Beer for the dying

At the beginning of Victoria’s
memorial service,
George, her husband, gave a welcome speech.
The first memory he told us about was of the last few
weeks or months of her life, when every morning she would wake up
and they would share a beer. Even on her last day, he wet her lips
with some beer, and he thought he could see a smile.

This reminded me of the story my uncle told after my Grandmother’s
funeral. He
had visited her the weekend before she died. He’d
asked her if there was anything he could get her or do for her to
make her more comfortable, and she asked him to bring her a beer.
I didn’t think of her as a beer-drinker at all — she drank wine
with dinner, and sometimes a brandy before bed. But apparently
one of the things that shuts down when you’re dying is your
ability to swallow, and beer was what she believed would go down
the easiest.

This makes me sad that I
didn’t work harder to bring Bonnie (who was a beer drinker) beer
when she was dying. I just assumed that it would conflict with
all the other drugs she was taking, and be a problem for all the
tubes. At the period when I was spending a lot of my visiting time giving
her sponges to wet her mouth with, I did bring some coffee, and it
turned out to be a mistake — the diuretic effect of even less than an
ounce of decaf coffee was too much for the tubes she was on.

This is only two anecdotes, but until recently I didn’t really
hear that many anecdotes about the care of the dying, so the
fact that there are two suggests that there might be lots more.
So maybe the institutions and people who deal with the dying all
the time should try to figure out how they could provide the benefits of
beer to all their patients.

Victoria Bolles, RIP

[Victoria from obituary]

Victoria from her obituary at the
local paper.

I mentioned a few
days ago
that I had two Memorial Services I wanted to go
to yesterday afternoon. The one I actually went to was for
Victoria Bolles, a friend from the West Gallery

[Victoria from facebook]

Victoria from her Facebook Page

I didn’t know Victoria that well until I started sending anyone
who wanted to read them long emails about Bonnie’s condition. She
was an enthusiastic member of the West Gallery Quire — I may have
first noticed her when she turned out to know how to pronounce
Welsh. She and her husband George were the first people who
started bringing food to share at the breaks, which is now an
established custom. There was a Shape Note Singing that would
normally have been small, but robust, but for some reason the day
I showed up there was only me, Bonnie, Victoria and George for
quite a while at the
beginning. This meant that I had to sing the lead without any
assistance, and they were all quite helpful about finding songs
that were suitable for that.

When I set up the bonnienews mailing list, Victoria subscribed
even though I don’t think she knew Bonnie any better than she knew
me. At one point she sent me a very supportive email:

I wish I could say how my heart goes out to you as you keep your
steadfast watch by Bonnie’s side. You are wise and strong, and Bonnie
could not be more blessed. I’m not sure what to do about visiting
Bonnie, as she does not know George or me well and might find our
presence unsettling. But I have a card I picked out for her recently,
so I’ll send that, and keep sending cards as I find them.

And I’ll think of her, and hold her in my heart, and be grateful for
the time I’ve known her, and send her love. I guess that’s the best
anyone who’s not close can do. Love is all we have.

That mail was sent on March 12, 2008, and the correspondence it
led to ended up with Victoria organizing a group of shape note
singers to go to Bonnie in the hospice and sing in her room for
over an hour. Unfortunately this didn’t happen until early May,
which was about two weeks before she died. A week or two earlier
she would have been able to show more signs of appreciation.

After that, there was a correspondence about what kind of
support she could give me with all the work I would have to do
about arranging the funeral. She was so sympathetic I complained
about all the phone calls that were involved, and she offered to
just do some for me. This is what I told her I appreciated most
when I saw her after she got sick, and what I told George I
remembered most fondly about her at the Memorial Service
yesterday. Everybody who wants to be sympathetic says, “Let me
know if there’s anything I can do,” but Victoria did enough
sympathetic listening to actually come up with a good plan for
something she could do that was helpful. Here’s how some of that
email went:

Victoria: Peace and strength to you,

Laura Thanks. So far, the strength has mainly been
necessary for yelling at Pioneer Investments customer support people, who don’t seem to know
anything about what they’re supposed to do with a Power of Attorney,
and they change their story if you yell at them hard enough. But I
will need strength to deal with undertakers, funerals, and real estate
agents in the future.

