Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center
A Good Life and A Good Death by William Appleman Williams
Page 9

IX: Departure With Dignity

As Mildrede's salary increased, she sent more money home, but also began to visit friends in the west and Hawaii (which she came to consider a second home). But the money and her more contented spirit could not prevent the deterioration in Porter's health and mental condition. As he aged, and particularly after Mildrede and her son left Atlantic, his position as a somewhat honorary Justice of the Peace served as the focus of his day. It provided recognition, gave him a place to go for eight hours, and his knowledge of the community was useful to lawyers and the court. But the next time around he did not bother to file for re-election.

Maude realized that the decision was a bad sign. She wrote Mildrede to prepare herself for further decline. Porter next stopped going down to the Elks Club to play cribbage with his old cronies. He began secretly to sell his remaining dogs and kept the money as cash in his pocket or squirreled away in the basement. He started to drink again: not heavily, just too much. He began to wander aimlessly around the town and the county. In the course of those meanderings he had a minor accident and had to go to court. The jury acquitted him, but he stopped using the car. It began to stiffen up and go to rust. Once in awhile he would go down to the garage and wipe it clean and start it, but he never took it out on the street or the highway.

Maybe the jury sensed what Porter knew: his eyes were clouding over with cataracts. Less and less light was getting to his brain. He bought a powerful lamp for reading, but more and more he depended on the radio. Gradually he began to feel and shuffle his way around the house, and used the stairs as little as possible. On sunny days, even in winter, he liked to sit outside; but when it was cloudy, he dozed much of the time in a chair by the radio. And his bladder and bowels began to betray him on the way to the bathroom.

It probably would have helped if he had become senile. But he knew exactly what was happening: he could describe what he could see and not see, for example, and he often washed his drawers after one of those intimate accidents. He did his best to sustain the old Tossie style; dressing every morning with a tie and vest, combing every hair into place from memory, and polishing his shoes. And somehow he continued to carve and serve the roast on Sunday.

One weeps for him as one salutes him.

Porter outside his home. January 1958.
Porter outside his home. January 1958.

There came a moment when Maude, herself weary and weakening and winding down, told Mildrede that she could not handle it any longer. With anguish and tears they placed him in the best nursing home they could find. But it was 20 miles away, and Maude had never driven a car, and there was no bus service. Even so, there was never any question: Maude visited him at least once a week. Usually loving friends set aside a day to take her there - but if necessary she went by taxi. The cabbie knew the situation, had even been before Porter in court, and after the first few trips developed an impressive number of imaginative stories about how he just happened to be going in that direction. Such is the nature of community.

The drastic change was initially dreadful for Porter. For the first year or so he was disoriented and became something of a vegetable.

Every now and again he somehow mustered his will to write a postcard. "I am just so lonesome that I don't know what to do. No pain, just weak from being lonely." Maude wrote Mildrede that she usually wept "all the way home and then I just go to bed and sometimes stay there the next day."

Mildrede was at that point desperate about Maude but somewhat matter-of-fact about Porter. She had always felt that he was more than a bit of a ne'er-do-well who had indulged himself at considerable cost to Maude, herself, and others. As she later said: "It was not a nice side of myself. Oh, I know it was unfair because he had given us many years of a good life. But it took me a while to realize how good he really was." She and her son were wandering around down by the river. "You know, I got all this education and it took me awhile to understand what to believe and what not to believe. Or, maybe better, how to use what I learned. It took me a few years to learn how good Porter actually was."

That education began when Maude fell and broke her hip, and died within a year. Mildrede called her son and told him that "I taste ashes." She could talk like that. Then she went on: "I remember hearing Maude telling you to be very careful what you wished for, and I am afraid that I wished for the wrong things. I should have stayed in Atlantic."

Mildrede's problem was more complex. She wished for the right things but was slow to recognize the costs of those good things. Placing Porter in a nursing home, and confronting Maude's broken hip, were payments she had not anticipated. She had learned that there is no free lunch, and no free love, but she thought that she had paid her dues. Now she begun to realize that there is no magic moment when one stops paying and starts collecting. As Maude might have said: one receives only as one gives.

