The story behind Don’t Look Back, Agnes and In This House
by Kathryn Meyer Griffith
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The older I get, the more I like to reminisce and write about what I’m going through at any particular time. I guess it’s an age thing. So many of my stories and novels come about because of what I’m actually experiencing in my real life at the time. Not all, but some.
But my novella, Don’t Look Back, Agnes is definitely one such story.
At the end of 1998 my beloved father, the very heart (along with my mother’s mother, Grandmother Fehrt, who was also much loved) of my large family, passed away after a short but heartbreaking battle with lung cancer. He’d been a cigarette smoker his whole life so it wasn’t a complete shock that it ended up killing him. Yet the suddenness and the swiftness of his departure devastated my six siblings, my mother, grandmother, and me. It was a very dark time for us.
To complicate the matter, my brothers and sisters, myself included, were in our forties and working hard at our lives, our families and jobs, but my grandmother and mother were left living alone together and neither one drove; so both needed constant care and attention. My grandmother was in her eighties and my mother in her late sixties; though my grandmother was fairly healthy (she was spunky lady, with a zest for life, who’d emigrated from Austria as a child) my mother was already in a wheelchair, crippled from bad ankle surgeries, debilitating osteoarthritis and a host of heart related problems.
The first thing the family had to do was move them into town, nearer to some of us, and out of the country where they’d been living in the new sprawling house my father had built them just the year before. It was too hard caring for them way out there and the house was too big, too expensive. Boy, that was fun. They had so much stuff, so many memories to dispose of and cry over. We settled them in a small ranch house in town and life went on. Or tried to.
Now, I loved my mother and grandmother dearly but taking care of them was often difficult. Each needed concentrated care, love, endless visits to the doctor, prescriptions fulfilled and, as time went on, housekeeping and grocery shopping help–and finally, someone to do their bills, my mother becoming too disoriented and sick to any longer do any of those chores. For a long time, years, my grandmother stepped up, even at her age, and became my mother’s constant nurse and helper. Their two Social Security checks combined were just enough for them to live on. It was a thin line they had to tread and we tried to help them every step of the way.
So, with love, sometimes desperation, and some bickering every so often between us siblings as to who would do what when, we took care of them and their whole household, their house. There were many late night runs to hospital emergency rooms, or long stays, and rehab centers for my mother, who steadily over the next nine years grew worse. By the end of 2005 it seemed we were always at the hospital with mom or grandma. My mom had her heart troubles, high blood pressure and medication problems, and my grandmother broke her hip. One thing after another. It was exhausting at times. Who’d ever think two sick old ladies could need so much care?
Then my grandmother got really ill and was rushed to the hospital. She needed emergency surgery and afterwards was in intensive care for a month…never recovered…then sadly joined our grandfather in the next life. We were all so broken hearted.
That left our mother, all alone, without enough money to live on (her Social Security meager; no savings), and unable to care for herself or her three cats. Born an only child, she was a demanding sort of woman, almost childlike in her unending need for attention and devotion. She was terrified of going to a nursing home so the family did what we could to keep her in her own home as long as possible. My brother got her a reverse mortgage on her house and we all chipped in financially whenever and however we could. We fought the good fight but there came a day where mom got so sick, was rushed to the hospital so often, needed so much constant supervision, that my siblings and I had to admit defeat…mom had to go into a nursing home or one of us had to move in with her, which wasn’t feasible. We were married with families.
So a nursing home it was. We picked out a newly opened one in town, the nicest we could find, and the next time mom got sick we moved her into it for her recovery. Then told her the truth. The house was up for sale and the cats had been placed in new homes. I even took one, Patches (the cat in the story), because it was old and no one wanted her. My husband and I already had two cats but it was something I had to do…for mom. She really loved that cat as she’d really loved her home. But poor Patches, probably pining for her mistress and her old life, only lasted five months. I lied to my mother for months afterwards, afraid to tell her that the old cat had died (mom had always said that when Patches died, she’d die) and it broke my heart when I finally had to tell her. Mom had come to our house for a family Thanksgiving and I couldn’t hide the fact that Patches was no longer there. Oh, that was hard. Telling her.
If anyone has ever put a parent or relative into a nursing home, they know the heartbreak it causes all around. My mother was inconsolable and my guilt was awful. But, as sick as mom had become, with so many prescriptions each day, hospital visits, and how most days she couldn’t even get out of bed or get to the bathroom, clean or feed herself…we had no choice. She stayed in that nursing home – although it was a bright cheery place with kind people running it – until she died two years later. The hardest two years of my life. I visited her often, shopped for her and kept her company. Decorated her room so it looked like a home. Brought her special lunches and little gifts. Fancy quilts and stuffed cats. It still broke my heart.
I began writing the novella, Don’t Look Back, Agnes, while she was there. A ghost story centered around a young woman who’s forced by grim circumstances into returning to her haunted, and deadly, childhood home because her mother is ill in a nursing home and needs her. Looking back now, I can see it was also my way of dealing with the nursing home guilt…of wishing for a different ending to mom’s life than what had occurred. Writing the story was my therapy. I cried all my sorrow out into those words and prayed to be forgiven for putting my mother into such a place.
Even In This House, the bonus short story included because it’s also a ghostly tale, deals with old age and the passing of all a person (or a couple in this instance) ever knew or loved as time and their lives slip away, as it must always do. At the same time I was writing the Agnes story I read an article in the newspaper about this old man who was the last resident of a neighborhood that had been systematically bought out and emptied by an iron smelter plant. He was the last one living there in the last house. He spoke of his loneliness since his wife had died; about her. Their past. It sparked the idea for In This House. Both stories deal with responsibility, sacrifice and…love. Love for a mate, for an aging parent, children, and a way of life or the loss of one’s independence that we all in the end have to relinquish in one way or another. Life’s sorrows faced with a brave smile to cover the tears.
I hope the two stories help anyone going through what I was going through in those difficult years. If they do, then the words have done their job.
Written by the author Kathryn Meyer Griffith this nineteenth day of December 2011
A writer for 40 years I’ve had 14 novels and 8 short stories published with Zebra Books, Leisure Books, Avalon Books, the Wild Rose Press, damnation Books and Eternal Press since 1984. And my romantic end-of-the-world horror novel THE LAST VAMPIRE-Revised Author’s Edition is a 2012 EPIC EBOOK AWARDS FINALIST NOMINEE.
My books (most out again from Damnation Books and Eternal Press): Evil Stalks the Night, The Heart of the Rose, Blood Forge, Vampire Blood, The Last Vampire, Witches, The Nameless One short story, The Calling, Scraps of Paper, All Things Slip Away, Egyptian Heart, Winter’s Journey, The Ice Bridge, Don’t Look Back, Agnes novella, In This House short story, BEFORE THE END: A Time of Demons, The Woman in Crimson, The Guide to Writing Paranormal Fiction: Volume 1 (I did the Introduction) ***