Victoria: I will be happy to do anything to help you deal with “undertakers,
funerals and real estate agents” when the time comes. Because I will
not have been subjected to the constant stress you’ve been handling it
might be a bit easier for me to take one some of that stuff. It’s up
to you; just remember that if you ask me, I’ll say yes. The one thing
you need to bear in mind is that I don’t drive, so anything that
requires getting someplace by car can become a problem. But a lot of
what you mention can be done via phone.

I had a close friend of Bonnie’s who was a member of the church
Bonnie wanted her funeral at helping me with those arrangements,
and undertakers turn out to be pretty good at not making
unreasonable demands on the recently bereaved. But Victoria did a
lot of research for me into how to go about donating Bonnie’s car
to WGBH, she ordered the floral arrangement for the funeral, and
found a name of a real estate agent.

I was glad to hear the remembrances of people who’d known her
in other contexts at the funeral. I’m sorry I didn’t get to hear
her Cemetery Tours of the Wyoming Cemetery in Malden where her
ashes are buried, or know more about the writing group she was a
founding member of. The biggest laugh of the afternoon (no, big
laughs aren’t what most people who give remembrances at Memorial
Services go for) was from someone she’d worked with at the
Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. He said, “I was
Victoria’s boss — what a silly idea.” I was sitting where I
could see George, and he was laughing even harder than a lot of
other people.

People complained when I arranged Bonnie’s funeral that there
were seven hymns. They hadn’t been to a Sacred Harp Memorial Lesson,
which is what Victoria had. From the Interment of Ashes at 11:30 AM
until 4 PM, we were singing at least half the time, and we must
have sung 40 or so hymns. I headed this posting “RIP”, but the
Sacred Harp, “And I’ll sing ‘Hallelujah’, when I arrive at home,”
with which we ended the service,
seems more appropriate to how I imagine Victoria arriving in Heaven.

The Spare Room

is about aspects of taking care of a dying person
that I mostly didn’t do with Bonnie.

The main character (Helen) lives near Melbourne, and has a
close friend (Nicola)
with cancer
who lives in Sidney but has found a “clinic” in Melbourne that she
believes will cure her cancer. So she moves in with Helen for the
three weeks the treatment will take.

During those three weeks, Helen has to do a lot of physical
nursing, deal with Nicola’s denying that she is dying, and deal
with Nicola’s refusal to realize that this clinic treatment
she’s getting isn’t going to do any good and she has to go to
real doctors for real treatments.

The writing is good, and the discussion of the issues of how to
deal with a dying person is perceptive. But in the most amazing
paragraph, Helen describes how Nicola organizes her own home care after
Helen finally convinces her that she can’t do it all:

I didn’t know yet how many times I would fly to Sydney to
play my small part in the remains of her care, or how often,
when I buzzed at Iris’s apartment, the door would be opened by
Harriet from Yass, her round, weather-beaten face sweating and
wild with fatigue, or by Marion the Buddhist, white, composed,
and stoic after a five-day stint without relief. I had not
prepared myself to sleep on the floor beside Clare from Byron,
when Iris, half out of her mind, pulled on a backpack and
fled north, on foot, along the coast of New South Wales.

