2 Parties and a Funeral: Happy Birthday/ RIP Ginny Kane

The plan seemed simple enough: to organize a birthday party for a hundred year-old woman at the farm that was started by her great-great grandparents and schedule it for August instead of September so more of the 100 invited guests can attend. What could possibly go wrong?

When we arrived at the farm on the Wednesday before Sunday’s party, Ginny was in good form. Good enough to be interviewed by the local Times Herald and toss out a few quotes. It was also Tara’s birthday and mom enjoyed the bbq chicken dinner and the decadent chocolate birthday cake. Little did we know that would be her last lucid day.

On Thursday she went into decline. She slept the whole afternoon, and didn’t eat, so we put her back in her bed. She was awake for a while that night and we spoke about the party. I pointed out, “two more sleeps to go, mom.” She was very excited about seeing her friends and family. It was then that I fed her two corners of her uneaten egg sandwich and a slight piece of the chocolate cake. She said the cake was delicious. It was the last thing she ate. Later, I was told that that cake could have asphyxiated her. Oh great.

Tara Soren mom

By the next day, Friday, it became clear she would never get out of that bed again. She was done with solid or even liquid food. According to the Hospice nurses and her caregivers, Ginny’s body was shutting down. 

At this point, our closest family and friends had begun to descend upon the farm. That night they all went to the Stone Lodge for dinner, except Billy and me and not just because of the constant abdominal pain I had brought with me. One of her kids had to be here. Just. In. Case.

On Saturday it became apparent that this birthday party would not go to plan. Our idea of sequestering her at a quiet corner of the house and allowing people to come and sit with her ten minutes at a time – that was nixed. Instead, her bedroom would hold court for her.

So I cleaned the room and brought in two extra chairs for guests to sit. The caregivers brought in the Layze-Boy so they could sleep next to her at night. And then, in the early evening, Juli arrived from Vienna and managed to stick her face in front of mom during a rare moment when her eyes were open. With that, Ginny knew all of her kids were finally there under one roof.

Sunday arrived and brought with it some gorgeous summer weather: sunny with puffy clouds, not too warm, not too windy. Just perfect.

Guests arrived on time and were greeted by Tara, who encouraged relatives to fill in the family tree we’d enlarged. Soon, we were escorting people into mom’s bedroom to say their hellos and good-byes, but only one person had the satisfaction of getting her to open her eyes.

Pumped with pain meds, I was able to mingle with our guests. And with mom safely out of hearing range, and with the number of cancer survivors in the crowd, I was able to speak freely about my cancer. Hearing their stories, I was surprised at how much this disease runs in our family, even among the youngest members.

Later on, it became all about mom. I was all over the place between the backyard, her room, the breezeway – where people waited to see her – and the kitchen where I sat slumped in a wicker chair trying to catch my breath. The caregivers were all there, as was their boss, Patricia. Not to work, but to party. But mom’s condition kept them more involved with her care than expected.

Then the hospice nurse arrived. She evaluated mom and helped make her comfortable, which is all you can do at this point. After keeping the party guests waiting a long time to see mom, the nurse called us, Ginnys kids, into the sunroom for a talk. 

The time is coming, she said. Maybe tonight, but definitely this week. She’s mentally checked out, her body is shutting down, and her secretions have worsened. These were the words I tried to focus on while fending off the sounds of children playing and men laughing outside the window behind me. The juxtaposition was killing me. To think: My mother’s birthday might end up being her death day.

Well, it wasn’t. Not that night nor Monday. Monday morning found me nauseous all day, unable to find my As Needed proscription meds. Now I know how much wretching will drive my nieces running screaming downstairs.

Bill reads

By Tuesday almost everyone had gone home and on that morning Bill read all of mom’s birthday cards and described her numerous gifts to her. Someone gave her a hundred dollar bill; one dollar for each year of her life!

