, as I’m sure many of us are, of what we can do to assure affordable, equitable end of life care for all of our elders. 

Thank you, HPPR, for your continued support of the Radio Readers!

From Dodge City, Kansas, I’m Jane Holwerda.