Oral History: “The Good Lord has Given Me the Strength...” (Interview with W.K., November 29, 1984)
“Do not go gently into that good night but rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
– Dylan Thomas
[I found this interview among my papers, a required assignment for a Death and Dying college course, taught by Joy Ufema, an important advocate of the hospice movement.
On May 31, 2014, I posted my own 1984 eulogy, written for the same class.
I recall that both assignments felt uncomfortable, definitely pushing me out of my comfort zone; in some ways, rereading these papers still cause me to squirm, which I will discuss in a later post.
This discomfort is not necessarily a bad thing.
What strikes me about this interview, conducted when I was 34, is the fact that I’m now close to W.K.’s age and how much more I understand about the aging process – the physical changes and increasing limitations of being sixty-plus.
In 2014, I realize just how, in 1984, clueless I was about W.K.’s plight. I now understand that W.K. was under no illusions about his impending death; however, back then, I didn’t realize that W.K. was playing me – not for nefarious purposes, but to make me feel more comfortable being in his dying presence.
To this day, I feel guilt over this interview because I never disclosed to W.K. that I was visiting him for the purpose of interviewing him. I didn’t want him to discover that fulfilling a class assignment was my only impetus for the visit. It just felt so crass. In my heart, I knew I would have never visited a nursing home, even for the company of the very likeable and charming W.K., without a pressing purpose, and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by revealing that to him.
In retrospect, I suspect that he would have been okay with the interview and, perhaps, even honored by it. He was that kind of a man.
And, yes, he would have figured out my selfish motives.
So I must admit that I was the person I was protecting, not him.
By not disclosing this important fact, I broke one of the cardinal rules of scientific inquiry and journalistic integrity: I kept my subject in the dark as to my purpose. I rationalized by telling myself that I wasn’t planning to publish this interview, and so I didn’t – at least until now.
But this is 2014, and W.K. – and what little family he had – are long dead.
So I decided to honor him by posting this almost 30 years later, with some minor changes, mainly the use of his initials in place of his full name.
Despite this interview’s inauspicious genesis, this oral history of an elderly person adds an important piece to the social fabric; I just wish I would have interviewed my grandparents and my mothers-in-laws before they died.
Please, if your elderly relatives are still alive, consider interviewing them and tape recording their answers.
I’m sorry, W.K., that I didn’t trust you enough to disclose my real purpose to you, but I hope that this posted interview offers you a modicum of immortality.]
(W.K. is a personal friend of my husband, having taught at the same department at York College [of Pennsylvania]. He is in his [mid] 60’s, and shortly after he retired last year, he discovered that he had a lymphatic cancer in the region of the pancreas. Because he has no one to care for him while he’s on chemotherapy, he has decided to check into [a local nursing home] until he gets on his feet again. He fully expects to be out by Christmas time, and who knows?
As I enter the main doors, I get that ghastly feeling like I always get whenever I go inside a nursing home – a real sick feeling at the pit of my stomach. This time is particularly bad because it’s early evening, and many of the patients are wandering aimlessly about, looking confused and unhappy.
People are screaming.
One woman waves her arms at me and yells, “Hey, lady, please talk to me.” I feel like a real scumbag for not stopping, but I am anxious to see my friend, and visiting hours will be over in one hour. Would I have stopped otherwise?
I’m not so sure.
Anyway, it is a long walk to the new wing, where W.K.’s room is located, and I pass many rooms to get there.
The screams and moans really get to me.
When I finally get there, I find that W.K. shares a room with Mr. L., a man who has been comatose for over two years – a young man, I might add. Pictures of Mr. L. and his family dot the walls, and a portable radio fills the air with Muzak. At first, I think Mr. L. is merely asleep because he snores so loudly.
W.K. seems glad to see me, which is a relief because the last I heard, he wasn’t seeing visitors.)
ME: Hi, how’s it going? (He looks so different to me since he has lost all his hair.)
W.K.: Well, how are you? Good to see you. I had wondered what had happened.
ME: I wasn’t sure how you would feel or whether you’d be asleep. I brought this to cheer you up a bit for the Christmas season. (l offer him a live Christmas tree in a pot).
W.K.: Why, thanks. It’s really pretty. (Motions to a window sill with about six other plants on it.) Just put it with the others. It really stands out among the other plants, doesn’t it? Thanks for the thought.
ME: Just wanted to bring you a little something. Lost a little weight, I see.
W.K.: Thirty-five pounds. Lost my appetite and couldn’t eat.
ME: (Pointing to myself.) I’ve got about 35 pounds you could have – if only you could transfer weight from person to person. Here. Take 50 pounds.
W.K.: (He laughs.) Well, you look as if you have lost a little weight.
ME: Very little. How’s your appetite these days?
W.K.: Better. I’ve put on about 10 pounds since beginning chemo.
ME: That’s good. Any pain?
W.K.: No, not since starting the chemo.
(About this time, the nurse comes in and gives W.K. about 10 pills to take. W.K. asks what each and every pill is, rejects some white chalky stuff in a paper cup, and takes the rest, grimacing the entire time.
Then another friend [C.] comes in with a wad of money in his hand.)
C.: Excuse me. The head nurse says you can’t keep more than $5.00 in the drawer. If you want, they can lock this in the safe upstairs.
W.K.: How much is there?
C.: Fifty-four dollars.
W.K.: Hum. Take it home, then.
(C. excuses himself after W.K. introduces him to me.)
W.K.: I don’t know what I would have done without C. Since I don’t have any family, I don’t know where I would have turned if it hadn’t been for C. He was staying with me and caring for me, but he’s no nurse. That’s why I decided to come in here while I was on chemo. Before I was on chemo, I wasn’t eating, and C. just couldn’t hack it anymore.
ME: Do you like it here?
