Friday, October 3, 2014


When I left off telling the story of Ailzia McElroy (Babe) Drake last week, I related how she was living in the Independent Living section of Lincolnwood Place in Lincolnwood, Illinois.  Her beloved husband Dukie had died in January of 1998.  I mentioned that she was still quite sharp mentally but physically she was starting to deteriorate.

I also mentioned before, that over the course of her lifetime she suffered a broken hip five times, the last one coming when she was 99 years old. Up until that time she was still able to walk unaided but she did use a wheelchair for long distances.

She recovered from this broken hip as well as she had recovered from the previous ones, with one major exception.  Her orthopedic doctor told her that her bones were so brittle, they would break if any weight was put on them at all.  Even the effort of trying to move her from the bed to the wheelchair put a tremendous strain on her brittle bones.  So, starting when she was 99 until her death at 102, Babe was confined to her bed.   

We made it as pleasant for her as we could.  We rented a hospital bed and put it in the living room, instead of the bedroom in her apartment at Lincolnwood Place.  Her friends still called or stopped by to visit, but it was not the same.  Babe still worked the crossword puzzle in the Tribune, but now she had to do it by herself.  She was no longer able to go down to the dining room for her meals, she had to have the meals delivered to her apartment.  Her doctor suggested that she might want to move to the nursing home section but she absolutely refused.  She had spent time in the nursing home section when Dukie was there at the end of his life, and she had been a patient there several times after her own broken bone episodes.  In fact, she was a patient in the nursing home section on January 1, 2000 because I remember sitting with her watching Y2K come in around the world when they had everyone scared that the world as we knew it was going to come to an end.  Luckily for all of us, it didn't.  Babe's doctor did insist, for her mental health, that she get dressed in regular clothes every day and put on makeup even though she was confined to her bed.

Babe had turned over the daily management of her investment portfolio to the Northern Trust Company but she still followed the markets religiously and went over each month's statement line by line.  Her attitude about money at that time in her life was rather contradictory.  At times she could be very generous, at other times very stingy.  One summer day in the 1990s my home on Harvard Terrace was broken into. When I related the story to Babe she insisted that I call that very day and have an alarm system installed - at her expense.  She said "I'm not going to sit over here every day and worry that something is going to happen to you or your mother."  And yet whenever I did her grocery shopping I had to present receipts for everything, and if the total bill was $19.72 she would count out nineteen dollars and seventy two cents, whereas other people would probably have given me a $20.00 bill and told me to "keep the change" - a whopping 28 cents in this example. 

I told Babe's daughter Florence that neither she nor I could begin to imagine the hell that Babe must be going through by being bedridden. Here was a woman who had been independent her entire life, and now had to depend on others for everything.  If her caregivers had to leave the apartment for any reason Babe was terrified that she would be trapped there if something happened.  We finally decided to put the telephone in the bed with her if the caregivers had to leave, but we made sure any time away was kept to a minimum.  You may remember that I related that Babe had been one of the original "Polar Bears" who used to break the ice on New Years Day to swim in Lake Michigan, but now she couldn't even get out of bed without endangering her life.  

The drudgery of being bedridden was reduced somewhat by the celebrations surrounding Babe's 100th birthday on May 6, 2002.  It was a joyous occasion and as the song says "everyone who was there, was there."  Unfortunately most of her friends and relatives were dead.  She used to tease her doctor that she had "already outlived four doctors (and one dentist) so watch out!"  Babe's daughter Florence came in from Utah, and of course I was there, and Babe's niece Valerie and her husband Joe were there as well.  It was very frustrating for me in one respect:  I had wanted to present a slide show of Babe's life through photos, only to find out that she had destroyed almost every photo from her past.   Florence and Valerie were able to give me a few photos (most of which I have used for these articles), but certainly not enough for a slide show.  When I asked Babe where all her old photos were she told me she had torn them all up.  She said she didn't think anyone would be interested in old photographs!  (I guess she didn't know me as well as I thought...)  By that time it was too late for me to do anything about it.  We did use one of the 50th wedding anniversary photos for her birthday cake:

We had a grand time, and were so glad to have been able to celebrate that auspicious day.

Babe with Val and Joe

In October of 2002 my mother fell and broke her hip, but unlike Babe her recovery was incomplete.  Physically, my mother came through the ordeal just fine, but mentally it pushed her over the edge.  We had been dealing with some early symptoms of dementia before her fall, but afterward the dementia was out in full force.  I was finally forced to put my mother in a nursing home in February of 2003.  It was the same nursing home where Babe's mother had been, although by 2003 it was owned by an Order of Catholic nuns.

My mother's decline was steady but when she died on July 12, 2003 it caught everyone by surprise.  I had been starting a trip to New York to do some genealogy research when the call came through that she had died, so after I returned to Evanston and signed all the papers I had to tell Babe.  I called her caregiver and prepared her for the news.  I told her to have Babe's nitroglycerin handy as well as a shot of brandy if she needed it.  When I walked into Babe's apartment she said "What are you doing here - I thought you were on vacation?"  So I sat on the bed and told her the news.  She took it very hard because she and my mother had been very close friends for many years.  