I coule not imagine the urge to start drinking that would
seize me every time I entered the high, airy rooms of the
apartment and found Nicola enthroned on the sofa where, propped
against its hard padded arm, she woke and slept and laughed and
coughed, commanding the stewing of Chinese herbs, planning brown
rice fasts and drastic alkaline diets, turning her face up each
morning to the sun that streamed in through the uncovered
windows. Nor could I foresee that one day, with her swollen
legs resting on a stack of cushions, she would announce
brightly, “I’ve suddenly realized why I feel so terrible — I
must be anemic.” Or how dull my life at home would seem between
my visits to Sydney, how I would write to her on a postcard: “I
miss you. I’m bored. I’d rather be scrubbing shit off Iris’s
bathroom tiles.” For this too would be required of me: like
otherw who served her, whom I came to love in the intimacy of
our labor. I would have to help carry her to the lavatory,
where I learned to wash her arse as gently as I had washed my
sister’s and my mother’s, and as someday someone will have to
wash mine.

I might have guessed that she would resist the hospice until
the contents of her lungs began to bubble up into her nose and
throat, until everyone around her was deranged with exhaustion,
fury, nad despair. She relented only when Marion said to her,
“Don’t regret the things you haven’t done. That’s the past.
Let it go. Rejoice: you’re our teacher now.”

None of Bonnie’s illness worked out much like that — Bonnie
went into the hospital as soon as it was clear that she couldn’t
take care of herself, and by the time she might have been
denying what was happening, she’d had the stroke that left her
unable to talk. But I do recognize both the urge to drink and
the love and closeness with the other people caring for

This is a short book. At the beginning I wondered if the
one-column review
in the New York Times had told me everything I was
interested in knowing about this book. But it really does get
even more interesting at the end.


I got a phone call at 8 AM Friday morning.

I was nervous when I realized who it was — it was the partner
of one of the people I was playing the concert with yesterday.
The last time I got a call from someone like that the day before
the concert, it was the wife of one of the performers saying he
had slipped on the ice and was flat on his back in bed and
couldn’t possibly get to and play a concert the next day.

So I was relieved when it turned out that this call was because
my friend wanted to borrow my crutches.

The story was actually somewhat alarming. She’s a fairly fit
person who climbs mountains and does folk dancing and ride a
bicycle for long distances. Two weeks before she’d been to a
folk dance weekend and danced 15 hours between Friday night and
Sunday afternoon and felt fine during and after.

For a couple of days before, her knee had been bothering her a
little, but then all of a sudden she went to leave work, and
pushed back the chair, and she couldn’t stand on her right

She was glad I didn’t mind loaning her the crutches. Until she
got them, she wasn’t able to move anywhere without assistance. So
she had to wake up her partner to go to the bathroom at night. I
said that was like having a dog, but she said the dog probably
didn’t whimper both to and from the bathroom. Actually it’s
probably easier with the human, because for the dog, you have to
put shoes and a coat on to take them out.

Anyway, I reminded her when she was being grateful that she
wouldn’t have thought to call me if she hadn’t been so helpful
during the six weeks I was on them — she regularly called to
see if I wanted to come to the supermarket with her, and went to
the pharmacy for me, and took me to visit Bonnie.

I was also glad I’d tested getting them out of the closet while I
was fit. They had enough ice skates and vacuum cleaners and
camping equipment in front of them that I wouldn’t have wanted to try
to do it standing on one foot. I’ll be more careful when I put
them back in the closet.

We don’t know quite what’s going to happen with my friend’s
knee. She’s had an x-ray, and it looks like torn cartilage or
maybe other junk in the joint. She has an appointment to see an
orthopedist next week.

Crutches aren’t so expensive that comfortably off people can’t just go buy
them, but they do take up enough space in a closet, and
reasonably fit people use them seldom enough, that it seems silly
for every household to have a pair. I think it’s something the
socialist model “From each according to his abilities; to each
according to his needs” should apply pretty well. So there
should probably just be a central supply depot that delivers a
pair when you need them, and then you bring them back there when
you don’t any more.

