Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Last Breath

A daisy dances on my kitchen windowsill. It is the plastic made-in-China sort, with a solar panel that when charged by the sun, stirs the flower to life and sets it swaying from side to side. Slender leaves simultaneously flap up and down as if trying to free themselves from the spot where I placed the little flower two months ago. Each morning the sight makes me smile, makes me remember my younger sister. The daisy first graced her windowsill.
Gatholyn Lee McIntosh took her last breath the evening of April 21, 2012. I know, because I was there, sitting at the end of her hospital bed, hoping for one more shared moment. I arrived in the wee hours of that morning after a fifteen hour drive spent rehearsing what I could say to perk up her spirits, to give her hope, to let her know I loved her.
I forgot it all when I held her frail hand, nails neatly lacquered in bright pink, her face thin and drawn, flush with unnatural color. I blubbered useless memories, asked stupid questions…the kind where I already knew the answer. When she complained of hearing voices I shut the door to her ICU room to mute the conversation of nurses and doctors, the squeak of rubber soles on tiled floors, the urgent warning clatter of machines.
“My sister and I got our blue eyes from our father,” I told the nurse. “Unlike me, she doesn’t have any strands of gray hair.” Gathy smiled at that, and for a brief instant I was reminded of daddy’s gentle laugh. I pretended cheerfulness and waited for her to die and, yet, when she took her last breath I was unprepared and surprised. It came quietly, almost softly, between one intake of air and the next.
In the days that followed I learned the extent of my sister’s growing paranoia, the real problem of excessive hoarding, the depth of her denial about the state of her illness. My daughter, husband, and I helped my niece sift through drawers, boxes, storage tubs, suitcases, and large plastic sacks. We found thousands of useless receipts dating from 1974 to the present, a collection of ancient holiday cards, newspaper and magazine articles, college papers, pamphlets, irrelevant legal records, and keys of all descriptions. We found decades of bank statements, cancelled checks, bible study notes, and every letter she ever received, including the ones I wrote to her.
We found letters and cards she had written, but never mailed. What we did not find was her will, her life insurance, her savings account, her car title, her safety deposit box information…what we did not find were the necessary documents to finish her last affairs, to put her to rest.
Fortunately, death is not an everyday companion to most of us, or surely we’d not be able to rise each morning. Yet, we know it lurks, if not for us, then for someone we love. Years ago, Gathy and I buried our grandparents and parents. We knew what it was to be left behind, to settle up with the funeral director and close out accounts. So, why had she chosen to keep secret all that we would need to finalize her departure from life?
Perhaps Gathy thought we’d surely find the hidden documents. If so, she overestimated her family’s detective abilities. The search goes on, encumbered by state laws governing death and the right of heirs. Alone, her daughter must now tackle a mountain of boxes stacked to the ceiling in a storage unit.
As for my husband and I, we’ve made sure our daughters know our affairs and where to find important information. The story behind each family heirloom is collected in a notebook so that history is not lost when our girls are faced with their cousin’s unenviable chore of what to keep and what to get rid of. We do this not only for our descendants. We do this for the ancestors that once claimed each aging item.
Those mornings that I rise early and stand at the kitchen sink and stare at the motionless plastic daisy, I am reminded of my sister’s last breath, how between one second and the next, life slips away and all is still.
Lately, I wait a bit to go in and start my coffee. I wait until the sun’s light moves past the back awning and comes through the window to set the flower to dancing again. It is then I remember camping out as children and wading along lake shores or through fields awash in wild flowers, or squirming at Easter time in organdy dresses with daisies appliqu├ęd across the front. I remember my sister, Gatholyn, and it makes me smile.

Did you know: Despite massive campaigns about the evils of smoking, lung cancer due to smoking is still the leading cause of cancer deaths in both men and women. In the U.S., lung cancer is responsible for 29% of cancer deaths, more than those from breast, colon, and prostate cancer combined. The lung cancer mortality for 2012 will not be known for several years, but my sister, Gatholyn, will have contributed to the total.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Beneath Our Feet