Babe was dealt another psychological blow when her niece Valerie McElroy Hunley died on August 30, 2004.  Val had had her share of health problems, but her death still came as a shock to all of us.  Val's husband Joe called me and asked me to break the news to Babe.  They were all worried how it would affect Babe, and Joe said he did not want to just call Babe and tell her the news.  So again I called the caregiver and told her to get out the nitro and the brandy.  But this time when I came into Babe's apartment she knew that I must have bad news.  Again, it was very hard on Babe.  She said "Everyone important to me is dead - why am I living on so long?"
As you can imagine, because of Babe's age and the losses of her loved ones, death is something we used to talk about.  Not all the time - but not infrequently, either.  Babe's constant question was "Why am I living so long?"  She also used to say, "I don't think I'm ever going to die."  To which I used to respond, "there are not many things I can be 100% sure of, but I am 100% sure that you will die - someday."

We used to talk about what we thought was on "the other side."  Babe told me that during those long days and weeks that she had sat at the dying Robert McElroy's bedside, they had discussed death as well.  "He made me promise that I would be buried next to him when my time came, and he told me that if there was any way that he could contact me from the other side, he would."  The lack of any after-death communication from her beloved father often caused Babe to question whether there even was an afterlife.  "Sometimes I think that when you're dead, that's it," she used to say.

So that brings us back to where we started - the morning of October 28, 2004.  Lincolnwood Place had called the paramedics to come get the body, but that took a while because they had to get someone from the coroner's office.  Babe had made me promise years before that if I felt her death was in any way suspicious, that I should demand a full autopsy.  I guess that came from reading all those Perry Mason books.  The thing was, that even though Babe was 102 years old, no one had expected her to die at that time.  We had had many deathwatch vigils for Babe over the years, but this time it was unexpected.  Babe had several serious bouts of pneumonia through the years including one in the 1990s where her doctor told me that this was it.  I started a vigil by Babe's bedside when all of a sudden she sat up and said "I'm not going to die this time, I'm going to be OK.  And two days later she was home from the hospital.

After we knew that the paramedics were on their way to pick up Babe's body, I sent her caregiver home.  The caregiver had obviously had a horrible night, but the agency asked her to stay in case there were any questions.  I'm sure she was relieved to be able to go home.

So now Babe and I were alone, so I asked her, "Well, what's it like?  Are you with your father?  You waited so long to get to this point, tell me what it's like."  But like her father with her, years before,  Babe gave me no response from the other side.

One incident did happen the night before Babe died, but when it happened I did not connect it to her.  I had just gotten into my bed at home when my cell phone lit up.  It used to light up only if a call or message came through so I got up and looked at the screen - but nothing.  There was no call or message.  Toward the end of my mother's life she had a very distinctive walk.  She was so afraid of falling that she used to "scuffle" her feet along in her slippers which made a very distinctive noise on the wood floors.  After I realized there was no call on my cell phone I got back into bed, and then I heard my mother's distinctive scuffle.  Remember, at this time my mother had been dead for a year.  So when I heard her scuffle I said, "Mother, is that you?" and my cell phone lit up again.  Again no call or message.  That was all, so I went to sleep.  Several hours after that, Babe died.

When I related this story to the funeral director, she told me that they heard stories like this all the time.  She said, "your mother was coming to help Babe make the transition to the other side, and as long as she was in the neighborhood she stopped by to see you.  Her lighting up your phone was her way of trying to tell you that she was there."  That may be true, or it may have just been a coincidence, but it was interesting nonetheless.

I had one more immediate duty with regards to Babe's death - I had to call her daughter Florence.  Florence lived in Utah, and they are one hour behind Chicago so I waited until mid-morning and called Florence.  Her husband George answered the phone and when I told him who I was he passed the phone to Florence.  When I told Florence that her mother had died, she couldn't believe it.  "But I just talked to her, and she was fine."  And Babe had been fine.  She had had a cold for several days, but when I called to check on her before I went to bed, her caregiver said she was doing much better.  She said that Babe's fever had broken and she was breathing easier.  In fact, the caregiver only realized Babe was dead when she no longer heard Babe breathing.

Babe had specified that she wanted a very simple funeral, so that's what we gave her.  Florence came in from Utah, so it was just the two of us at Babe's service.  They left the location up to me, so I requested the beautiful May Chapel at Rosehill Cemetery, where Robert McElroy's funeral had been years before.  I had an ulterior motive - I wanted to see the inside of the May Chapel, so what better way, than to have a service there?

The May Chapel at Rosehill Cemetery
May Chapel - Interior

The service was simple in beautiful surroundings.  It was a crisp fall day, and many of the trees at Rosehill were changing color.  The May Chapel was as beautiful inside as I thought it would be.  Babe had asked for two readings, and so the funeral director did them for us.  They had asked me to do the readings, but that would have been too difficult for me.  The first reading is called "Thanatopsis" by William Cullen Bryant: 
To him who in the love of nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language; for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
And eloquence of beauty; and she glides
Into his darker musings, with a mild
And healing sympathy that steals away
Their sharpness ere he is aware. When thoughts
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit, and sad images
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,
Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;--
Go forth, under the open sky, and list
To Nature's teachings, while from all around--
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air--
Comes a still voice. Yet a few days, and thee
The all-beholding sun shall see no more
In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,
Where thy pale form was laid, with many tears,
Nor in the embrace of ocean, shall exist
Thy image. Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim
Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,
And, lost each human trace, surrendering up
Thine individual being, shalt thou go
To mix forever with the elements,
To be a brother to the insensible rock
And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain
Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak
Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mold.

