Carl and Carol Voss were married 62 years until Carl, a retired orchardist, died after a lengthy battle with prostate cancer. The Vosses were high school sweethearts growing up in San Jose and they built their lives and their family in Santa Clara County. They moved to Prunedale in 1999 so that they could indulge their interests. As a plum grower in Santa Clara County, Carl jokingly but naturally referred to himself as the best and only choice to be the Honorary Mayor of Prunedale. Plum grower. Prunedale. Of course!
For 34 months, Carol nursed her husband through his terminal illness. And now after more than 60 years, she is on her own. Over the past couple of years, she turned to Facebook to describe her confrontations with aging, with sickness, with death, and the interminable bureaucracy that faces grieving family members. Using social media as her diary, she openly shares her fears, her gratitude, her random observations and her wicked humor.
The entries in Carol’s Diary are sad and funny and brave and brutally honest. There is much we can learn from them, especially those of us who are dealing with aging loved ones — or for those of us who are facing similar losses and circumstances.
Before we proceed, here are some of the other things you should know about Carl and Carol Voss:
- They shared an interest in trains and were active “railfans.”
- Carol retired as a hospital administrator.
- They were active as docents for Point Lobos State Park, for the Monterey Bay Aquarium and for the National Steinbeck Center.
- After retirement, Carl became a UC-certified master gardener and tended the garden at the Monterey Museum of Art at La Mirada.
Carol says that writing this stuff down and making it public on her Facebook page has been a “catharsis.” She also believes that sharing her ups and downs might benefit friends who are traveling a similar path. She told me that an “old guru” once wrote that “if we all sat down together and shared our greatest fears, we’d all end up laughing because they would all be the same.”
We have compiled pertinent passages from her Facebook feed and we will present them here during the next three weeks. We have edited the passages lightly.
— Joe Livernois
By Carol Voss
June 19 — The gardens in Heaven are about to become even more beautiful as my Master Gardener left this morning to take over their care. To paraphrase poet Dylan Thomas, he raged valiantly against the dying of the light for 34 months but finally he went gently into that good night. The roller coaster has come to a stop. Vaya con Dios, my love.
June 22 — Sixty-two years ago today we were in a mad chase across town and through the busy Saturday afternoon Sears’ parking lot trying to ditch our pursuers to get to our car hidden in my grandparents’ garage to get to Carmel for our honeymoon. Today I just now finished writing his obituary.
June 24 — It is what it is. That is what Carl said many times over the last 34 months. Acceptance. We spent the last 34 months saying everything to each other, discussing all the financial and legal shit that has to be taken care of — planning ahead, meeting with CPA, real estate friend and agent, lining up all the ducks in a row, even sending the deposit check to the senior jail in San Jose I will move to when we get this place emptied and sold. And in my usual cynical way I am wondering what duck is sitting out there not in our row to hit us from behind? But we’ll deal with it.
June 26 — My posting Carl’s story to all of you for the last three years on FB was mostly because I wanted to keep you up to date on the status, to help me deal with it in my head, to read your cheers and love and encouragement which kept both of us going, and now I realize that maybe it has had another benefit in that it has made you think of your own mortality which could come tomorrow or ten months or years from now but we all really need to face the reality of where we are, where we are going to go when only one of us is left.
We are all gonna go sometime, so try to be as prepared as you can — it really does make a huge difference. End of sermon.
June 29 — Facing our mortality is covered in a book by one of my most favorite authors, physician Atul Guwande, “Being Mortal” —- and the aftermath is explored by my UC English major friend and author, Joan Didion, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” which she wrote after her husband John Gregory Dunne died suddenly at age 58 sitting at their dining table as she was preparing dinner. I highly recommend both to all of you.
July 2 — Just musing on the last surreal weeks but realizing how absolutely exhausted I didn’t know I was. But today I ventured out with a companion to a dentist appointment and realized there is a light at the end of the tunnel and it isn’t a train coming! Progress! Your love and messages are working their magic!
