The Driver


Helping me through the memory ‘haunts’ of last October, a ‘new’ creative passion, needle felting. Lots of tiny pumpkins showing up!

With Halloween a few weeks away, my thoughts cannot help but think of last year’s holiday, strange as it was.

The day before, October 30, I was at Swedish Hospital. It was a dark rainy day, one of those days that never looks like day. Cancer had already been found in a lymph node a few weeks earlier, now medical personnel were looking for where it came from. Multiple breast images that day resulted in two painful biopsies. We lingered in Seattle to be sure all the bleeding and swelling would subside. Sitting in the car in the rain, the ice packs in my bra thawing, I called the hospice nurse who had seen mom earlier that day. She told me mom was stable and assured me she was not likely to die soon, though maybe in the next few days. Having seen her myself the day before, I wasn’t so sure, but we were planning to see her on our way home and I could do my own assessment.

After waiting an hour in a ferry line, having just missed the one we’d hoped to be on, we were driving off the ferry when the call came. Mom had died, the person calling was surprised I hadn’t been called. She died around 8:30. It was now after 9:00.

Stunned from the events of the day and the call, on autopilot I called the number on the little orange card I always carried with me. Mom had given it to me years ago. Since her mid-70s she had been a volunteer participant in an Alzheimer’s research study through Group Health and the University of Washington. Her brain was to be autopsied upon her death, whether she had Alzheimer’s or not. As it was, she had been diagnosed about 6 years earlier.

A woman answered the phone. She said it would take the ‘driver’ (who, it turned out, was her husband) an hour, maybe more, to get to where mom was. Okay. We would be there, we would wait.

After more than an hour (it was now past 11:00) no one had come. The staff in the care home were changing shifts and gently as possible asked me what was going to happen when. Sitting in the dark stillness of mom’s room, where she lay even more still, I called again.


one of my unfinished needle felted ‘heads’, though a little older looking, might be my version of ‘the driver’!

Finally, around 11:30, a young man walked in. In a black style-less suit, thin fabric, narrow lapels, with a white shirt and a thin black tie, he had no facial expression, in fact his face was very pale…no kidding, he was white as a ghost.

In a low, whispery monotone, he asked me to sign some papers. He expressed no words of condolence, there was nothing ‘warm’, or kind, about him, he barely spoke at all, he was all about the task at hand. With the most flat affect I’ve ever heard, he answered a few questions with short replies. I asked them mostly just to have conversation, but there wasn’t going to be any conversation with him. I made a comment based on a previous experience about a body bag, he said he does not use a body bag, he uses a shroud, and implied body bags were uncouth. Oh-kay.

We decided to leave, it was getting very late. As we went out the door of the care home parked in front was a Toyota van just like ours, only black. I had never seen a black Sienna, have never seen one since. I’ve looked. There was no sign on the vehicle, I thought there’d be some business name, though not sure what that would be: “Body Transport Services, call 567-4321” ? He had no one else with him, though he was a skinny, slight built person. We wondered, how was he going to do this? What if mom had weighted 150 pounds? (at 93, she was in fact tiny and light, having not eaten for a week).

The bigger question: was this guy of this world and was she really going to get to the UW morgue?

The next morning, Halloween morning, after only a few hours sleep, I received two calls. The first, very early, from a cheery doctor at the morgue who had performed the autopsy. He was done, where did I want Ruth sent? (at least I knew she had arrived.) He was chatty, upbeat, as polar-opposite from ‘the driver’ as two people could be. (that was a little strange too, she had not been dead 12 hours and this guy was talking to  me about her brain dissection. But at least he was friendly.)

The next call was the doctor at Swedish telling me they had found two types of cancer in my breast. Happy Halloween eh?

Mom's own funny Halloween face, 2010. She is much livelier here than the Halloween character who attended to her at the time of her dying!

Mom’s own bright eyed Halloween expression, 2010, is much livelier than the Halloween character who attended to her at the time of her  death!


The person at the ACT study who I knew, and who knew mom well, was out of the country when mom died. Not knowing this, I had called her cell phone that night, which she had told me to do if I needed any help or had any questions, day or night. She called me the day she returned, on my birthday, two weeks later. She told me the drivers were contracted, she did not know this guy and had never heard his name before nor a report like mine. She was a little ‘spooked’ too!