We started telling mom she could move on now, that we’ll all be fine, that dad and Cynthia are waiting for her. Just go. We played her music, including Sinead O’Connor singing Danny Boy. We sat with her all day and finally later, as we took a meal break at the dining table, the caregiver Jane came from mom’s room and said, “I think the time is coming. Her breathing is really flat.”

We sat by her side and coaxed her to go, and to take these 50 Hail Marys with her, as well a few Our Fathers. With more music and more talking we watched her chest rise and fall against the sound of her hated secretions, and we waited – breathless ourselves – until finally we saw her chest rise no more. Her breath had stopped and her pulse was non-existent. Virginia Kane had left the house. 

This was the second parent I have watched die. Ginny went more a bit more peacefully than dad, who thrashed a little on his way out. You might expect to see or feel something as a person is transitioning, a surprise breeze from nowhere, a glowing light, a strong vibration. We got none of that from either Bob or Ginny. She just went peacefully and quietly as if she were on a magic carpet to heaven. 

The next morning I had a hard time getting up. The hard mattress was doing a number on my back and the abdominal pain was killing me. Plus, my mom was dead. I could hear my siblings and hubby talking downstairs but could not keep my eyes open long enough to participate in their conversations. Mom’s body had been taken that morning and her air mattress beckoned to me. I thought, here’s nothing wrong with sleeping on the bed your mother died on the night before, right? So I went into moms room and laid on her bed for many hours, alternating between REM and a light doze, staring out the windows of her room, the windows through which she heard happy birthday sung to her by her party guests. Mom is gone. Never coming back. Upside being, she died not knowing about my cancer. 

But then again, now that she exists on the spiritual plane, won’t she hear us talking about it? If she learned about it in the after life, would she be pissed that she wasn’t informed when she was alive? She could have been praying for me all this time! Or will she understand the reasons for my secrecy and promise to work with Saint Anthony to help me? I don’t know yet as she still hasn’t given me a sign.

Ginny did give us – Tara, Bill, Juli and me – a sign a few nights later, as we sat in the sunroom, working on our Thank You/ Funeral Announcement list and talking about our cousin Brian, who came to the party from Pennsylvania with his nieces Ashly and Shana. He had expressed how much he wanted to learn about his dad, my uncle, Norbert Watson. So, as we were talking about him, Tara walked back into the sunroom holding a handsome wooden box. Inside were stuffed at least a hundred air mail letters from Norb to my grandmother from the ritziest hotels around the world during the 50s. Norb loved boats and he worked with the merchant marines before attending Annapolis. He worked on ships and saw the world all before Brian and his sister Suzanne were even born! And just as we were talking about him, Tara happened to open the same upstairs closet she had opened the day before and this box suddenly jumped to the front of the shelf like an over-enthusiastic student screaming, “pick me!”

We like think mom had something to do with it.

The time leading to the funeral, a whole 10 days, were the slowest in my memory. Nothing to do, no one visiting us, we were bored and exhausted at the same time. So I focused on my pain. It had gotten so bad by the weekend, we actually drove over to Sarnia, Ontario, across the bridge from Port Huron, for some good ol’ fashioned Canadian heath care. Because we could. They gave me a CT Scan and determined the pain was either constipation backing up my system and moving my organs around. Either that or the tumors are growing fast. By then it had been 3 weeks since my last chemo treatment so that last possibility was scary. So I did everything I could to relieve the constipation, but it didn’t help. When I had another CT Scan in Vancouver, my oncologist admitted it: the tumors were growing.

Anyway back in Michigan, I could not make it to mom’s viewing, stuck in bed as I was that day. Next morning I was given til’ 10:30 to sleep before the 11am mass at St Mary’s. Tara dressed me and Bill propped me up as we made our way to the church. When I saw mom in her casket, I got pretty emotional, though I thought the undertaker’s had done a really good job. We didn’t process down the aisle with my family, having alread nabbed a front row pew already. As you know about a Catholic mass, its all up, down, up, down, and …kneel, but I got to sit for most of the service, cuz… ya know.

