The Last Winter

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.

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Listen to “The Last Winter”

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.

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.

Kristin Moe

About
Kristin Moe

Kristen Moe has had many careers: farmer, latte-frother, teacher, conflicted activist, solo traveler, resentful nanny, and storyteller in print and audio, although her dream is to move to a cabin in the woods and only come out sometimes. She's a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies and has done work for National Geographic, PBS.org, YES Magazine, Orion, Entropy, Grist, and Moyers & Co. In the fall she'll begin an MFA in theater, which will severely test her introversion.

Nathan Tobey

About
Nathan Tobey

Nathan Tobey is a storyteller, podcast entrepreneur and live music geek who heads up the on-demand and cultural programming unit at American Public Media. He recently won the Alfred I. duPont and Edward R. Murrow awards for the documentary audio series, GroundTruth, a podcast dedicated to in-depth international field reporting. He also helped launch Masterpiece Studio for WGBH/PBS, which began by covering Downton Abbey’s final season. He is also a graduate of the Transom Story Workshop where he wrote up these 10 audio storytelling lessons.

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  • Carol Maurer

    6.26.17

    Reply

    Sweet. I hope my dear ones will help me die when I’m ready. The more stories like this that are shared the better!

  • Linda Pilgrim

    7.27.17

    Reply

    I went through a similar experience with my father in 2013 in the sense that it was the best thing I could imagine to the definition of a “good death.” We had home hospice which was extremely helpful. And, when my father was given a diagnosis of Stage IV stomach-esophogeal cancer there were no treatments available, but there was pallative care, which everyone in America needs to learn about. My father lived about 8 weeks after his diagnosis. He was active until the last few days. His body naturally decided when it did not want or need any more nutrition. It is a normal phase of the body’s process of dying I learned. He was also in a blissful raw happiness when he accepted his diagnosis–about 5 minutes after he learned it. He was freed in a way. He was administratively prepared to die (typical of my father). So he just enjoyed every single moment until he died. Everday he said he was “wonderful,” sincerely. Accupunture helped his nausea and therefore his quality of life during that time. But, he, I think, felt truly free for the first time in his life and enjoyed every moment of it. He said goodbye to his wallet, his driver’s license, and shed any remaining objects he had not already made plans for. It was wild to see someone embrace the freedom of casting off money and the material world and worry. He had a few administrative things to do, which he took care of immediately. Then he spent some days writing goodbye letters to many dear old friends (such a luxury for all). Home hospice gradually increased their visits and educated us (well, me, I was the most eager to learn what to expect of all my family members) as to what we could expect of the process of a body shutting down gradually. I could not believe we had never learned this before then. It is as essential to know about about the process of birth. When we noticed the symptoms and signals that his body was getting close to death, guided by a visiting nurse in a downstairs bedroom in our home, my stepmother, my brother, and I sat around him next to his bed. With one hand, we each held onto each other, with the other hand we touched my father. As his breathing became more labored but simultaneously ‘activated’ in a way, we instinctively began cheering him on (as during a birth). We held on to each other. We told him it was okay and that he could do it. We told him it was okay to go now. And he did. And, we each remarked to the other how much our experience felt ‘better’ than we ever imagined, and that it felt like we were present for the opposite of his birth–it’s the only way I know how describe it. It was beautiful. We cried “happy tears” as he would have said. We saved the sad ones for later–when he was simply not there anymore. Still, today–is the sadest hardest part that does not ever “close” or get easier with time. To me, it’s just like missing anyone you love who has been away and out of touch for a long time. The longer the time goes on, the more I miss him. But, it was a “good” death. I cannot imagine a better one. And, it was beautiful. And, I am grateful to have been present with him. .

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