July 7 — Look around at your house and think of all the stuff you have stashed in your closets and cupboards that you are gonna have to jettison when you downsize. Start thinking about what your kids are gonna want and, oh yes, fight over — and what no one is gonna want and goes into the dumpsite. I just cleaned out Carl’s underwear and sweats and sweatshirts to send to the homeless shelter but have to admit, I kept his red 49ers sweatshirt to wear during the next season, which may or may not jinx them!
July 8 — I hope my posts are not boring you but I post because I am wending my way through a labyrinth of loss that all of us are eventually going to face, so if I can help myself and others, it may help me make it through the night. I am so fortunate that we knew what was inevitably coming. How about my wonderful dear friend who found her husband of 55+ years suddenly dead on the floor and her memory is trying to resuscitate him unsuccessfully with CPR. We were blessed.
July 9 — No one who calls himself a real farmer is without a pickup truck and Carl was no different. Over the years he had some real POS pickups that he and his brothers would buy at government auctions and I would avoid riding in them as much as possible, much less driving them. One memorable junker was from the post office and every time you would come to a stop, a cookie tin full of tools, bolts and God knows what else would slide out from under the driver’s seat and collide with your foot. As time went on, we became more affluent. He retired in 1996 with a 1994 Toyota pickup bought at some auction which had absolutely no amenities and I loathed. Four years ago he agreed to get rid of that POS and our 1997 Yukon, which I loved, and merge them into a 2015 GMC four-door Sierra which was essentially an iPad on wheels with bells and whistles, some of which neither of us could fully understand. This weekend we sold it to the local GMC dealership — 17,000 miles I think. And when I went out into the garage today and saw the empty space — my farmer has left the building.
July 11 — A few weeks ago when the hospice and caregiver people were coming for the first time and I was sitting here in my cocoon anxiety chair and telling them where things were, Carl was on the couch and said, “Get your frigging ass off the chair and show them!” So I am now deciding that tomorrow I am going to get my frigging ass off the chair and start to function again — as best I can. With a little help from all you great friends! Onward!!
July 11 — Finally got an appointment at the Social Security Admin to apply for the widow’s benefits today. The guy who made the appointment on the phone told me to bring death certificate, my birth certificate, our marriage license, my driver’s license and I added Carl’s Navy discharge papers for good measure — fully expecting a DMV-like experience. I was amazed to be called on time and out of there in less than half an hour! When the guy asked if either of us had ever worked for a railroad I said no, but I’m a rail fan and the guy said he was too. So I hauled out my iPhone and showed him the Trains magazine video of the Big Boy UP 4014 steam engine traveling across Nebraska today! We rail fans are a weird breed!
July 11 — Truth be told, somewhere around January 2018, because of Carl’s diagnosis, I developed incredible anxiety symptoms, presented with intense gagging and dry heaving upon waking in the morning. We went to a wonderful psychologist and I also started taking a few drops of cannabis CBD tincture every morning at the suggestion of a dear family doctor friend. Carl had never been a good sleeper and he also started a cannabis tincture for sleeping issues and we think it helped. Just tossing it out there for what it’s worth. I know that since California finally legalized what we who worked in medicine always knew was good stuff, I have found out that I have a ton of friends who had been buying it on the black market for years for their arthritis.
July 12 — So the great benevolent Bank of America, which holds all the keys to our financial kingdom in their basket of eggs, must have read the obit or spied elsewhere and has weighed in with two letters of condolence and demands for death certificates and a quart of two of blood and a limb or two to remove his name from the accounts. Or I can visit one of their financial centers, as if there is one where anyone knows me! Well, Wednesday we go to the attorney who will guide us through this. Ka-ching! I feel a tantrum coming on!
July 13 — The surprisingly easy visit to the Social Security office on Thursday ended with the guy telling me it might be a week or more before the death benefit and additional monthly increase would show up in my bank account. As of this morning they are there. Amazing! Government efficiency!
