Saturday Night Genealogy Fun: What Memories Do You Have of Family Sickness or Death?

It’s a rainy weekend here in Tucson. It’s been raining all day, which is really unusual as normally it showers for a while and stops. It is time for Randy Seaver’s weekly Saturday Night Genealogy Fun challenge. the somber theme meshes well with the dreary weather outside.

1)  What memories do you have of family sickness or death?  Tell us about one or more of them and how the family dealt with it.

With only two aunts, an uncle, two cousins, three living grandparents, my own parents and a brother being my only close family members growing up, I don’t remember any serious illness and no deaths until 1968.

As always, my parents, brother and I spent a couple of weeks each summer with my grandparents and Aunt Barbara on Little Sebago Lake in Maine.

August 1968 was no different and I had no idea that would be the last time I saw my grandfather, Vernon Tarbox Adams (1899-1968).


Vernon Tarbox Adams, 1964

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary that summer when we said goodbye and made the long road trip back to New Jersey.

Grandmother phoned Mom in mid-November to tell her that Grandfather was in the hospital. Doctors thought he had had a stroke.

Mom decided to drive up to Massachusetts and took me with her.

Grandmother said that she had begun to notice something was a bit off with Ducky, as she called him, in early fall. I don’t think I ever knew the details of what she meant, but he got significantly worse and his doctor had him admitted to the hospital.

Even though a stroke was the official diagnosis, Grandmother wasn’t very sure about that for a very good reason. Grandfather seemed to be getting worse every day even though medical tests showed no stroke activity.

Doctors finally said they didn’t know what the problem was and Grandfather remained as a patient in the hospital in declining health.

Although I was 16 and old enough to visit hospitalized patients, Mom vetoed the idea because no one was sure Grandfather wasn’t contagious either, although it seemed unlikely.

Mom stayed with Aunt Barbara and Grandmother while I stayed with Aunt Carole and her family, not far away.

To this day, I can hear the telephone ringing one evening at Aunt Carole’s. I think it was probably Mom calling to say that Grandfather had passed away.

Grandmother was a very no-nonsense type of person and she was determined to find out what had happened to Grandfather so she insisted on an autopsy.

After it was completed, U.S. Navy doctors came calling on Grandmother. (Grandfather was a WWI Navy vet.) They asked her many questions about Grandfather – his occupation (manager at Western Union in Boston) and any and all kinds of differences in his behavior that she could remember over the previous few months.

She answered everything to the best of her ability, but was very curious – not many families have Navy doctors make personal visits when a family member dies.

I don’t remember how long it took before Grandmother received the official diagnosis – at least a couple of months, I think – but it explained the medical interest in Grandfather’s final illness.

Grandfather died on Pearl Harbor Day – 7 December 1968 – of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, defined as ” a rapidly progressive, invariably fatal neurodegenerative disorder.”

Grandfather was only the third diagnosed case in the 20th century, hence the medical interest.

In 1986, there was an outbreak of CJD, but by that time it was called Mad Cow Disease!

Grandfather was a wonderful man and I have many loving memories of him. His life was cut short by CJD. He only enjoyed 4 years of retirement and didn’t live long enough to see any of his grandchildren even finish high school. In fact, the other grandkids were still in elementary school, but at least old enough to have their own memories of him.

His decline happened so quickly – in a matter of weeks – that there wasn’t much for the family to do except gather together and try to keep on top of medical news.

That’s it for this week’s SNGF. Thank you to Randy for this week’s topic.

5 thoughts on “Saturday Night Genealogy Fun: What Memories Do You Have of Family Sickness or Death?”

  1. Wow, what an interesting story. Good of your grandmother to be so insistent about the diagnosis.

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