Sunday, April 04, 2010

Life and Death and Eva

I've wanted to write this post all week, but didn't know what to say, or how the story would end.

Eva at St. Michael's coffee hour, three days after her 100th birthday.

We met her on May 18th, 2003, a little old lady in a silly, battered straw hat with the brim turned up at an improbable angle. It was Coffee Hour, the social aftermath of the 10 AM mass at St. Michael's. My friend Kevin and I found ourselves at the same table with her in the Parish Center. She sparked everyone's attention with her friendly manner and lively conversation. She happily explained that it was her birthday, and that she had decided to take the bus to church. She would be meeting with her family later for her birthday celebration. I asked her whether there was a big party planned.

"At my age," she told me, "there's always a fuss. I'm 98 years old today."

We were amazed. 98!  And she still had a lot more on the ball than my mom, who died the previous December, had retained at age 75.

Eva Osburn
Eva Osburn in church, age 99.

For the next several years, most weeks, I swung by an apartment building on Alvernon Way to pick up Eva for church. Often she ordered her fellow passenger, Kevin, to sing to her in his rich baritone voice. His most frequent selection was If Ever I Should Leave You.

Eva, granddaughter Irene and daughter Harriett.

I've written before about Eva, her long life and interesting history. Her father worked on the Panama Canal before she was born. Her mother wore a whalebone corset. She lived in Michigan, in Seattle and, most notably, in Alaska before moving to Tucson. She once traveled hundreds of miles across Alaska by dogsled - while pregnant! She outlived two husbands and all but one of her children. She worked as a nurse until she was in her seventies. I tried a couple of times to talk her into making a "living history" recording about her experiences, but she was adamant in her refusal. She was sure nobody would be interested!

Eva and one of her great-greats at her 100th birthday party.

Eva was astonishingly, joyfully independent until very late in the game. She lived alone except for a half-feral cat that she took in, and took the bus to the library and the supermarket, long after her vision and hearing began to be a problem.

Kevin, Eva, Father John Smith, Margaret Harnsberger and 
Father Ed Harnsberger on Eva's birthday in May 2009, age 104.

Eventually, though, her family grew concerned about her living alone in the same apartment complex as the occasional drug dealer, and the fact that she didn't seem to eat nearly enough. She also had a few fainting incidents in the hot, incense-filled church, which greatly embarrassed her. She moved in with her wheelchair-bound daughter for a while, and then into an assisted living and nursing facility called Villa Maria. She no longer let me take her to church except on the occasional major holiday, for fear of being too much trouble, and also for fear of embarrassment if she should faint again. Kevin and I visited her about every other week for a while, and then brought her communion about once a month, and then less and less often. I feel rather badly about that, but Eva held no grudge. She did, however, have her run-ins with the powers that be at Villa Maria, having strong opinions as a retired nurse about how things should be done.There were times when she almost considered herself one of the staff, helping her fellow residents as best she could.

Two weeks ago this coming Tuesday, Eva's great-grandson Dale went to see her, but her apartment in the assisted living section of the complex was empty. And I mean empty, furniture all gone. He asked a nurse who had just come on where Eva was, but even the office the nurse checked with had no answer.

Then the hospital called Dale's mother Irene. Eva had broken her hip. Did the family want them to operate on her? At age 104 and 3/4ths? Of course not. So she went back to the facility, this time in the nursing section.

Knowing none of this, considered stopping by to see Eva on Palm Sunday a week ago, to offer to take Eva to Easter mass. I hadn't seen her since Christmas or possibly early January; I'm not sure which. I ended up putting off my visit, but I fully intended to see her during the week.

The next morning, Monday, she had a stroke and was unconscious. This time the family was called right away, and Eva was taken to the hospice behind Tucson Medical Center.

Irene called the church. Father Smith went over and gave Eva last rights. Then he called me. Kevin and I spent an hour and a half by her bedside that afternoon, chatting with Dale. When Irene and Harriett arrived, I gave Irene all my phone numbers and we left.

And I waited.

In the mid-1990s, I had a friend in the Doctor Who club who was dying of leukemia. I used to visit her in the hospital a lot, and we spent a surprising amount of the time laughing and enjoying each other's company.  Unable to find a suitable donor, she had a transplant of her own irradiated bone marrow, but it didn't work. She died on Good Friday, a little over a year after the diagnosis.

When my mom died on December 16, 2002, nine days before Christmas, it was due to a stroke from which she did not awaken. The night of the 14th, she chatted with her caregiver as her toenails were clipped. The morning of the 15th, Sunday, she didn't wake up. I spent much of Sunday at St. Joe's, made the medical decisions against heroic measures in consultation with doctors and in keeping with her living will, and brought Father Smith over to perform last rights. On Monday morning, perhaps 25 hours after they brought her in, a doctor essentially told me they wanted to send her to hospice and free up a bed unless she hurried up and died. Half an hour later, she obliged.

So with Eva apparently about to go the same way as my mom, during the same holy season as Shiori, I spent the week waiting, listening for my cell phone. I carried a cross or a candle at the Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil (Saturday night) and Easter morning (10:15 AM) services, and Kevin and I waited up with Jesus at the Altar of Repose on Thursday night at 1 AM. All week long, in stages, the Bible narrative of betrayal, death and resurrection washed over me, but did not quite penetrate. I thought of Eva, who has been saying for a few years that she was ready to go to Heaven, while her healthy heart kept up its steady beat. I did not pray for Eva's death or survival. I prayed that her death, whenever it came, would be painless for Eva and as bearable as possible for her family.

On tv on Saturday a new Doctor, still regenerating after a fatal dose of radiation, had his first adventure on the new season of Doctor Who. But such an outcome is fiction, not available to humans in this world of ours.

Easter morning came, and the mass was over. I had just sat down with Kevin for coffee hour in the Parish Center when my phone rang. I ran out into the courtyard, where reception is marginally better, and took the expected call. It was Irene. Eva died last night. The service will be at St. Michael's. I told her I would pass on the news.

Despite my involvement at St. Michael's, as employee, parishioner and volunteer, I'm not one for smug certainty about my religious beliefs. My faith is, at best, half the size of a mustard seed, and the mountains don't move. But I mostly believe, most of the time, that Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday morning long ago. I don't really understand why he died as he did, or how it all went down, or how much to take literally and how much is symbolic or even erroneous. (Nor do I care to hear any arguments about it, for or against. Sorry.) But if any of it's true, it's good news for Eva now. She did believe, much more than I do. If an afterlife in Heaven exists at all, she's a shoo-in for entry.

Even if virtually none of it's true, and death is the end, which I mostly never believe even though I find the concept of Heaven highly problematic, I still cannot be sad that Eva is gone. I can regret not spending more time with her in recent years, but I cannot regret her death. She had a full life, with husbands and children and three generations of family beyond that. She had adventures in her youth, and independence long after most of her contemporaries were dead. She made friends wherever she went, people who were inevitably charmed by the chatty, cheerful old lady in the (sometimes) straw hat. In short, she lived a good life, much longer than most, and had finally reached the point at which the body was breaking down and it wasn't fun anymore.

And for the rest of my life, I have a role model, in addition to my dad, of how life should be lived.



Carly said...


I am so sorry about your friend. You will see her again one day, that is a comfort to us in our faith. I believe it completely. Let me know if you need to talk.


Janet said...

What a lovely story about Eva, and you're right, she was a lucky lady to be able to depart this life so quickly and without pain! Hugs to you.

Jama said...

So sorry to hear about Eva, may she RIP.