The bagpiper kept up the Irishness all the way back down the aisle and out the door as he followed the casket to the hearse. Bill and I slipped out to the Lincoln where I laid in the backseat and he parked near the exit. So when it was time to follow the hearse to the cemetery we were right behind mom all the way. 

mom grave

The graveside ceremony was lovely, but I cut out asap so I could get home and back into bed. I skipped the lunch at my brother’s golf club and slept until Bill, Tara, Brian and baby Soren came home. Little Soren did so well throughout the ceremonies.

julia bill bday

That Friday night of the funeral happened to fall on the birthdays of both Bill and my niece Julia. Just like eleven years ago when Dad’s funeral landed on Anne’s birthday. So of course there had to be a double party for them at Anne’s beachfront house, just north of the port of Sanilac. The couch facing the lake became all mine. Anne and Katherine ordered up splendid BBQ from a place on Hwy 25 and David brought Vivue Cliquot champagne. I knew I shouldn’t, but I just couldn’t resist a glass or two. Hey, if it feels medicinal it must be, right?

With incredible timing, our friends Maureen and Kevin from Sonoma County dropped in on our second to last day at the farm, on their cross-country drive to New York. They kindly gave us a ride to the airport on Tuesday and I was able to sleep on the bench in their step van. Tell ya, I was never so glad (never am) to leave Michigan. This time, I was yearning for my own perfect mattress and my pillows and our cats and our friends and all our stuff and maybe even a little street noise to remind me the world is alive. Just home.

Looking back, this trip was a “vacation” like none other. From sitting around yakking with my nuke family, to experiencing the rush of putting on a really great party, to being with mom at her big finale, to witnessing the grief among family and friends and hearing so many kind words about mom, to dealing with my own debilitation – it was a crazy mix of experiences and emotions and I’m still trying to sort it out.

Also, I don’t expect be traveling much more, though it is sure nice to get the wheelchair and pre-board service at the airport. Flying is just too hard.

This was long, but thanks for reading. Posting is very therapeutic for me.

Update: The hated pain has abated, weeks after returning home. I’ve started a new chemo program and I am now convinced that chemo will be in my life forever. I feel much better now than in July when I was taking a break from chemo. For a while in early September, I was in such pain I thought this was the beginning of the end for me, that this is what decline felt like. But after a couple of chemo treatments, I feel better and I think I can maintain this regimine. 

A Brief History of the Kanes and Watsons

My mom, Mary Virginia (Ginny) Watson and my dad, Robert (Bob) Leo Kane were both raised in Michigan.

Mom and her brother Norb, were born in Detroit, but in classic white flight fashion, my grandfather moved the family to Marine City, to a house near the banks of the St. Clair river. My grandmother Mary (Bess) Dugan was Catholic, my grandfather Arthur Watson was Protestant. It was not a harmonious marriage. His mother treated my grandmother like dirt – typical of the times- and so did he. Marrying him meant leaving her job at Michigan Central Railway (the bosses didn’t want married women to tell the single ones about sex) and he kept her from seeing her friends. Apparently, he was exposed to mustard gas in WWI, so that may have contributed to his cruelty, as well as his early death. 

So when my mom married my dad after they met at college in Ann Arbor, and dad enlisted in the Army Air Corp, their travels gave my grandma a passport to the world. When my family lived in Libya, she and my mom traveled to “the holy land,” which ironically did not include Israel as we know it. Israel was not yet a recognized country and as the wife of an Air Corp Lieutenant, that was a no-go. However, they did tour Bethlehem since it was not yet part of Israel. They also toured Cairo and rode camels and visited the pyramids. In a video interview my grandma said “they were awful… I mean awesome!“

Colonel Kane

My godmother Anne Kennedy also benefitted by my dad’s international travels. She came to visit in Germany and she and my mom took a military bus to Paris, as my mom charmed the enlisted men along the way.

