What a way to go!

What a way to go!

(Approved by Dr. Laura West)

May 10, 2013

As Dr. Laura West was driving from Atlanta to Rabun County on April 26, 2013 she did what she often did: she called Harriet McIntosh, her 95 year old aunt in Sumter, South Carolina. She loved to do this.

They had a wonderful conversation for an hour.  They laughed and spoke of family, friends, foods and flowers. The conversation left Laura feeling wonderful – exactly how she usually felt after speaking to the matriarch of her family.

Laura’s aunt was not just 95. She was a remarkably healthy 95.  She was still driving around town. She was a safe driver.  She was mentally alert and worked in her garden regularly. She read lots and lived alone happily in her not all that small house.  She had been living in that house for 60 years including 30 plus years since the death of her husband. She was a remarkable woman. The quality of her life was far better than what life was like for most 80, 85, 90 or 95 year-old women. 

“When that conversation ended I fully expected my aunt to live to age 100,” said Laura West. 

The next day her aunt did not answer when her daughter, Janice Crosby, called from Alabama. Janice then called her aunt’s next door neighbor who walked over into Harriet’s back yard and saw her sitting peacefully with a trowel in her left hand.  There was a flat of plants at her feet.  She was leaning slightly on the back of the a chair perhaps thinking about where these little plants would go in the garden she had been tending for close to six decades. The neighbor called out, but there was no response.  She walked over and realized immediately that Harriet McIntosh was dead.

Dr. Laura West was the last person her aunt spoke to. If Laura’s aunt had been asked how she wanted to die she might well have said “I would like to die out there working in the garden.”

Several people to whom I have told this story smiled and used exactly the same words: What a way to go!

In reflecting on this amazing happening someone suggested that the funeral home, in preparing her body for viewing, could dress her in gardening clothes, sitting up, with a trowel in her left hand with a flat of flowers on the floor before her! They laughed and laughed about this possibility. A huge smile came to Laura West’s face as she told me this part of the story.

This remarkable end of life story reminds me of a question said to be asked of Saint Francis “If this were the last day of your life what would you do?” To this he replied “I would finish hoeing the row I am hoeing.”

I have never heard of a death exactly like this but I have put in a request to God telling him or her: “this is exactly how I want to go.”

Robert A. Hatcher MD, MPH
Professor of Gynecology and Obstetrics
Emory University School of Medicine
Atlanta, Georgia