Intro from Jay Allison: This is a story about the ideal death, or something approaching that. It’s about a woman named Alice, as told by her daughter and grandson who wanted to help Alice die the way she wanted to. Like the subject itself, the story is infused with simple pain and poetry. Kristin and Nathan struggled over how to produce it and they chronicle that process at Transom. BONUS: The producers also embed a PDF document, representing all the storytelling advice they acquired along the way, full of helpful reminders.
Most of us have a vague picture of our ideal death: quick and painless, or in a comfy bed with our family hovering reverently around us. But we don’t often imagine what the experience of death will actually be like — for us, or for the people going through it with us.
Hint: It can get really weird. It can also be healing.
Enter Alice, a spunky 86-year-old who decided that she really wanted to die. She was in a lot of pain, and was just kind of over it. So, she told her kids: guys, I’ve decided to stop eating and drinking.
When Alice’s daughter Cindy heard about the plan, she knew immediately that she wanted to help her mom die the way she desired. Fearing the doctors’ disapproval, Cindy and her sister smuggled their mom out of the nursing home and brought her home so she could die the way she wanted.
They had no idea what they were getting into.
This is a story about a family who stopped pushing death away and welcomed it in. They found — at the hazy edge of mortality, where the boundary between worlds begins to blur — that death is not what they thought it was.
Staying With Strangers
In the summer of 2014, Nathan and I took a road trip up through Vermont. Each night, we stayed with a different stranger — friends of friends, Airbnb hosts — and on our last day we found ourselves at Cindy Cook’s creaky summer cottage that was so close to Lake Champlain you could just about dip your toe in the water from the front door.
That night, Cindy invited us to have burgers with her and her son, Gabe. That’s when they told us the story of Alice, Cindy’s mom, and Gabe’s grandmother: how she lived, and how she died.
Nate casually mentioned that we were radio producers. This was. . . somewhat of an exaggeration. I was working as a journalist, but had never produced an audio story. Nate had just graduated from Transom and was eager to start making stories.
Luckily for us, Cindy and Gabe agreed to an interview. They were open, funny, insightful, and felt deeply that Alice would have wanted her story to be shared.
We interviewed them together and expected to edit the story together, too. But since I was the unemployed one (in rural New Hampshire in the middle of winter) I started transcribing and cutting a draft. Nate would come home from work and I’d be sitting on the floor in my pajamas, surrounded by hundreds of tiny pieces of paper, each a line from the transcript.
So I started making a radio story.
To Narrate or Not to Narrate?
What emerged was a producer-editor relationship: I’d fool around in Hindenburg and we’d play the draft and talk about it. Initially, we both thought narration was the way to go. There were details and backstories that seemed necessary, but that Cindy and Gabe took too long to say, or used a weird phrase, or that we thought could be said more effectively.
We spent two years trying to make the narration work: I interviewed my family about death. Someone close to me died, and I framed the piece around that. A gazillion drafts later, the piece felt more unwieldy than ever.
When, last fall, Transom suggested that we try to do the piece without narration, I almost cried. Don’t make me do it all over again. But here’s the thing: in the three years since that first interview in Vermont, Nate and I had both finally become “real” audio producers. So when I finally got up the courage to revisit the tape, it was with a whole different perspective. All those details and backstories we thought were essential? Didn’t need ’em. In this case, my narration was actually getting in the way. The folks at Transom were right: the non-narrated version flowed beautifully, bringing this family’s experience into the foreground, where it belonged.
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Listening to the Body
During those three years, I started collecting storytelling advice from every possible source.* One thing that stuck with me was to pay attention to what your body does when you’re listening to a story, which is crucial because so much of audio editing happens from the neck up. If you notice yourself fidgeting, cut it. If you notice yourself leaning in, listening with your whole body — that’s likely the emotional core of the story.
In this piece, I always catch my body leaning in when Cindy describes the twilight zone that her mother entered during her final days. Trusting that instinct led us to go deeply into the surrealism and humor of that time. Looking back on it, everything else in the story revolves around that tape. It stays with you.
*Here is the sprawling PDF I made. It’s a jumble of notes, some attributed (and not necessarily correctly), some not (sorry!): from a workshop with Rob Rosenthal in 2015, from Nancy Updike’s talk “Die, Mediocrity, Die!”, Transom.org (obviously), Out on the Wire, and many others. It’s a work in progress, but it’s been so useful to us that I thought I’d share it.
Editor’s Note: Thanks to Transom’s Viki Merrick for the final mix and polish of The Last Winter.