My dad, affectionally known as “the Colonel,” was the youngest of eleven (later, nine) children at the Kane farm based in Carlton, Michigan near Monroe. A child of the Depression, he often said they were largely unaware of the economic desperation surrounding them. Living on a farm, they grew their own food, butchered the chickens they raised. The oldest sister, Helen, was about 20 years older than dad. She married and had a son named Bill at just about the time my grandmother gave birth to my dad. So, my dad grew up being best friends with his nephew.

The Kanes were a working class, Irish bunch. If they didn’t work at the Ford Motor Company, they worked as carpet layers like Oliver did, or secretaries like Julia. The men drank a lot, and one of my uncles was so drunk one night he fell asleep in the snow and died. Aunt Helen tragically lost her husband in a bridge building accident in California and travelled to the West Coast to get answers about it. The Kanes were not a super educated bunch, except for my dad. At an early age, the nuns at his Catholic School alerted my grandparents that he had brains that should be fed and nurtured. It was they who suggested he go to college. This was at a time when college was still a fairly elitist concept.

Good thing he ascended to university because that’s where he met my mom. The first time she invited him home for dinner, he must have arrived early because mom suggested my uncle Norb take him out for a while. They went to a pool hall where they killed so much time, they kept my mom waiting with an increasingly dried-out pot roast. That was a fine howdy-do. Mom was studying to be a teacher and dad had aspirations of chemical science. But he was drawn into the Army Air Corps and they spent their honeymoon on a bus to a training camp in Missoula, Montana.

Bob was first stationed at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Bob and Ginny’s first home was an Airstream trailer, which, in sixty years, has not lost its coolness factor

My mother had a hard time getting pregnant, so much that she endured an annoying amount of taunting from dad’s brothers, especially Oliver, who could be quite inappropriate when he wanted to. Mom wanted to throttle him at times. After about nine years here’s how they had their first baby.

Dad’s sister Julia was divorced and supporting her daughter Patsy. Then, she became pregnant, the horror of any god-fearing Catholic family. How would she escape the stigma of having a child “out of wedlock?” Bob and Ginny to the rescue! 

My aunt Julia with a sun-blinded Patsy, baby Cynthia, Mom in California

At the time, my parents lived in central California in a trailer on the Edwards AF Base. As far from Michigan as could be. I see from home movies that they drove an old “Woodie” station wagon. Before she started showing, Julia traveled from Michigan to California and stayed with my folks. She gave birth to Cynthia in November 1949. Then she went back to Michigan without the baby, but hopefully with a tan, and no one was the wiser about her pregnancy. Or, maybe my folks announced that Ginny was pregnant and Julia construed to come west to help her through it. The upshot was that Bob and Ginny had a new baby, and Julia’s reputation remained intact. I think the only person who knew the truth was maybe Helen, the matriarch. Julia died of “bone cancer” in 19___ but not before many pictures and films were shot of her with both of her daughters.

As children, there was always whispers of Cynthia being “adopted,” but the details were always mysterious. We could see she was different: so much taller and with a pointed chin none of us possessed. But her origins remained a secret until about 1977 when we were living the civilian life in Anaheim, California. Cynthia may have still been in graduate school in Louisville KY and was there for a visit. She might also have been in psychoanalysis at the time and had voiced a desire to know who her parents were. So mom and dad just told her: Julia was your mom and Patsy is your half-sister, they said. It must have hit her like bombshell, of the kind my father dropped from B-52s.

Some time around then, Aunt Helen and Aunt Alice drove out to California to help Alice decide to move into the newly opened Leisure World in the Laguna Hills. Upon their departure, dad told them they had told Cynthia the truth of her ancestry, so now it was ok to relay it to the rest of the family. Cynthia told me later that she received an exuberant letter from Patsy that began with “Hi Sis!” that felt a little bit awkward.

Anne was born in Washington DC in 1953, and my brother John in 1963 at Wurtsmith, MI. Along with Cynthia, Julie and I, that made us a nice five-child family, the minimum requirement of a Catholic household.

Although I thought she was a genius, I heard Cynthia was not the best high school student when we lived on Guam from 1966-68, but as her friends started talking about going to college – much more a thing than in my parent’s day – she decided she too wanted to attend college. But she had to scramble to improve her grades in order to get accepted somewhere. At that time we were prepping to transfer from the South Pacific to the midwest.