July 13 — “I nearly always write just as I nearly always breathe.” This is a quote from John Steinbeck on the wall at the National Steinbeck Center, where Carl and I were volunteer docents for 10 years. So I realize that I too write as I breathe, and send it to all of you family and friends here on Facebook, and thank you so much for hanging in there with me. Cheap therapy?
July 15 — There were four amigos since grammar school and three of them have bitten the dust due to the prostate monster. Carl and I went to the celebration Mass for the last one in February, both of us sitting there wondering when it was “our turn.” And now it is here and I am hoping I can manage it as graciously and wonderfully as his wife did. She will be here for the Mass so I am blessed.
July 16 — And now the slog through the bureaucracy begins … It takes stamina to get through a death in the family!
July 16 — Musing on the last 20 years. For the first 42 years while Carl was in the family farming business and working his ass off for long hours and six-day work weeks and no time or money for summer vacations, I pretty much ran the show in our household. As you might expect, Carl and I had different ways of doing things while I rushed through the forest and he stopped to look at the trees. So after we moved (to Prunedale) I found myself letting him do the stuff, make the decisions, do it his way and, believe it or not, keep my mouth shut. But what I have now realized is that he took over stuff and took such good care of me that I haven’t even used an ATM in years and couldn’t remember the PIN. This is a warning to not let everyday functioning stuff fall through the cracks! He spoiled me but there is a price to pay for that love. Oh, I’ll get it back, but …
July 21 — I just want to tell you all how much I love you and thank you for your tolerance of my posts and your amazing supportive responsive posts. My intent now is to bail out of this particular saga topic and get my act together as we plod through the legal crap and maybe enlighten you all on my episodes dealing with the denouement of how after the death of a spouse you deal with your trusts, wills, lawyers, accountants, etc. I thought we were so smart and this transition would be easy. Well, maybe simple, but certainly not my definition of easy. Stay tuned and thank you all.
And btw, I have an MBA and have kept track of all of our finances on Quicken since 1986. So I am not a grieving widow who never balanced a checkbook. This is an interesting new world.
July 23 — Some of you may have heard of author Joan Didion and read her books — she and I were English majors at Cal and she was ahead of me but happened to be a close friend of my still closest friend, roommate and sorority sister Anne Jarvis Parr. I have a picture of me and Joan on the same altar step as bridesmaids at Ann’s wedding in December 1955. I call it the closest thing I got to writing greatness. Joan’s husband screenwriter John Gregory Dunne dropped dead at their dining room table as she was cooking dinner. She later wrote “The Year of Magical Thinking” and I need to reread it. Carl’s slippers are still where he left them in the closet and that’s what she focused on — her husband’s shoes. Somehow you think that magically he is going to come back and put them on.
July 24 — I see that Valerie Harper’s husband is refusing to put her on hospice as she has apparently fought lung cancer for years. As a retired hospital admin I had the privilege of hiring a highly experienced BSRN (registered nurse with bachelor’s degree) to set up the home health and hospice department at my medical center in 1991, and over the years she and her husband and Carl and I had season tickets to Cal football games and traveled all over Europe and England together. She was sitting by my side holding my hand at Carl’s celebration Mass last Friday. People, hospice gets the patient and the family through the inevitable as the last days play out. It is not a sign of failure but a refuge to ease everyone thru the denouement. Matter of fact, the hospice bereavement counselor called me today to remind me they were here if I needed them and he’s been gone over a month. And btw, hospice care is fully covered by your Medicare.
July 30 — After I wrote Carl’s obit, my kids seriously asked me to start writing mine. Hmm, they are preparing a potion to poison me? But I think it might be a fun diversion and as all good writers do, look for a lead line (now called “ lede” line by today’s hip journalists, or what’s left of them). So as I was drifting off to sleep last night it came to me that the lead is “for better or worse, I have always been ahead of my time.“ Stay tuned as I fill in the exciting chapters!
Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter.