An Epilogue to Wednesdays with Dorothy
"A Year to the Day"
There may not be a specific time needed to complete grief work, but we often think in terms of one year to come to terms with our loss. Within that year, of course, there is an initial time of intense grief followed by the ebb and flow of varying degrees of emotion. There are periods of intentional remembering and then there are moments in which a memory may be evoked by an event, a place, a conversation, or a simple object such as a cup of coffee. Sometimes it is a seemingly coincidental encounter.
Just this week I was in a meeting at the hospital where I work. One of the supervisors at the hospital approached me and asked, “Didn’t you have a friend that you visited on our unit in Palliative Care?”
“Yes,” I answered, and then told him a little bit about Dorothy.
“Now I remember,” he said to me, “I read her story when she was on the unit. I was so moved by what that dear lady had been through. I remember she had a lot of friends from her church who came to visit. How was it that you knew her?”
I recounted to him how I had been with the St. Andrew’s Foundation for 12 years before I moved into the nursing field, and how it was during those years that I came to know Dorothy. I went on to tell him of my regular meetings with Dorothy to record her life story. That conversation and that chance encounter took place on April 16, exactly one year after Dorothy’s death.
A Therapeutic Endeavor
When I first began “Wednesdays with Dorothy” my purpose was to share her story in her own words. I knew I would share a little bit each week. Beyond that, I had no plan as to how long the series would take. I would simply share a little each week for as long as it took to tell her whole story. I had no idea at the time that I would bring the series to a close right on the heels of the anniversary of her death.
It was like an inner prompting. I knew that it was time to start sharing her story on my blog and so it was that on August 15, 2012, “Wednesdays with Dorothy” was launched. Being able to wrap it all up exactly a year after her memorial service (April 18, 2012) is an added confirmation that it all fell into place just as it was supposed to.
A Witness to the Realities of Social Services
It has certainly been therapeutic for me to recount Dorothy’s life on these pages. I hope it has been meaningful to those who have followed along each week. My first intention was to share the voice of one who had witnessed an important time in our history so that others could hear from a different perspective. Dorothy’s testimony gives us a view of how our society has handled mental health treatment over the years. There were the years in which the mentally ill and the handicapped were warehoused behind the closed doors of institutions. We were able to hear, for example, Dorothy’s eye-witness account of what life was like inside Partlow State School and Hospital. Her account was much different from the glowing reports that Dr. William Partlow gave in public during the very time that Dorothy was institutionalized.
Dorothy’s life also coincided with the move toward de-institutionalization brought about by the Wyatt vs. Stickney decision in the federal courts. We were able to hear what she thought of the process of moving from the institution to the community. We heard what she liked and what she did not like about that transition. Above all, we were left with no doubt about the fact that Dorothy herself longed to be free from institutional life and loved her experience of having her own apartment in the community.
There were times when “the system” failed her. First there was the institutional life that took advantage of her higher functioning abilities within that population and kept her confined without the opportunity to realize other possibilities. There was the brief jubilation of freedom from institutional life as the State Mental Health Department was forced to comply with the federal court order to move residents to greater levels of independence. There was also the reality, in some ways as harsh as institutional life, that there were simply not enough resources in the community to serve everyone with mental health needs. If Dorothy had had to rely solely on mental health services where case workers are stretched with incredible case loads, her life in the community would not have been so successful.
Dorothy managed to keep an informal support group of friends in the community and at her church who helped her as she patched together her own system of services. The latter part of her life further symbolized the shortages of social services offered. She was moved out of the division of Mental Retardation/Developmental Disabilities with the State Mental Health Department when she “tested out” of the mental retardation classification. The good news was that she had some case management services that allowed her to continue to live in her apartment. The bad news was that when it looked as though she would need more services, it meant getting onto a waiting list at a time when she needed immediate help. Fortunately for Dorothy, she had her network of friends to see her through during her final days. Any parent of an adult child with disabilities can tell you that waiting lists are long, and services offered are few. We have gone from neglecting the needs of patients warehoused in the institution to unfortunate shortages of services in the community.
A Personal Milestone
My remembrances of Dorothy have also given me opportunity to recall my own life-changing encounters. When I began my work at the St. Andrew’s Foundation, it was a definite turning point in my life. My work in the group homes was a time to re-focus and to see things from an entirely different perspective. It enabled me to get off of a dissonant vocational track and to spend some time at a slower pace. I was able to learn some important lessons about life from people who live with disabilities.
I have told people that my job as Program Director at the St. Andrew’s Foundation was the best job I ever had – it was the best job in the world as far as I was concerned. I was in the middle of the life of St. Andrew’s parish, I was involved in meaningful social ministry, and I was working with people with whom there is no “putting on airs” – you have to be totally real and down-to-earth. I grieved when the time came for me to move on with a nursing career, but I knew at the time that I needed to make the move into another field in healthcare. Times change and the job that I saw as the best in the world does not even exist today since the the supervision of the group homes has been passed to the ARC of Jefferson County. The St. Andrew’s Foundation served its purpose in its time, and I am proud to have been a part of it.
With my continuing friendship with Dorothy, I was able to stay in touch with that life that I had learned at the St. Andrew’s Foundation. Dorothy and I shared that memory of life at the group homes, and we shared an on-going friendship.
"All Things Must Pass"
I don’t like the term “closure.” I’m not sure we do ourselves any good with the notion that we can close one chapter or event in our lives and keep it in some kind of box while we move on. I believe we widen our circle as we go along, dispensing with nothing, affirming everything that has occurred. At the same time, I realize that everything changes. There is an impermanence to things that we must learn to accept. By telling the story of Dorothy Faye Burdette in “Wednesdays with Dorothy,” I have been able to let some other people know about her life and the things she endured as a person with disabilities. I have been able to celebrate the ministry of the St. Andrew’s Foundation. I have also been able to affirm a period in my own life that saw a restructuring in my personal philosophy of living. I will not close the lid on any of that, I will just acknowledge the passing of an era and look forward to what lies ahead. Though a life has come to an end, the ministry of St. Andrew's Foundation has passed the baton to others, a personal career has long since gone and new experiences have come into the field; I will try to hold the memories dear while I continue to widen the circle.
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