Anne, Julie, Cynthia, John, Mom and Me in front of our house on A Street at Scott AFB, Illinois

Cynthia was on her way to Southern Illinois University until she hit a speedbump. Pregnant! She got impregnanted by a General’s son, whose parents, Julie remembers, were invited to our house to discuss the situation. So, while I was blissfully imagining her a college girl studying hard a few hours away, I was shocked to learn – in San Francisco, at the age of 21 and with a new baby of my own – that Cynthia had spent her first year of college at a home in Belleville, a biggish city about 5 miles west. Mom used to visit her every week. She had wanted to keep the baby, but Cynthia did not, not with an alcoholic in the house. So, a family scandal was avoided. The Catholics adopted out her baby boy to a family in Belleville. And to think that all those times we went to Belleville for shopping, we could have been driving past my nephew on the playground! 

This old news apparently slipped from Cynthia’s lips when she was visiting Anne in Santa Cruz in 1981. Anne came to visit my husband Keith and me, and she told us the story. My mind flashed back to the house at Scott when Cynthia was visiting during a break and I saw her sitting on Anne’s bed with not a lot of clothes on. What, I wondered, were those white lines on her stomach? Now I knew. She had stretch marks from having a baby. It all came together for me.

Soon after, Cynthia began looking for her given-up son and she found him, right where she’d left him, in Belleville. Meanwhile, she was dating and marrying a psychotherapist in Los Angeles and eventually, they had a baby girl named for her grandma, Julia. Then, Cynthia located the 20+ year-old Jack and wanted to meet him. Since he lived in Southern Illinois, it was decided that their reunion should take place at the farm.

My uncle Norb, grama, John, mom, Cynthia and me in front of the new garage at our Port Sanilac, MI farm. The sign on the side designates it as a Centennial Farm.

“The Farm,” as it is known to us, is the old Trese-Dugan farm in Port Sanilac, Michigan, two miles east of Lake Huron and about 100 miles north of Detroit. The land was purchased by my mother’s great-great Irish grandparents back in 1858 after they deemed Ontario Canada a bit too British (or Protestant) for their liking. At the time, the plot was huge and stretched to Highway 46, but over the generations, land was sold off and now we have 80 acres of mostly farm land. There is a farming family down the road who has been contract farming it for at least three generations. We never do anything.

The old wooden farm house burned down in 1932, when my great grandfather unwisely chose a windy day to clean the chimney. Embers flew onto the roof and soon the house was engulfed. Legend has it that he was struck by shock and watched helplessly as my grandmother carried out their winter clothes and what pieces of furniture she could manage, but it was a total loss. They rebuilt the house on the old foundation with one less floor, (since all the children were grown and gone) and this time they sided it with reclaimed brick and field stones. The farm is a place we drove to from Oscota or Scott AFB in the summertime. We all learned to drive on the farm’s country roads and how to waterski on Lake Huron. It was our family’s summer place, where relatives on both sides from all over Michigan came to picnic. Only my grandmother and sometimes Father Bob seemed to actually live there. I don’t remember my maternal great grandparents at all.

My grampa and grama Dugan with my aunt Estelle (?) on the front porch of the rebuilt farmhouse.

At some point in the 50s, my Uncle “Father” Bob, the Catholic priest, had made a deal to buy the farm from his parents and pay them as they lived out the rest of their lives there. Apparently, he also had to pay off his surviving brothers and sisters. Father Bob was still an active priest and worked at parishes around Michigan. My grandmother even worked for him as a housekeeper in his rectory in Marquette. He wasn’t planning to retire from the priesthood until sometime in the 1970s, but he still made some changes. When we visited for the first time after moving to California, we saw he had built a garage and breezeway (room) addition, attached to the house from the kitchen door. The farmhouse acre still contained the big barn, the little barn, the granary, and the outhouse, but he had chopped down most of the trees in order to create his own private golf course. That’s how nuts he was about golf.