W.K.: It’s marvelous; the people here are fantastic.
ME: What about the food?
W.K.: So, so. They don’t season anything. But I plan to be out of here soon.
ME: By Christmas?
W.K.: I hope so.
ME: Are you planning to teach soon?
W.K.: Next semester. If not, I might just go to my island [Santo Domingo] for a month or so in February. Dr. B. wrote to me from Vienna and invited me there for awhile, but I think I might just go to my island instead. (Pauses, and rubs his stomach.) You know, when I got this cancer, I thought that the good Lord would give me the strength to cope with the disease. I have prayed throughout my life that HE would somehow see me through it if I got cancer.
I didn’t know it, but I was sick back in May with this pain in my middle; I went to the doctor, and they took x-rays. The x-rays showed nothing. Can you imagine that? Nothing.
So the doctor told me, “W.K., we’re going to have to operate to see what’s in there.”
So they did and found this cancer. Malignant.
Okay, I thought, I can handle this. The good Lord has given me the strength, and I will get through this.
And I really felt that way, too.
Then two days after I get the news of the cancer, I get a phone call from Philadelphia: my twin sister has just died from a massive heart attack. Here I am, just a few days after surgery, laid up in the hospital. The news really shattered me, and I know I have to get to Philadelphia.
The doctor says, “No, W.K., you’re in no shape to go to Philly.”
But I just have to go; after all, she was my sister. Fortunately, funeral homes in Philadelphia are so behind as it is that the dead have to wait their turn to be buried. So I did make it to the funeral.
Goes to show that the Lord does work in mysterious ways.
I told Him that I could take the cancer, but why did he have to take my sister as well?
Anyway, God and I had an argument going.
I cut off my friends, wouldn’t see anyone while I was in the hospital, and when I got home, I was so heavily sedated that I couldn’t see any visitors.
The Lord and I went around and around on this point until I finally saw things from his viewpoint. My sister had been ailing for some time, anyway, and being angry wasn’t going to change the fact that she was gone.
I still found myself resenting the cancer coming at such a time.
But once I ironed out things between God and me, I began seeing people again. One Sunday, I had 39 visitors. Can you imagine that?
It got ridiculous around here, so I had to put a stop to it. (Smiles, though.) I think I may have offended some people by telling them to cool it a bit, but that’s the way it goes.
ME: You really do look better than I expected. You said that you weren’t in pain.
W.K.: Not since the chemo. And it’s working. The tumor is shrinking.
ME: That’s good. Do you have any side effects from the treatment?
W.K.: (Points to his bald head.) I get some numbness in my feet and in my fingers, too, but no sickness.
ME: My father-in-law had the numbness, too, but it went away once the chemo stopped. He also got his hair back. [NOTE: I never told W.K. that my father-in-law had recently died from a similar type of cancer.]
W.K.: That doesn’t worry me so much, but walking is difficult when you can’t feel your feet. I have to use a cane sometimes, but I don’t hurt anywhere. (Pauses.) You know, D.’s wife went through chemotherapy, and she came through it beautifully.
ME: That she did. When will your treatments stop?
W.K.: About 21 weeks. I guess they want to be sure. (Yawns.) Boy, I’ve had quite a day.
ME: Perhaps I should go. It’s past visiting hours.
W.K.: (Looks at watch.) Naw. It’s okay. They give me a lot of leeway here. But I’ve got to tell you this story about my day. It was crazy.
W.K.: C. and I went to the bank – personal stuff, you know – and when the lady told me she needed my driver’s license and registration, I went to get my wallet in my pocket. It wasn’t there, and it wasn’t in the car. We went home and found it there. When we brought the license and the registration to the bank, the teller pointed out that both my license and registration were about to expire tomorrow. Can you imagine that? Tomorrow of all days! So C. and I went over to an agency that deals with people who forget about these things and ended up standing in a long line. I felt very weak and dizzy and had to grasp the wall several times, but I had to do it; otherwise, C. wouldn’t be able to drive the car and me around. Goes to show that the Lord gives us the strength to do what we have to do.
ME: Was today the first day you were out?
W.K.: Oh, no. I visited some friends on Thanksgiving Day. We had a wonderful meal. I had a good time. Maybe I’ll have a Christmas party when I get home.
ME: Don’t overdo it.
W.K.: No – just some drinks and snacks, perhaps. No dinner, though. It’s just too much work.
ME: Tell the guests to bring their own dishes.
W.K.: (Laughs.) Maybe not quite that stark.
(At this point, we lapse into a conversation about mutual acquaintances, etc. I get the feeling that W.K. has alluded to death several times, particularly in the way that he has failed to make any long term plans for anything, but I also get the feeling that he is not ready to talk about death just yet. He has talked rather candidly about his anger over the cancer and his sister’s death, but that he’s beginning to bargain with God; he and God have come to an understanding. He’s thinking about death but can’t seem to articulate his feelings just yet.
I just don’t feel that I’m qualified enough to bring up the subject unless he initiates it first.
At the end of the interview, I put my hand on his shoulder and tell him that if he needs anything, to call. I can run errands during my lunch hour and after work. He replies:)
W.K.: I could use a new pair of feet!
(He walks with me to the end of the hallway. The interview has ended.)
Thursday, November 29, 1984
[Name and address of nursing home]
8:30 – 9:30 p.m.
This is a first and final draft, written as soon as I got home from [the nursing home].
[2014 addendum: W.K. died about five months later; my husband and I attended the funeral, which occurred on a warm, spring day.]
(See also my self-eulogy: “I Died on December 5,1984, at 8:30 p.m.” – What If...)
“The Good Lord has Given Me the Strength...,” an interview/oral history, © 1984-2014 Jennifer Semple Siegel, may not be reprinted or reposted without permission of the interviewer/author.