Surely when Mildrede went off to Wisconsin, she thought that the bad days were gone forever. But she learned, one way and another, that life is not quite so neat. Sons do have marital problems leading to divorce, lovers do die, and hence the world gets cold even on a summer night. There is enough trouble in Paradise for everyone. And she had to confront two people, her parents, who were determined to die with dignity.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a better way for Maude to have broken her hip. She was out talking to her flowers on a sunny afternoon in 1956 and leaned down to caress a blossom. Her heel caught in the 10 a.m., and she fell backwards across the handle of her weeding hoe. Even in that moment of terror she did not tear or break the flower.

Mildrede was teaching summer school to make more money. The doctor told her by telephone that it was a clean break and there was no need to come home until the end of the term. "By that time your mother will be home and doing well."

A few weeks later Maude was home, but she was not doing well. The bones were not knitting smoothly, and she suffered steady pain. Mildrede was not very good under those circumstances. She fussed too much, hovered too much, and was almost incompetent in the kitchen. Sometimes Maude got so hungry for a real meal that she just couldn't take it any longer and wrenched herself up out of bed and hobbled around in her cast to cook the right things in the right way.

It was better when Maude's grandson came along for a visit. He had been hurt in the war and spent some 13 months in various Navy hospitals, knew pain, and he and Maude were old friends. Most of all they just liked each other. They talked about the nightmares and breaking windows and skiing down to the river and building model airplanes and what needed to be done in the garden. Mildrede never cared much about the garden. She never really learned the knack of watering flowers. So the son did the duty and brought Maude a daily bouquet of iris.

There came a day of that kind when she scrooched herself up against the headboard and said: "Billy, we have to have a talk." Her grandson knew immediately that something serious was about. She never drank tea, so he asked her if she wanted a cup of coffee.

"Yes, I would like that. And there is a bit of whiskey in the pantry - down in the bottom left drawer."

So they sat down to talk. More exactly for her to talk and him to listen.

"Your mother wants me to go back to Wisconsin. Mildrede thinks that will solve all the problems. She is so silly sometimes. There is no way to solve some problems. You just live with them. I am not going to Wisconsin. I am not going anywhere. I am going to stay right here. I've got to try to take care of Port and this is my house and home and I am going to stay here.

"You just have to tell your mother that I will not leave this home. I think you understand better than she does. This is the place you used to run home to after being dancing or whatever. You come here and just settle in like you never left. Mildrede does not understand that. This is where I fell into the lime box; this is where I raised your mother; this is where you lived. I will not leave this home. You just have to tell her that I am going to stay here and die here." And so he did and so she did.

Within the year she was beaten down by pain. The hip never fully healed. The pain was terrible, and she simply could not walk right. She could not go out and talk to her flowers, let alone travel to see Porter. Nobody will ever know for sure what happened. Maybe she reached for her medication and got the wrong container. Perhaps she took another bottle on purpose. In any event she died quickly in the afternoon of October 22, 1957, of a massive cerebral hemorrhage induced by an overdose of strychnine.

Porter handled it better than anyone. He bent his head down to his knees in that little room in the nursing home and cried. In a while he lifted his face and, without bothering to wipe his tears, he said: "I think we all better try to live a little bit better for her."

He did so.

In some strange and magical way Porter became the center that held. The man who had for so long thought mostly of himself, who had frittered away many of his talents and most of his earnings, reached somewhere into his soul and found his character. It was as if he realized that it was time to pay all his debts to Maude. Even those debts to himself. There was also a remarkable nurse named Daisy Cannon. She had never written him off. She saw something there and would not let it go. She insisted that Porter honor the best in himself. There must have been a magnificent moment there: Daisy telling Porter that he must find the man inside himself.

First he asserted control over his bladder and bowels. Then he stopped crashing about in his growing blindness and instead memorized the floor plan of the building. Next he became unfailingly cheerful, and thoughtful of the other people in the nursing home. He learned their voices, sat and listened to them instead of endlessly repeating his tales of fame and fortune. Finally he agreed to a risky operation on his eyes. It was only partially successful, but he re-learned how to write a few lines on a postcard.

"I am really fine for an old Father like I am but I am glad I am allowed to be so well. I just do try and be glad and as happy as I can be. I miss Maude, and you Mildrede and Billy, now that I am so old. It has been a long time. I am sure very thankful for you all. May you all be happy and well."

