By Dr. Marty Becker
Death and taxes, right? The proverbial two things you can’t avoid? I’d include visits from home missionaries and the love of a dog, but for this gut-check, let’s focus on death.
My wife Teresa’s mother, Valdie Burkholder, was born April 23, 1925. Teresa’s brother Rockey, who was developmentally delayed, was born, April 31, 1948. Rockey died December 7, 2020; his mother passed just five months later, on May 20, 2021. While both had health issues and advanced age, what took them down in the end was COVID pneumonia.
While their so-called “name days” were close together, this odd couple of sorts was closer than anything you can imagine without having witnessed them together for over seven decades. Physical closeness, yes, as Rockey lived his whole life either in Valdie’s home or just across the street in what was once his Grandma Josie’s home.
But Valdie and Rockey’s real closeness wasn’t about proximity. Like ducklings, where one went, the other followed, whether in the house, downtown, or on vacation. I swear there was an invisible XXL baby harness on Rockey, as he’d only go so far away from his mom for only so long before bungeeing back to say something, introduce her to someone or ask for money to buy something.
They both could, and would, finish each other’s sentences. Both would say something and forget, then repeat it, and one or the other would say, “You’ve already said that three times!” Then they’d both chuckle.
There was also a spiritual closeness. They said prayers together in the morning, read the Upper Room and Daily Bread at night before saying bedtime prayers. They sat in the same pew at the Bonners Ferry United Methodist Church for many decades, with Rockey always on her left, on the aisle, so he could get out to go “tinkle,” as he’d say, get coffee, blow his nose or cough.
I swear, there was never a prayer or moment of silence at our church without Rockey rocking the rafters with some throat-clearing noises or rustling a plastic grocery sack in which he brought Tootsie Pops for all the kids. Rockey would also fart in church. For any of you who saw us glaring at him, or if you sat near him, ours was the “phew pew.”
Rockey was a self-proclaimed momma’s boy, and while Valdie spoiled him rotten, he was her Hop-Sing (Bonanza), Alfred Pennyworth (Batman), Reginald Jeeves (Jeeves & Wooster), Igor (Young Frankenstein), Cato (Pink Panther), Lurch (Addams Family), et al, waiting on her hand, food and mouth. I added mouth because when she asked him in the living room to get something for her, he’d almost always say, “Oh Mother, I just sat down.” Then with a groan, he’d get up and go to the kitchen to get her a glass of water, a pen or Kleenex.
But those trips took an awfully long time. Why? If you were in the house, it would seem that the sun was coming up at 10 p.m. in the kitchen, as the refrigerator door would open.
You didn’t think Rockey’s pot belly was genetic, did you? He didn’t swallow a beach ball. That planet-sized protuberance was built one Oreo, one cracker, one chunk of cheese, at a time. While his gut was gigantic, his legs were skinny. Infantile. Looking like a human Humpty Dumpty, how could those sticks support him? Rockey and I loved to insult each other about having a gut, being mostly bald, bad teeth, you name it.
When COVID-19 hit, I stopped traveling and devoted most of six straight months to protecting, serving and escorting Valdie and Rockey around Northern Idaho. Three days per week, we’d take road trips from three to 10 hours on every road we could find off of Highways 1, 95, and 200, from the Canadian border to the Montana border to the Washington State border.
From March thru September, I never let them go inside a restaurant, grocery store, pharmacy, church, nothing.
But Valdie and Rockey, being people persons, were really anxious and depressed about not seeing anybody. I told them I wouldn’t take them anywhere in public until they got their vaccinations, but I couldn’t stop others from taking them. Warning them that if they got COVID they’d most likely die, I stood down, stood back, prayed for the best but expected the worst.
It wasn’t very long before both got COVID. Valdie was sick for about two weeks and mostly recovered, but her respiratory system and heart were never the same. Poor Rockey, he fought a courageous fight against COVID for about a month, but died 11 days after being admitted to COVID intensive care at Bonner General Hospital in Sandpoint.
With Rockey gone, Valdie may have seemed about the same to neighbors and friends, but for those of us who saw her daily, saw her behind closed doors where she didn’t force herself to have that beautiful smile (hair colored, full makeup, fixed up, nice outfit with jewelry), we knew she was failing fast.
For the five months after Rockey died before Valdie took her last breath, she was dependent on others for cooking, helping her eat, going to the bathroom, bathing, taking meds, reading and just getting around.
You’ve heard it said before that we come into this world not being able to walk, having to have someone feed us and change our diapers, and we go out the same way.
A very special thanks here to neighbors, caretakers, friends, church family, Karen and Raymond Castillo. Also, our relative David Koon, who listened to the scanner and made multiple trips over to help his Aunt Valdie before the ambulance could get there. Also thanks to Judy Baruth and Gayla Roady, who had visited Valdie for decades and even increased visits after COVID struck.
Over the past 10 years, we wouldn’t be exaggerating if we said the Bonners Ferry ambulance and EMTs were at 6468 Comanche 250 times. They never made anyone feel guilty or embarrassed for calling, just always helped with warmth, tenderness and compassion.
What caused Valdie’s rapid decline after Rockey passed? It wasn’t isolation, as her door was swinging and the phone ringing all the time. It wasn’t malnutrition, cancer, kidney failure, or even COVID pneumonia, although that was listed as the cause of death.