That strange night, exhausted, stressed, anticipating all that lay ahead, I called my brother as we drove home and told him the story of the driver. As we laughed about it, my brother said “he watched too many undertaker movies.” We decided he was in the right line of work. Either he got that way hanging around with dead bodies, or perhaps he had some form of autism which made communicating challenging and this was a job he could do as it did not involve much interaction with, well, living people.

out sweeping the leaves with her broom is a little purple witch with her purple cat

out sweeping the leaves with her broom is a little purple witch with her purple cat

The Cycle of Life

Autumn, like spring, is a time of reflection on the cycle of life, it brings both death and new beginnings. Yes, new beginnings. Buds on Rhododendron bushes are full and fat for spring bloom. Forget-me-nots long ago finished blooming and died, yet fresh plants from their seeds make for an incongruous spring green amongst the brown leaves falling around them.  The cycle of life in plants is as notable in the autumn harvest, die-off of annual plants, and dormancy of perennials, as in the rebirth of new spring growth.

Today I was honored to watch a life cycle that has brought awe to all who have witnessed it for hundreds, thousands, of years.  In the fall spawning salmon return to their own birth-rivers and streams after spending their lives swimming around the ocean for 3 to 9 years, depending on the species.  The big Chinook’s take 9 years to mature, the smaller Pinks only 3, Coho 5, Chum, 7.  Imagine…you finally reach your mature reproductive years and you have to find your way, from where ever you happen to be in the ocean, to the mouth of a relatively small body of water, swim up-stream, against the current, find a place that’s not too shallow, not to deep, has just the right mixture of gravel and sand, without too much current, sweep out a little bowl, lay your eggs (called a redd), then roll over and die.  Whew!

Watching these huge fish vying for the best spots, biting one another, chasing off a new comer, swirling and splashing in eddies as late afternoon sun glistened on the shallow waters of the Dosewallips River, I tried to imagine what they might be feeling, or thinking.  Of course Salmon, like much of Nature, run on instinct, not much thinking and feeling going on, but that instinct must create intense changes in their brain waves to accomplish all they must do before their bodies give out.  Most the fish, when not vying for the best spawning sites, were very still in the water, their bodies going through remarkable changes, changes in their physiological make-up that begin in the ocean, enabling them to transform from salt water ocean cruisers to fresh-water power swimmers, often needing to jump rapids and falls to reach their river origins.  And changes that enable them to produce eggs and sperm.

On our honeymoon Mike and I stayed in a B & B cabin on the Sunshine Coast north of Vancouver B.C. Exploring the area, we stopped at a river where at least 50 Eagles, and many Ravens, were sitting in trees above a bone-dry riverbed.  It was a blue-sky sunny day.  At the mouth of another river salmon so thick they were all you could see, piled on one another, jostling for position, unable to swim up the trickle of water flowing from the hard, cracked clay riverbed.  A local man commented, “It’s going to rain tonight.”  And it did.  A stormy squall filled the riverbeds, making them deep and wide within hours.  The next morning salmon were racing against their internal clocks up these rivers.  Eagles and Ravens waited for the salmon’s death time, their feast time.

How did they know?  How did Salmon swimming around the ocean, know that on that night there would be enough rain to bring to live dry riverbeds, their particular river bed.

There are theories, most having to do with scent.

I consider it another example of the wonder and magic of Nature.

A clear, concise explanation of the salmon life cycle, with good photos, has even more magical details! – Marine Science

Wikipedia –  Salmon

An excellent salmon id page: Salmon Nation

For local salmon information and to read about restoration projects: North Olympic Salmon Coalition

Footnote:  It was fitting that 23 years ago next month Mike and I would see migrating salmon on our honeymoon. At the time Mike was involved with Wild Olympic Salmon and had worked on Finn, the giant migrating salmon used to educate folks about salmon.  Finn was a guest at our wedding party, a sentinel outside for kids to explore. Finn is now managed by the North Olympic Salmon Coalition, you can read about him here: Finn