It’s been a month. It has taken a month for me to compose my thoughts and write about my cousin Phyllis’s death - because it hurts. Thinking about her dying alone, wasting away in a nursing facility, with only one visitor during the months she was warehoused there, makes me weep. Knowing that none of her children or stepchildren cared enough to pick up her ashes and see that they were interred with love and prayer makes tears spring to my eyes, even now as I write these words.
I cry because Phyllis was all about the care and nurture of others, about connection, about laughter, about life. When we were kids, and the enormous Tingley family gathered together for a few days at Grandma and Grandpa’s house in rural Kansas, it was natural that my same-age cousins and I ventured out together for our own explorations. If there were any risks to be undertaken, Phyllis always took the lead, not caring a whit whether our actions might incur the disapproval of our elders. She was all about squeezing the most fun possible from our infrequent visits before returning to her every day, humdrum existence in tiny Mulberry, Kansas.
When I was in my early 20s, Grandma and Grandpa died, and my parents divorced, so my visits to Kansas became more infrequent as I turned my attention to my life in Texas – my marriage, growing family, and career. My dad kept me apprised of the dwindling family’s news, but he and I had a strained relationship, so by the time he died, I had eventually lost touch with my cousins/running buddies, Phyllis, Karen, and Betty, having only seen them at a couple of short family reunions organized, of course, by Phyllis.
Unexpectedly, in 2006, Phyllis contacted my cousin Karen, from California, and I, asking if we were interested in getting together for a nationwide Tingley family reunion in Arkansas. So, we met up in Little Rock, excited to catch up on our decades apart and to meet dozens of folks from all across the country who shared our unique last name. I pictured showing up, wearing my Tingley reunion T Shirt, to a large meeting hall packed with interesting people sharing a family tie but lowered my expectations considerably when we arrived at a restaurant table of perhaps twenty ordinary individuals whose stories were, well … pretty boring. We laughed uncontrollably on our return to the hotel, but stayed there a few days, visiting the local sites, vowing to meet yearly during my summer break, and to never lose touch again. And we did just that. We communicated regularly via email and traveled to sunny southern California, the Ozarks, the hill country of Texas, the beautiful lake region of northern Michigan, the mountains of Colorado, and another couple of trips to California, after my cousin Karen lost her beloved husband. We saw a lot of beautiful, unique sights and ate a lot of delicious food, but most of all we enjoyed each other’s company and the bond of friendship that had developed between us again.
We walked away from each of those trips with hilarious memories that we revived every time we got
together, like the time we stayed in the quirky house in rural Texas, overhanging the top of a steep, rocky hill. The house was round, each bedroom having its own entry to a surrounding deck with beautiful views of the countryside. The first day we were there, Phyllis brought up the fact that we were totally unprotected from intruders on the roadside or from fire, should it decide to sweep up the hillside, and Karen and I hardly slept a wink from that point on. Phyllis slept like a baby. Thereafter, Karen and I made sure to point out to Phyllis all the possible hazards awaiting us in each of our destinations. I can still hear her laughter, a frequent exclamation mark in our travelogue. Our banter reminded me of our fathers, three brothers who took pride in one-upping each other with their jokes and jibes.
The last year we three were together was 2016. Phyllis and I flew to northern California to the peaceful mountain home Karen had recently purchased. I noticed then that Phyllis was not her usual, ebullient self and even asked her if anything was wrong. She attributed her quiet demeanor to perhaps a mild depression resulting from months of recovery following ankle surgery after a fall on their stairs at home. It was then it dawned on me. We’re getting old. Between the three of us, our trips are going to be fewer and farther between with illnesses and surgeries disrupting our daily existence. But I never dreamed we wouldn’t be together again.