There was great dignity there, beautifully manifested in the pleasure he took in again signing his name with clarity and flair - that P.I. Appleman with that flow and style. Computers may think, but they can't write like that.

Mildrede's son may have helped her accept Maude's death. She kept a letter he wrote and scribbled a note on it: "This helped me at a bad time." The son assumed and accepted that Maude had taken the wrong bottle on purpose. "You know, Mother, I have gone through a lot of physical pain. It does get to you. You just get tired. The codeine and morphine stop working. The pain is less but your mind keeps on working. And what you think is that it's just not worth it anymore. I don't want to hurt you but Maude just reached that point where she said to hell with it. If I can't live my life the way I want to then it's time to go someplace else."

But it was really Porter who kept Mildrede sane. It wasn't so much the tears that afternoon in the nursing home as it was the way he just got on with it. He forced her to change her mind about him, and in the course of all that provided a model for her to emulate. She talked and wrote about him differently, and drove hundreds of miles to see him even in the worst of midwestern winters.

Having become something of an institution within an institution, Porter died in his sleep on February 9, 1962. His friends in the nursing home demanded that their sometimes neglectful relatives take them to the funeral. His grandson cancelled classes and flew 1,000 miles to help lower him into his grave. Given her pain and toughness, Porter's daughter had learned to cry without tears. But that afternoon her face was wet, and she was beautiful.

Porter had given Mildrede a kind of peace. Years before his resurgence she once said that she did not want any grandchildren. "I've had enough hurt." But of course as they appeared, she adored them. She had a certain genius for cuddling and lecturing, hectoring and spoiling, even if sometimes she got the mixture wrong. There is no point in blaming her. She just never had a chance to be a Maude.


She sent them silly gifts, provided money for them to take the bus and visit her for a weekend, and nagged their father about being too permissive. They loved her but thought that she was a bit too severe. Maybe a lot too severe. After all, she had no fear of spanking them now and again. But they knew she loved them, and the older they got the more they appreciated her. A bit later, when she began to die, they talked about her with pain in their eyes. But they could also tell funny stories about her peculiar inability to cook, her quirks about behavior and manners, and how she would catch them out when they thought they had pulled a fast one. "Oh, when you could put one over on Mildrede you knew you were in the top class. You'd made it. But you never tried the same one twice." One supposes that is what the students in her classes meant when they said she was too tough.

Mildrede began to mention being "tired, tired" as early as 1970, and in a few years wrote her son that "I hope I may die suddenly." Looking back on those years between 1970 and 1975 one has the feeling that she knew something was wrong but decided to keep it a secret even from herself. But it is also possible that she sensed what was wrong - ovarian cancer eating its way into her lower intestine and sexual organs - and made a decision to try to kill it with will power. Given the psychology of her generation, perhaps she considered it an insult to her body not to be tolerated.

In any event, she maintained her pattern of life. She taught, she sustained and deepened her friendships, she entertained her grandchildren, she supported and enjoyed music and theater, and did some further graduate work at the University of Hawaii. Then she accepted the gift of a television set from her son, bought herself a fine stereo record player, and began to write letters thanking people once again for courtesies and kindnesses of many years past. She was so naturally thoughtful, even while being fiercely independent and private, that only a few people began to read the signals correctly.

One was her son, who received a weekly report and commentary (he wrote longer letters but not so regularly). She was upset by his decision to move back to the Pacific Coast. "That place you are going to is not as good as The University of Wisconsin, and I miss you being close. I know how you love the sea and living on the beach, but I worry that you have made a mistake. I must say that you have done things I never dreamed of, but it is also true that when you make a mistake it's a lulu! Your marriage is going down hill and on top of that you decide to move. I think it's a mistake."

After the divorce, when her son became a single parent, she was persuaded to visit. After a couple of weeks, she changed her mind. "Well, it's not Hawaii, but I now understand why you did it." Then, with a twinkle: "On a clear day you can at least pretend that you can see Diamond Head and Mauna Loa." And, whatever her earlier fears, her great sense of family provoked her to a blunt comment. "I do hope at least one of my grandchildren has a baby."