My rationale for keeping mine after the hip surgery instead of
donating them to one of the places that gives them free to poor
people, was that when you sprain your ankle, which I had been
doing every 3 or 4 years, people tell you it heals faster if you
use crutches and keep the weight off of it. I’d never tried that,
because of not having the crutches, but I was going to test it
out the next time my ankle gave out on me. It hasn’t given out
since the hip surgery. I hope that’s because the physical
therapy I got then, which focused more on balance than on
strengthening hip muscles, fixed the problem with my ankle, but
maybe it’s just having crutches in the closet makes it less
likely that you sprain your ankle. The same way carrying an
umbrella makes it less likely to rain hard.

Stories from the polls

I was so interested in writing about the results that I didn’t
tell you a couple of stories about the voters at the polls last

One man came in and said he had a durable power of attorney for
his father and did that mean he could vote for him. I said I
didn’t think so, and so did the person I talked to at the
election commission. He came in with his father only a few minutes later, so it can’t have been a major hardship for the father to vote himself.

I had one of those for Bonnie before she died. It gave me power to do
some amazing things, like sell all the mineral rights under her
house, but I’m quite sure it didn’t allow me to vote for

One couple came in together. She was registered and voted, but
he was registered in Quincy, but she wanted him to vote in Cambridge
anyway. I explained that he had to be on our list, or we
couldn’t give him a ballot. She got hostile and asked, “So
you’re turning him away?”

I think I’m supposed to say, “No, he can vote by provisional
ballot if he wants to,” but it seemed better to just say, “Yes,”
and then explain about the provisional ballots being for people
when there’s some question about whether they’re registered or
not, and it gets counted if it turns out they were
registered. There didn’t seem to be any question that he wasn’t
registered in Cambridge.

The guy from Quincy looked like he was being a bit embarrassed
by his friend from Cambridge, and not only didn’t insist on
voting a provisional ballot but didn’t even take the Voter
Registration card that would have let him change his address to
Cambridge for the next time.

I’d bet on that relationship not lasting until the next
election, but of course some very odd-looking relationships do
last for years and years.

New Year’s Resolutions

First, a couple of resolutions I’m not making:

  • It’s silly to claim you’re all of a sudden going to start
    working on something you’ve been doing no work on for years. So
    I’m not going to resolve to learn a language or run a
  • While there are lots of reasons why weighing 20 pounds less
    would be a good thing, I’m not going to resolve to lose weight.
    All the sensible things to do that lose weight have other good
    effects, and the obvious ones that work and aren’t sensible
    aren’t what you want to resolve to do. (E.g., I lost 15 pounds
    in the hospital with my hip surgery, but if I can, I want to
    avoid doing that again.)

So here are the things I’ve been working on some, but want to
work on more effectively in the New Year:

Cleaning out Bonnie’s house was an
experience I wouldn’t want to wish on *my* executrix, and
anyway, I enjoy being in my house more when it’s uncluttered and
reasonably free of dust, grime, and dog hair. I’ve made
progress on the public rooms in the last year, and I’m getting
better at doing the maintenance in small doses rather than
waiting until I’ve scheduled an hour or more. I have some ideas
for spending a little money on furniture that will contribute to
the uncluttered look in the living room, and I’m doing well on
throwing out a couple of things from the currently hopeless
rooms every Wednesday. So we’ll see if I make even more
progress this year.
I’ve probably gone backwards this year, because
the dog-walking is less aerobic with an elderly, arthritic dog
than with a young, vigorous one. So what I’m going to work on
is running more errands on foot by myself, and maybe figuring
out a yoga routine I can do with the hip restrictions that I
enjoy as much as I did the one I had before the arthritis made
me stop doing it.
I think I’ve made progress on making the blog
interesting over the last year. I’d like to be more consistent
about taking pictures to illustrate it, and maybe finding a
better focus.

Woes of an Executrix: taxes

I swore I’d get the First and Final Accounting of Bonnie’s
estate done by today, so I’ve chained myself to the desk and I’m
working on it.

This means I don’t have time to write anything new today, but
it also means I’ve been reading a lot of the stuff I wrote when
I was trying to figure out the taxes and such.