It was heart failure. Yes, her heart was mechanically failing as she was swelling and short of breath. But her real affliction was that her heart was broken without Rockey, her forever child.
She had said goodbye to three brothers, one sister and two husbands. The pain and loss from them was manageable, but not Rockey’s absence. She told us daily how much she missed him, how she still saw him around the house and around town, that she didn’t think he was really gone.
Valdie didn’t fear death, was anchored in faith and kept saying she was “so tired” and just wanted to die in her sleep. At the same time, the few times she felt like she was dying, when she was short of breath or extremely weak, she was terrified and didn’t want to die.
Here’s a timeline to illustrate the fact she “wanted to die” but expected to live:
- A week before her death, Valdie wanted to renew the Bonners Ferry Herald and Spokesman Review for three more years.
- Three days before she died, after having to take her ever-present rings off because of swelling, she ordered a new ring through a catalog because she said it was one Rockey had wanted to buy for her when he was alive.
- The day before she died, she hosted a card party at her house.
- The evening before she died, she called and asked me to do some shopping for her and had a great talk with Teresa, asking her to bring her either Chicken McNuggets or Taco Bell tacos on Friday when we were going to be in Sandpoint. She also told Teresa she was just very tired. Teresa and Valdie had the best phone conversation they had experienced in a long while. The next call from Valdie’s phone was the next morning from Valdie’s caregiver, Karen, telling Teresa that her mother had passed.
Valdie got her wish. She died in her sleep in her own bed. In a rich blessing, her husband Jim, also died in his sleep in that same bed. Most people now die away from home, in a nursing home or hospital, surrounded by people who only know them in that moment, certainly not their whole life like the old days of family doctors or how veterinarians like me do with family’s pets.
I’ve been married to the love of my life, my beloved Teresa, for 43 years. While I knew Jim well (he was my best friend), and Rockey (he was the most special person I’ve ever met), I really didn’t know Valdie that well until we spent those three days per week in a pickup together, touring and talking, for five months.
Not distracted by others, not trying to talk over a TV or dinner table chatter, I got to really do an emotional autopsy of sorts on this very private person (part of this is generational, part heredity and part environment); she told me things that she’d never told any other family members. I know, because Rockey, who had an amazing Rainman-like memory, would say, “Mother, I didn’t know that.” “Mother, I’m shocked.” “Mother, you’d kidding me.” “Mother, I’m going to tell the pastor.”
Teresa knew her mom very well, but didn’t know the details like I did. In a way, Teresa knew the broad brush strokes of the portrait, but I knew her in a paint-by-numbers way.
Here are Valdie’s core colors in increasing order of importance:
- Have pride in your home and community.
- Be a good neighbor and friend. Many people know Valdie (with an assist from Rockey) was the lunch lady at the Northside Elementary School for decades. What most don’t know is that Valdie and Rockey operated a “Meals-On-Wheels” of sorts, delivering food to those who were alone, elderly, sick, financially struggling, you name it. Probably three evenings per week for 30 years.
- Be as generous as you can.
- Don’t curse or use foul language, and have good manners.
- Be of service (American Legion, DAR, hospital auxiliary, Senior Center board, on-and-on).
- Be nice and genuine to everyone.
- Always welcome people into your home (this included visitors or family/friends who needed a place to stay). She never locked her door.
- Be patriotic to our country. A lifelong Democrat, she loved the flag, our soldiers, our leaders and the USA.
- Love your family. She was especially crazy about her one-and-only great granddaughter, granddaughter Mikkel’s daughter, 11-year-old Reagan.
- Accept the Lord as her Savior.
Did you know in Teresa’s 66 years and in my 43 years of knowing Valdie, we never heard her curse? Even once. Me, I ate so many bars of soap growing up that my stools floated like Ivory soap.
Valdie was much more of a listener than a talker. We teased her that she was about as emotionally deep as a birdbath and that her answers or comments were typically one word. Rockey had verbal diarrhea; Valdie had verbal constipation.
But just five days before she passed, Mikkel and Reagan were staying with Valdie over the weekend, doing caretaker duties, family remembrances (watching dozens of hours of home videos) and spiritual confirmation and celebration. Here’s Valdie’s inspired prayer:
“Lord, thank you for being with me for all of my life. Thank you for the long life I’ve lived. For the many, many people I have loved and who have loved me. I’ve got to visit so many places and done so many things. I’ve do so much. I’ve lived a very good life.
“Lord, I’m ready and willing to go if you want to take me. Please take me. I just don’t want people to be sad when I go. Don’t be sad. But rejoice, rejoice in the Lord always. Rejoice because I’m tired, my body is tired, and because I know where I’m going. Rejoice…this is a happy thing!
“I’m tired. Lord, I’m ready Take me with you.
On one of our trips last summer, we were out in Moyie on what was the original White family ranch, overlooking the Kootenai River. I asked Valdie how she’d like to be remembered.
“She loved her family, community, country, and
God,” she said.
Well Valdie, as you’re up there with a new body, beside a ripped Rockey, with muscles, not ripped in half by the belt on his pants, wearing his trademark blinding fluorescent colors, surrounded by family and friends, know your prayers were answered: Valdie, Rockey and God. Together in life. Together in death. Together in heaven.