That concern for the future had its mirror image in her increasing emphasis on the past. She began to fret about what she considered her sins of commission and omission, and was usually far too hard on herself. She insisted on reviewing family documents and history, as well as repeating instructions about property and very personal treasures. Many times she allowed herself those loose and easy talks when she was indulging her great joy of driving back roads through the countryside. It is not surprising that she came to hate winter in Wisconsin because she no longer felt competent to drive on ice or in snow.

Her son realized that something was going wrong. So did a special old friend from high school days. She saved some letters about Mildrede's deep concern about the effect of the increasing marital tension on her grandchildren. "There had to be something there for it to last so long, and produce those beautiful children, but it is going sour and I fear for my grandchildren. Back in our day the idea was to stay together whatever the troubles at least until the children left home but I don't think that will happen and some nights it worries me sick." It was painful for everyone, and no doubt it could have been handled in a more civilized fashion, but Mildrede's worst fears were never realized. Perhaps because of her example, the children proved themselves survivors.

That dear friend saved another letter from Mildrede about her physical difficulties. She wrote in the summer of 1975 that she had bleeding from her colon and vagina. "I have some medication that helps but I just loathe doing it. It does help though and I sleep well and don't have any real pain." If at that moment she had gone to cancer specialists, she just might have died a natural - or at least an easier - death. She did not.

And so in the snowy late winter of 1977, she had her first operation. The son, who had seen traumatic wounds in war, as well as death within an arm's reach, walked the corridors of the hospital. After three hours the surgeon paged him, and they met at the entrance of the operating theater. The surgeon's green smock was flecked with blood.

"It is much worse than we expected. We just can't get it all. We'll do the best we can and sew her up. But there will have to be another one."

There it was.

Who knows where she reached down to get it. Maybe it was that morning in Texas. Maybe it was Porter in the nursing home. Maybe it was Maude talking to her flowers. Maybe it was herself deciding not to go into the bushes. Maybe it was her son putting himself at risk in the Deep South to help Blacks. Maybe it was that evening when she and Billy had made love and been late to the flight line. Whatever. It was there.

She walked out of that hospital and continued her life. She healed quickly and cleanly, renewed her routine activities, and insisted that her son go off to Australia for a visiting professorship. There was a moment of euphoria. Then reality came over the horizon. She began to write herself notes.

"I get plumb tuckered out so easily."

"Life is no longer easy or fun, but I appreciate each day."

She finally began to lose her hair and bought herself a wig. "Oh, I hated the idea but it's not so bad. If I'd had it years ago I'd have said I look kind of fancy." And, indeed, she wore it with style. There was hardly anything she did not do with style.

Then a letter to her son in Australia: "If I should 'konk-out' - Rejoice. Not much pain but I dread the thought of being a long time dying of cancer. My blood count is down so low that they can't give me the new drugs. I guess I have to have another operation. Oh, I hate the thought. I just want to go."

Upon receipt of that letter, the son called the doctors. "Yes, we think you better come home because we are operating within ten days." Mildrede heard about that phone call from the doctor. She was outraged. "You Must Not return for this. You must not do it." But her son and his wife cancelled other plans and flew home. After they arrived Mildrede said: "Thank you for coming home, for being so loyal."

That month with Mildrede (December, 1977) was a joy. The operation had gone well, and while a colostomy is not anyone's favorite diversion, she handled it extremely well. They visited friends, took scenic drives, argued about politics, and otherwise talked late into the night. Mildrede developed great respect for her new daughter-in-law, and accepted the truth that divorce does not always entail disaster. It was a happy, engaging time together. Family and community at their best.

Mildrede invested an enormous amount of will and energy in that visit. Very quickly, late in January 1978, she began to fail. The notes she left in her desk make painful reading.

"I walked down town and got a chill. Went to bed for two days except to irrigate the colostomy."

"My back hurts even when other things go pretty well. Now I know what Billy must go through so many days."

"Why can't I just go out like a light?!!?"

"I'd welcome a heart attack. I don't have too much pain but I just can't stand the thought of going into a nursing home. I want to die here where I belong."

"Oh, I just hate it. I've been doing whatever I want to do for years and now I can't even go down town - not even anyplace."