There are many things that might be considered either mysterious fact or absolute nonsense. Into this category one might fit the often times scoffed at folk belief of dowsing also known as witching, divining, and doodlebugging. The technical name is rhabdomancy, a Greek word coined by the poet Homer meaning “divining rod,” though it was 1646 before this word with the slightly altered verbal definition of “divination by rods or wands” became widely used among practitioners of the art.
Whatever the preferred term, it refers to the process of finding something hidden below the ground––water, oil, pipes, gold and silver deposits, or other precious minerals, lost treasures, or buried bodies.
Though I’d tramped many a cemetery searching ancestral burial sites, I’d never gone armed with divining rods until recently. If I knew the cemetery, but not the location of a particular burial, I’d walk the rows reading headstones and in the unfortunate event there was no marker, I’d stand in the center of the cemetery and think, “I know you’re in here somewhere.”
The search for the unmarked grave of my husband’s still-born sister was the subject of an earlier post (see “Finding Mary Elsie”). Positive that we’d found the location, there was no way to prove the presence of a body short of digging…that is, until John Wilcox with Eagle Monument suggested divining the spot. Not only would it indicate a body, he told us, but it would reveal whether it was male or female.
That sounded good to me…one more piece of evidence wouldn’t hurt and, truthfully, I was profoundly curious. Mr. Wilcox presented me with my own set of rods (thin metal, 24” long with four inches bent down for a handle), taught me how to use them, and wished me luck. My husband and I hot-footed over to Clinton Oaks Cemetery and put this newfound, high-tech, piece of equipment to the test.
Elbows tucked close to my body, I held the rods out level with the ground, and slowly walked toward a known gravesite, approaching behind the tombstone so that I could not see the engraved name. Without encouragement on my part (I swear), the rods crossed, indicating a male (a female is indicated when the rods swing apart). The tombstone confirmed the reading. Amazing. Over and over we tested, getting more excited with each success.
This method of discovering what is hidden is not just an old notion, it is ancient….like 8,000 years ancient. The American Society of Dowsers notes the discovery in the Tassili Caves wall paintings of a dowser, holding a forked branch searching for water; etchings on 4,000 year old temples in Egypt reveal pharaohs holding dowsing-like tools. Written references abound dating back to Greece in 400 BC and appeared regularly throughout the centuries in various publications in England, France, and Germany. In fact, someone went to the effort of discovering 3,500 specialized books on this ancient art.
The tool used to search out a desired find varies widely. A forked twig, specifically from a willow, witch hazel, or peach tree, is probably what is most commonly used, although some say a branch from any species can be successful in the hands of the right person. The twig of choice will point down when over an energy source, water, oil, etc.
Since WWI, metal rods have become popular, and the type of metal doesn’t seem to be terribly important since many use coat hangers fashioned into long rods with a handle. In the hands of a believer, the rods will tremor, swing from side to side, or point down.
In past history, those people who possessed the talent to successfully use whatever instrument they preferred to find water or minerals, treasure or buried bodies, were often called diviners, dowsers, wigglestick men. Indeed, some were considered to be soothsayers, seers, mystics, witch doctors, etc. Many felt that such talent could come only from God or the devil, depending upon one’s beliefs. In 1518 Martin Luther condemned the practice, resulting in religious leaders coining the term “witching,” to describe the process and declare the pull toward the earth as the work of Satin. Regardless of such condemnation, many made a tidy living from their special abilities.
During the 1970’s the Red Cross of Norway registered diviners so they might be able to locate bodies buried under snow avalanches. Until recently, most city water departments had someone on staff who could find the location of forgotten water pipes via a pair of diving rods. During the Vietnam War, the rods were used to supplement the army’s electronic devices, and crossed over tunnels, booby-traps, munition caches, or metal objects.
What makes a successful diviner? A special gift, a skill, or as many believe, a talent inherited from an ancestor? In his book, “Witching,” Walker Wyman discusses a number of non-believers who discover quite by accident that they have the “ability” when they are unable to resist the pull of the twig toward the earth no matter how hard they try.
And, what makes the diviner’s tool react? An energy source, perhaps a magnetic field, a hidden source such as E.S.P., an intuitive knowledge of the signs in nature, or as some scientists say, self-deception.
Am I a believer? Yes. No. Maybe! All I know is that in roaming the cemetery with rods in hand, blind-testing locations, the rods were correct every time in identifying the sex of the earth’s occupant via tombstone inscriptions. I do not have to see a power to believe in it. But, I do have enough of a skeptic’s streak that I wouldn’t lay bets on the fool-proof accuracy of divining a buried body or determining its gender. Unlike being able to dig to prove the existence of water or other minerals, disturbing a grave site is unlawful, not to mention creepy.
For those that are fervent believers, they are in good company and can count Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Herbert Hoover, and Thomas Edison among their ranks. Indeed, when Edison was asked what electricity was, he replied that he had no idea but as long as it existed, we should use it. And, that, I suppose is my theory, as long as someone can find what is hidden in the earth, we might as well use their talent.

Did you know?  The biblical story of Moses bringing forth water from a rock in Horeb with a tap of his rod was often cited by practitioners as an early example of dowsing for water. Exodus 17:5,6

FOOTNOTE:  I relied heavily on Walker D. Wyman’s book, Witching – For Water, Oil Pipes, and Precious Minerals, for information on the practice of dowsing. The American Society of Dowsers’ website detailed the extensive history of the art, while a number of other websites discussed both the pro and con of using simple non-mechanical tools for the purpose of dowsing.