Undated picture of Uncle Father Bob, his dog and his quarry.

Sadly, Father Bob never got to enjoy the retirement he dreamed of. A lifelong smoker, he contracted lung cancer and died in the late seventies. At the time, I was a teenaged pot smoker and I boldly told my mother she should take him some cannabis because it was good medicine for cancer patients. Well, that never happened and he died.

Then, the farm was ours! My parents had, in a similar fashion to Father Bob with his parents, made a deal with Father Bob to buy/inherit the farm from him. I’m not sure how much they’d paid him before his untimely death, but it didn’t matter. Now the place belonged to my family!

That’s when my folks started spending their summers in Michigan. John and I were still living at the house in Anaheim and their absence gave us opportunities to roam wild. Dad was still hanging back when I was there, but after I left for San Francisco and John was in High School, he was totally on his own and it being California and all, he held epic parties. Or so I heard.

Mom couldn’t wait to get at the farm house and they put two bedrooms and a bathroom in the open attic and expanded the kitchen. Dad had the big, dilapidated barn torn down, against mom’s future regrets, and they used the barn wood as paneling for the renovated attic. They planted trees all over the main acre, including a too-dense pine forest. They put brick facing on the white panelled garage so it somewhat matched the house. By the 80s, we were visiting in droves and with young kids in tow. As the senior granddaughter, Tara became a fixture at the farm and flew alone almost every summer. My mom doted up the wazoo and took her to camps, and fairs, and lessons of all kinds all around Michigan. Up to the age of 12, through five nieces and nephews, Tara was the Farm princess.

So, when Cynthia’s mother and child reunion was set up for August of 1988, my mom, ever the devout Catholic, said, “What are we going to tell Tara?” Like, how to explain to a seven year-old about the sudden appearance of her aunt’s full-grown son whom she herself had never met. How to couch it, how to keep up appearances, that was her concern until I said, “Phhhhhttt! Tara can handle it.” Being an agnostic, feminist earth mama by then, I had no qualms about her learning at a young age the complications of procreation and the ways it shifts and enriches the family dynamic. So, of course she took it in stride, as did her toddling niece when they all met her handsome half-brother, Jack. That began a tradition of inviting Jack and his adopted sister, and later Jack and his wife and children, to the farm as part of the family. When Jack and Malea were dating, they came to a big 50th Anniversary party my folks threw at the Edison Inn in Port Huron. My mom, the good Catholic, tried to arrange a separate rooms situation for them, but Cynthia just said, you kids take this room here. 

Me and dad at Offut AFB, Nebraska

By the early 70’s, my family’s dynamic was like this: Cynthia was on the top of the rung and there was an undercurrent of high expectation toward her. Anne, being the first biological child, was the golden girl, the brown nose who could do no wrong in my parent’s eyes. Anne worshipped Cynthia and always wanted to run with her set, some of whom were young hippies at the time. (40 years later Anne’s daughter said to Cynthia’s daughter, “My mom was your mom’s bitch.”) Juli always wanted to hang out with Anne and her friends, who she viewed as cool. Anything Anne did, Juli demanded as well. Anne was on the swim team, so was Juli. Anne got a horse, so Juli got a pony. It seemed that Anne could not shake Juli. You could say it was a competitive market. As the closest in age, Juli and I should have been close, but we weren’t always. She was often mercurial, and sometimes I feared her.

For my part, I was always the quiet one who could play alone, and who sang to myself as I drew or played with my Barbies. For some reason, I never felt the need to keep up with Anne or Juli. I could go to Camp Ondessonk alone, no friends or sisters, and didn’t think anything of it. I guess this was the start of my sense of going it alone, not needing anyone else, and possibly my difficulty with working with other people. I was actually closer to John than Juli and shared a bedroom with him in our first two houses at Scott. By the time we moved to the third, and nicest house, Dad laid down the law and said I had to share with Juli, “Because John’s a boy!”