"The county nurses are magnificent. Don't talk to me abut saving money by cutting public services. I get these two wonderful nurses and meals on wheels and my taxes are a drop in the bucket for what they do for me. I had a good laugh about this tonight because the news on TV reminded me of Porter complaining about taxes one night at supper and I asked him if he wanted me to stop getting paid! But then, Oh DAMN IT, I had to go do the colostomy."

"Well, I know I need Wendy. But not quite yet."

The special student who had become Mildrede's "daughter" called the son and told him it was time for Wendy to come. It was a difficult moment for Wendy. She had cared for many cancer patients only to see them die. And she knew that was the only end to the trip she was taking.

It was touchy at first, but the two independent women worked it out. Wendy's commentary describes it better than any outsider could hope to do.

"Oh, those terrible letters we began to get just wrenched my life.... And it is awfully hard to ask for help when one has been accustomed to handle every situation which came along with poise and capability.... But she just accepted my presence with a small smile, and understanding that we all 'knew' why I was there. I suppose it was a pity that we never talked about it in any profound way...but she didn't need any more preparation for the moment than she already had. She knew that it was time for her to die.

"Probably the best thing I did was to enable her to stop eating. That was the way she had decided to go. She could keep the meals on wheels so that I didn't have to cook - not that her kitchen was stocked to cook very much! I had dealt with many cancer patients and I couldn't quite understand why she didn't have more pain. There was a lot of annoyance with the colostomy, but she did not even taken an aspirin.

"For awhile she would take some food, and the soup I would make for her. Then it was only an occasional glass of juice. That must have hurt for awhile, but then she seemed very peaceful."

Wendy called Mildrede's son and told him it was time to come. He did so, and once again Mildrede mustered her will and dignity. It was a good week. They talked and told stories (sometimes rather contradictory) about old times. They watched TV and discussed the news. Then he would sit by her bed and give her a bit of water and hold her hands. She liked that. Near the end it became rather like watch and watch at sea in a battle zone. Wendy came in on the morning of April 9, 1978, shortly after the son had gone to bed. She jiggled him awake. "I think it is time for you to be with her."

Mildrede smiled and asked for a bit of water on her lips. She lifted her left hand. "I want to be sure the Naval Academy ring you gave me is still on my finger." He assured her that it was. "I want it to stay there." She closed her eyes, and the son thought she was gone.

But she heaved a sigh, stirred a bit, and reopened her eyes. "You know I love you very much." And then she was gone. They were still holding hands. She had chosen to go in her own time in her own great dignity and style.

Her son did not have quite the courage to have a memorial service based on the old jazz tradition of celebration after the tears. But as they sang the last hymn, he thought about that fine old song: "Didn't He Ramble."

Mildrede surely did ramble. Sometimes at midnight the surf sounds like her swishing a silk skirt. Other times she is more like the Count Basie band hitting a chord with a precision and power that would make Arturo Toscanini wince with envy. And a gentle rain reminds one of her love for her friends. Then there is that first sign of the sun in the morning: the promise of her love and affection and passion.

After it was all over, and Mildrede's ashes settled in next to her beloved Billy, an old friend asked her son to come over for a drink. She began on a light note. "You know I once told Mildrede that I wanted you to marry my daughter. But she had a crush on some handsome jerk who fortunately dropped her for an easier conquest. By that time you were on your way."

A moment of fussing with hair, recrossing legs, and a good pull at the drink.

"Well, I don't know how it is for men, but independence for a woman of my generation was a two-edged sword. We thought about it as members of a community, and that kind of disappeared. I think Mildrede just got tired. Hell, I'm tired. There just wasn't anybody any longer that she wanted to be intimate with on a regular basis. She'd lost the only two men in her life who meant anything to her, and then her parents. You know what I mean. It wasn't just the sex, it was lots more than that. And it was gone. There's nobody to talk to about nothing."

Abruptly, she went to the kitchen and splashed a bit more whiskey into their glasses. She returned but did not sit down.

"I'm sorry. I'm using you to clear my own head. But having somebody to talk to about nothing is terribly important."

She walked over to Mildrede's son and handed him that nip of booze. "That's the time to go. She did it just right. She lived a good life and died a good death."

She gently hugged the son and eased him toward the door.

"Here's to the rest of us doing as well."

They put the drinks down on a table as they said goodbye.

Mildrede surely smiled.