Here’s my
description of trying to deal with the IRS on the phone:

I finally decided I had to do something about the taxes, so I called
the IRS. They played me the Blue Danube Waltz for 45 minutes or so
and then someone came on and told me what number form I needed to send
in so that she could talk to me about Bonnie’s taxes. She wanted to
tell me a fax number, but I told her that faxing was a pain so I
needed snail mail or email. So they played the Blue Danube Waltz for
a while longer, and then she gave me an address. I should have looked
at the form while she did that, because it turns out to be a Power of
Attorney form, and it isn’t at all clear that it applies to an

Did you do anything like this? Do you have any way of finding out
what an executrix needs to do to get tax information? I can go
downtown with the shoebox and see if they’ll help me if I talk to them
in person. I can send in form 2848 with none of the boxes checked and
a note that they should have another box if this is the right form,
but that seems like a pretty forlorn hope.

The upshot was that my tax preparer friend and I went down to
the IRS office in downtown Boston with my executrix appointment
and spoke to a very nice man who gave us printouts of everything
they had in their computers. It turned out that Bonnie hadn’t
filed any tax returns since 1996, and they’d only caught her for
2001. They subsequently caught her for 2006, so the estate ended
up paying a lot of taxes and penalties, but possibly not much more
than she would have paid in taxes if she’d paid the normal

This is not the way those of us who file our taxes every year
believe the system is supposed to work. Nor is it the way the
nice man in the IRS office believed it was supposed to
work, but he didn’t sound real surprised that it had in fact
worked that way.

What ereader device do I recommend

You would expect a one-a-day blog project like this to run into
trouble in December, and this year is worse than most for that.
In addition to the party (and attendant cleaning and
cooking) and shopping and spending several days in Fall River, I
also lost a day on Tuesday officiating at a special election and
I have the December 17 concert and I’m trying to wrap up Bonnie’s
estate by the end of the year.

One of the tricks I’ve learned for writing a blog post when you
don’t have time to write a blog post is to take something out of
an email you wrote someone. This morning someone asked me to
tell them what ebook reader I recommend, and this is what I

I don’t recommend any of the special-purpose e-readers, but the Sony
is probably better than the Kindle if you want to get locked into a
single-purpose, black and white device that doesn’t fit in your
pocket. Everybody who’s actually seen a Barnes and Noble Nook seems
to hate it, and apparently you won’t be able to get one until January
at the earliest.

What I use is a Nokia N810 Internet Tablet. They aren’t making them
any more, but you might still be able to buy one somewhere. They’ve
been replaced by the N900, which is also a phone, but not a phone
anyone in this country would want to actually use.

The iPod Touch is another one to think about. It’s a bit smaller and
lower resolution than what I have, but of course you can use all those
thousands of apps in the app store. John really likes one that has a
candle on the screen and you can blow on it and snuff it out.

Or of course, if they already have iPhones they should try the reading
applications on that. Stanza seems to be the one a lot of people

If you don’t insist on putting it in your pocket, some of the netbooks
are good deals, and give you a lot more functionality for less money
than the Kindle or the Sony.

The best website for reading long discussions about this is

I later added:

The other thing wrong with the e-ink devices (Sony and Kindle and
Nook) is that you need a reading light to read in bed.

And I should have added that some of them have fairly limited
support for using larger fonts, which is strange since being
able to read at your preferred font size is one of the major
advantages of ebooks over dead tree ones.

Bonnie’s keepsakes

In the course of cleaning out Bonnie’s house, of course I threw
out all kinds of stuff that would have been necessary if someone
wanted to write a biography of her.

Of course, if someone did want to do that they should have come
and taken all the stuff off my hands, and they didn’t.

I did take a small cedar box with some things she must have
wanted to save, mostly from college or before. I scanned three
letters from that box, so I’m posting them here mostly for her
friends. As far as I know, they’re from before any of her friends
that I ever met knew her.

