The Smell of Death

When I was about eight years old, my parents turned our 19 room house into a private rest home for elderly women.  My mother named the home after herself: The Fran Kogut Rest Home.  The private rest home business in those days was competitive and insidious.  A lot of people who opened private homes were not always the nicest people and did it for reasons of greed.

My mother grew up taking care of people and in the running of her home, would not turn anyone away regardless of what they could aford to pay.  There were many times the Department of Social Services would call her and beg her to take someone whom they couldn’t place anywhere else and my mother would always say yes.  Because of my mother’s amenability to help out and not turn anyone away, the DSS was constantly assisting her with additional beds, food, clothing, money, coverage, ambulatory items, expediting paperwork, inspections and being at her beck and call.  I remember once that they asked her to take an additional two ladies but my mom didn’t have the beds (and was over her legal limit on how many people she could take) and the next thing we knew, two new hospital beds were delivered.

My Mother wanted her rest home to have a family atmosphere.  The living room and dinning rooms were large and we all shared the same space.  Despite having their own TV’s, most of the ladies converged wherever everyone else was.  We had two large outdoor decks and a very pleasant sun room.  The ladies were welcome to help cook and clean and they were free to leave the building provided they were ambulatory and let us know where they were going.  

Mary, for instance, loved taking the dog for a walk or going up into the 200 acre fields behind the house to pick flowers.  Most of the ladies were content remaining in the house and just socializing with one another.  Stacia didn’t know where she was and was constantly wanting to go home.  My mother would put her in the car, drive her around the lake, pull into the driveway and tell her that she was home.  Stacia would thank her, go inside and proceed straight to her room.  

Both my sisters subsequently opened their own homes to elderly people.  One sister eventually started a visiting nurse business and had up to 19 employees.  The other sister purchased three houses next to one another and converted those into assisted living space.  Caring for others has always been in my family’s DNA.

Growing up with dozens upon dozens of elderly women was like having 15 grandmothers at one time.  Consequently I saw a lot of death.  Working in the church, I saw a lot of death too and had at least one funeral each week.  I also witnessed a lot of these elderly women yearn and pray for sweet, sweet death.  They were in pain, tired or alone.  I sat by the side with many of them as the moment occurred and it was always a beautiful event.  Equally beautiful was telling the family (if they cared) that I was there and it was peaceful.  It was always a comfort to them knowing that their loved one did not die alone.  All this death has taught me not to take anything, any time or anyone for granted.

My mother had a unique gift; she could smell death.  She told me that when a person was dying and their body was shutting down, the  body would give off a distinct odor.  She would often invite me to go into the bedroom of one of our residents and say goodbye or sit with them because she was going to either die that morning, in a few days or within a few hours.  My mother was never wrong and was very accurate.  

Since I’ve been around death so much, I don’t fear it.  That is why I would not hesitate to bungee jump, para-glide or jump out of an airplane.  What’s the worse that could happen, I die?  That’s inevitable.  I may as well enjoy every ray of sunshine, every drop of rain, every pull and challenge of gravity and, love and serve every leper in my path until that day (but, don’t bungee jump with lepers).

We humans don’t require much to survive or to be happy. We crave stuff, money, more stuff, Facebook, other peoples’ stuff  and a false sense of freedom.  None of that is important.  I challenge everyone to take a sabbatical and live in an ashram for six months and not only discover what you don’t need to be happy, but when you leave, to then occupy that new found stillness with things and people who are truly  important.

One of my mother’s favorite songs was “Others,” as sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford. While ushering her into new life, I softly sang it to her, as she did to me many times while growing up.
–Malcolm Kogut (and buy a junk car so if you get a scratch on it, you won’t care).


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