Standing beneath a tree on Memorial Drive in 1968, Ann McGlinchy told Fran Grady she couldn’t marry him. “I have too many relatives to be responsible for,” she told him. But Fran — a social worker who shared Ann’s passion for good works — said he could handle it.
“We joked afterwards he had no idea what he was getting himself in for,” Ann said, sitting in the cozy kitchen at her Codman Square home on a recent morning.
It fell to Ann, the only child in her branch of a sociable, outspoken, Irish Catholic family, to take care of her aging relatives. By the time they get to her age, 69, many people have seen one or two elderly relatives to the ends of their lives. Ann has been partly or wholly responsible for nine — her father, mother, four aunts, an uncle, and two cousins.
She has packed up their houses, dispatched their belongings, moved them into assisted living, and executed their wills. She has been a witness to their joys, regrets, strengths, and very human weaknesses.
It began in her twenties, when her Aunt Betty started leaving the gas on in her Queens apartment. Ann coaxed her into assisted living. “She wouldn’t talk to me for two years,” Ann said. Betty died in 1977.
Ann’s father Frank knew his daughter had her hands full with her three children, so he urged his two aging sisters, Anne and Kath, to move to Massachusetts so Ann could care for them more easily when the time came. (Frank stayed on his beloved farm in Connecticut until the end — which came suddenly, in 1984). Like all McGlinchys, Anne and Kath were firecrackers — and Catholic Worker types, big readers, and theater buffs. They left New York for Carleton-Willard Village, in Bedford, where they found kindred spirits.
“The loss of that independence is so difficult,” Ann said. “The grace with which they gave it up is extraordinary.”
But as the women succumbed to illness, grace yielded to pain. “You’re going to see a side of me I never wanted to show,” Kath said, after a stroke left her unable to speak, and angry. She died in August 1989. Her sister died in December. “Nan the nun,” Ann’s first cousin once-removed, was “a radical” and role model who seemed utterly at ease in the world. Before she died in 2011, Nan was stung by regret, about her painful relationship with her mother, and her conflicts with her dear sister Mary.
Through all of these endings, Fran had been by Ann’s side, just as he’d promised beneath that tree decades earlier. But then the order of things was upended, and Fran became very ill. He died of cancer long before his turn, in October of 2011.
“I can’t believe I outlived Fran,” said the last of Ann’s charges, Mary Ekstrom. Mary, Nan’s sister, was a free spirit and world traveler. “You’re going to meet Nan,” Ann told her April 18, the day she died. “I hope you’ve buried the hatchet.”
What has Ann learned from these journeys?
No secrets: The McGlinchys who had them took them to their graves. How important it is to own assets to pay for assisted living. And how vital it is to have community: Ann takes pains to point out she did none of this alone, that her husband, her father, her daughters, other relatives all helped.
She worries about people who don’t have her family’s resources, or proximity. Members of her father’s generation lived within 150 miles of each other. Her daughters are scattered across 3,000 miles.
She has prepared as best she can for her own end. But she has seen enough to know not to expect control. “This is not something you can write a script for,” she said.