Yet not to thine eternal resting-place
Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish
Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down
With patriarchs of the infant world -- with kings,
The powerful of the earth -- the wise, the good,
Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
All in one mighty sepulchre. The hills
Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun, -- the vales
Stretching in pensive quietness between;
The venerable woods -- rivers that move
In majesty, and the complaining brooks
That make the meadows green; and, poured round all,
Old Ocean's gray and melancholy waste,--
Are but the solemn decorations all
Of the great tomb of man. The golden sun,
The planets, all the infinite host of heaven,
Are shining on the sad abodes of death
Through the still lapse of ages. All that tread
The globe are but a handful to the tribes
That slumber in its bosom. -- Take the wings
Of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness,
Or lose thyself in the continuous woods
Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound,
Save his own dashings -- yet the dead are there:
And millions in those solitudes, since first
The flight of years began, have laid them down
In their last sleep -- the dead reign there alone.

So shalt thou rest -- and what if thou withdraw
In silence from the living, and no friend
Take note of thy departure? All that breathe
Will share thy destiny. The gay will laugh
When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care
Plod on, and each one as before will chase
His favorite phantom; yet all these shall leave
Their mirth and their employments, and shall come
And make their bed with thee. As the long train
Of ages glides away, the sons of men--
The youth in life's fresh spring, and he who goes
In the full strength of years, matron and maid,
The speechless babe, and the gray-headed man--
Shall one by one be gathered to thy side,
By those, who in their turn, shall follow them.

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.
And the second one: "Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep" by Mary Elizabeth Frye:

Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

I come from a very religious background, and I thought that a funeral that was limited to two nature poems was very cold, but it was Babe's funeral, not mine, so we did what she wanted.  But you can believe I was praying silently while all this was going on.

Florence did not want to stay for the interment, so we went back to Lincolnwood Place and began the task of breaking up Babe's apartment.

Once I got Florence settled in back at Lincolnwood Place I returned to Rosehill by myself and made sure that Babe's ashes had been buried between her father and Dukie, and I left one red rose on her grave.

And that ends the 102 year story of Ailzia McElroy Drake.

Florence did not inherit her mother's longevity - she died on May 18, 2011 from complications of COPD.  She was 87 - not a youngster, but not 102.

Many people asked Babe the secret to her long life.  She not only lived to a ripe old age, she had the most beautiful skin I have ever seen.  Even at 100 years old, she had very few wrinkles and her skin was as soft as a baby's behind.

She credited her longevity to her genes.  Her mother had lived to 90, so it was not unreasonable to expect that Babe would meet or surpass that.  It was not due to living a life free of vices - both she and Dukie had been heavy smokers and heavy drinkers - and both always had big appetites for full course meals.  Just because Babe lived to 102 does not mean that she had been healthy - as a matter of fact she had many illnesses through the years - and many that required surgery.  During one of her surgeries her heart stopped and they had to work to revive her.  Babe told me that she was disappointed - no long tunnel, no bright light - she wasn't even aware that it had happened until they told her after the surgery.

I think it is safe to say that Babe lived to 102 in spite of her lifestyle and her illnesses.  I personally feel that we cannot discount the long term effects of a happy marriage.  Dukie idolized Babe and she was crazy about him.  Even after 60+ years of marriage, their faces immediately brightened when the other came into the room.  They were happiest just puttering around the house, shopping or going out to eat - as long as they were together.  Babe did not pick well when she married the first time, but she sure made up for it when she married Dukie.

And the secret to her beautiful skin?  She stayed out of direct sunlight and used nothing on her skin but Oil of Olay.

I have tried over these past few weeks to give you an idea of why I found this woman so fascinating. 

It is not unusual to have dear friends who have an age difference, but it is unusual for two people born over 50 years apart to get along as well as Babe and I did.  It has been ten years since she left us, but I still think about her every day.  So many times since she has been gone I have thought, "I can't wait to tell Babe about this," or "Babe's going to love this," then I remember that she is gone.   Every time I am in Rosehill Cemetery (and my blog readers know that is very often) I stop at the graves by the road in Section S that Florence McElroy bought back in 1938 and pay my respects.  Just as Babe's father never contacted her after he died, I have received no communication from Babe since she died (but I didn't really expect to).

I was very blessed to have had such a wonderful friend for so many years - not long enough, but then it never is.

I love you, Babe, and I sure miss you.  Until we meet again -

Ailzia Lathrop McElroy Harper Drake - Our beloved Babe - May she rest in peace.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful tribute to a very interesting lady! And I'm glad to hear about the Oil of Olay - that's all I use on my skin, too!