We continued to regularly stay in touch by email, text, and phone until a couple of years ago, when Phyllis gradually stopped emailing and calling. We knew that Clay, her husband, was in precarious health, but when we called, concerned that she hadn’t kept us apprised, she claimed she was having trouble with her computer. Then it was not yet knowing how to use her new IPhone, or not answering her landline because of the telemarketers. They had moved away from their home of decades to Springfield, MO, so we knew they weren’t being checked on regularly, like they might have been in Kansas City. When she stopped posting on Facebook, we were alarmed. Karen and I talked about her frequently, knowing something was definitely wrong, but not knowing whom we could contact to find out what was happening. When Karen and I finally reached her last summer and told her we were worried, Phyllis told us they were fine, but mentioned that she had fallen and hit her head. She said the doctor wanted her to have an MRI, but she didn’t want to do it. Afterward, all communication stopped. The phones had been disconnected. It was the middle of the COVID lockdown, so we couldn’t fly to Missouri to check things out for ourselves. Karen contacted Phyllis’s nephew, Gene, the only relative on our side of the family still living who might know, but he was equally perplexed at her lack of communication, as they had been very close.
In February this year, one of Phyllis’s close friends posted that she had learned Phyllis was in the hospital. Finding out from the hospital that Phyllis had been transferred to a nursing facility, Karen called and spoke to Phyllis, who seemed to not really know her. She contacted Phyllis’s stepdaughter, the only person with access to information on her condition, hoping she could tell us what had happened to Phyllis, but Karen was rudely dismissed, the only explanation being that Phyllis had dementia. Karen was bluntly instructed to “leave her alone.” So, joining in with Kathy, Phyllis’s dear friend, and Gene, her nephew, we set out on a quest to find out what had happened and what her prognosis was. We learned that Clay, Phyllis’s husband, had been sent to live with his son, and Chip, her son with developmental disabilities, had been sent to a group home. The more we found out, the more distressed we became. Kathy lived close enough to visit Phyllis in the nursing facility and Facetimed me on her second visit. I was shocked. She was a shell who only vaguely resembled her former appearance. The only response we got from her was one tiny smile and glance in our direction. Kathy was told by staff that she had been Phyllis’s only visitor. Our hearts were shattered.
On May 10th Phyllis died, joining her mother and father, sister and brother in Heaven. Karen and I have come to the conclusion that she must have had a massive stroke, not dementia, that totally disabled her, physically and mentally. Kathy also learned from Phyllis’s neighbor that she had had a stroke as long as two years ago. We never knew. Nor did any of Phyllis’s other extended family and friends who had been trying to contact her. What we learned following her death was even more devastating. Her husband’s children were squabbling over the estate, making claims against Phyllis that I certainly don’t believe for a minute. Of course, money is at the heart of it all – with no thought of the woman who was a devoted companion to their father, also in failing health, for decades. Then there were her two children, who were more interested in selling her remaining cemetery plots than picking up their mother’s ashes and seeing that they were properly interred in their family plot in Mulberry. I guess the fact that she had nurtured and housed her disabled son his entire life and had tried to maintain a proper relationship with her contentious daughter till she finally gave up, were also quickly forgotten. She was discarded, along with her memory, like last year’s calendar.
I have no idea what Phyllis did to incur such contempt. She was stubborn and opinionated, and never hesitated to say exactly what was on her mind, but she had a generous and open heart. When her illness and death came to light, dozens of relatives and friends expressed their love for Phyllis and sorrow at her suffering alone. She and Clay had operated a home daycare for many, many years, and families whose children they had lovingly cared for contacted me, thanking me for posting the news on Facebook. I have no doubt many still have no idea what happened to her. There was no obituary, no announcement of services, nothing to indicate she had ever existed. Even the funeral home’s listing posted her wrong age and date of death. If not for three angels, her friend Kathy and her relatives Gene and Ed, she would have been buried by strangers without even a prayer to mark her passing. But Gene claimed her ashes, and they were there to mourn her passing. And if not for Gene’s fashioning a beautiful wooden cross bearing her name, she would be in an unmarked grave.
Hopefully, Phyllis will have a proper memorial service sometime in the future, and Karen and I have decided to put a more permanent marker on her grave. I hope with COVID restrictions lifted, I will be able to go, to properly tell her goodbye for the last time. Phyllis was a caretaker, a humorist, a lover of mankind (especially babies), an admirer of dogs and hummingbirds, a traveler, a fabulous cook, the keeper of the family archives, a master gardener, a devotee to all things Christmas, a giving cousin, sister, daughter, mother, wife, and child of God. I can still hear her very distinctive laugh and picture her smiling face. That is what I will choose to remember, the joy, not the grief…forever…till we meet again.