I apologize for the orientations in the PDF,
and also for its size. Transcribing them was interesting for the
number of errors even highly literate people put up with in a
handwritten note.

Summer job

The last letter was from a woman who had hired her to cook for
her family for the summer of 1963. I think Bonnie did recall this
job fondly; I remember her mentioning the rowboat. She was 20
that year.

Bayberry Bluff
South Orleans, Mass.

July 20, 1963

Dear Mrs. Rogers,

Forgive me for not writing to you long before this to give
you word about Bonny. She is doing a most satisfactory job for
us, unfazed by the size of the family, a refrigerator too small
for the present situation and a gas oven whose regulator is
ailing and irreplacable [sic]. I gave her ample warning on all
these points, but she has handled the situation with composure
and always with a smile, which is a joy to me. And her meals
are so good always!

I hope she is enjoying her summer. We take her in the
sailboat which she seems to enjoy particularly and she takes
many shorter expeditions in the row boat and has one or more
daily swims. We are very glad that she wanted to come to

With kind regards to you and your husband. I am yours

Susan M. Brooks

Microbiology research

The other two are from Mary
, who was President of Radcliffe College when
Bonnie was there, but from these letters must also have been
teaching a microbiology course. I had no idea Bonnie was at
all interested in microbiology.

Both letters are postmarked 1962, so Bonnie would have been 18
in the Spring, and turned 19 in June.

PS. — I guess I’ll send you the actual data too.

Radcliffe College
Cambridge 38, Mass

Office of the President

Sunday 4/1

Dear Bonnie:

Your plates were beautiful! The VI series ran approx [table
omitted from transcription]
but there were no variants that I would wish to differentiate on any
plate. There weren’t even any that I would question — ie some
like the ones you showed me before. I gues [sic] they are
pretty rare except in old stock or other aging cultures.

There were some odd differences in size — ie — plates VI
9-12 had small colonies whereas VI 13 — 16 had very large

Now What?

Have a good vacation! M.I.B.

Radcliffe College
Cambridge 38, Mass

Office of the President


Dear Bonni:

Thanks for the excellent report!

You’ve developed a great deal of scientific insight in one
year. It would mean a lot of study but you could do this stuff
if you wanted. In any event I think you have an appreciation of
the demands of investigation which will stand you in good

Its been nice to have you in class.

Mary I. Bunting

Plans for the month

I have the major pieces of what I’ve been meaning to do on the
websites done, although I’d still like to have better searching
for pieces on
and better graphic design both places.

But the big thing that happens in the near future is a lot of
more “formal” entertaining than I do the rest of the year.
There’s the family Thanksgiving dinner, which happens at my place
and includes some friends who like having a family dinner but
their families are too far away. Then there’s the Christmas
party, which this year will probably be December 20, which is
usually the largest number of people in my apartment at one time.
And two months later, some time around February 25, is my birthday

Because I have the band over every week, and we sit around
eating and drinking and socializing after the rehearsal, my public
rooms stay superficially more combobulated than they would
otherwise, but it’s still a good thing to get some real
housecleaning done this time of year.

So that’s what I’m planning to spend some of my copious spare
time on this month. There’s a woman who claims to do
environmentally friendly carpet cleaning that I might call, and I
could try to hang the handmade quilts I inherited from Bonnie, and
recover the chairs with stains or rips in their covers, and maybe
do something about the sofa cushions.

This is not to mention the upstairs cleaning. If I got rid of
all the obsolete or non-working computer junk, there might be room
to unfold the futon in the computer room. And I’d feel more like
brewing if the room the brewing stuff is stored in had the stuff
decreased or arranged better so that I could get to the stuff more
than 4 feet from the door.

Of course, housecleaning of any kind would be less difficult to
contemplate if my lungs weren’t still in reactive mode after that
cold I had a month ago. So maybe it will be the website
improvements that happen after all.