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The Commons
News

Andiamo and Au Revoir

Friends gather to say farewell to a woman who wanted to live — and die — on her own terms

Reporter Thelma O’Brien is among the pool members who said goodbye to Ruthie Clark.

Originally published in The Commons issue #180 (Wednesday, November 28, 2012).


GUILFORD—Recently, an informal memorial took place at the Colonial Motel in Brattleboro.

On Tuesday, Nov. 20, about 75 friends and relatives gathered to honor the memory of Ruth Clark of Guilford, who had died Nov. 1 — two months short of her 90th birthday — at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H.

They gathered at the invitation of motel owner Betty Tyler, also the owner of the Colonial Pool and Spa. Most of the guests were from among the approximately 275 pool members, and Ruthie — who had been one as well for more than 20 years — had an apparent connection to most of them.

At the morning gathering, several guests highlighted her kindness, her warmth, her humor, her cooking, her house, her reliable presence in a certain chair at the spa — all qualities that might accrue to many people.

But Ruthie was different.

How could you tell?

When you read her farewell letter to her friends at the spa — written, say family members, less than two hours before she died — perhaps you’ll see what so many people found arresting about Ruthie.

She had written letters to her three grandchildren and other family members the night before.

She knew what was going to happen to her and she decided to supervise the proceedings, which included reminding her sister to empty out the freezer back at her farmhouse in Guilford, and to be sure to take the zucchini bread.

“I did empty the refrigerator, but I left the zucchini bread,” thinking of others who might be using the house, her sister said.

* * *

Her sister, Greta Shores, who lives in Bernardston, Mass., and her son, David Clark, who lives in West Brattleboro, supplied Ruthie Clark’s biographical details, as well as the medical timelines.

Born in Indiana, Ruthie grew up in Summit, N.J., a descendent of Swedish immigrant grandparents. Her father was a salesman. She graduated from Summit High School and experimented briefly with nurses training, but decided against continuing.

Friends of her parents, the Fords in Summit, had a summer home in Guilford on Lee Road, and soon Ruthie was spending summers in Vermont with them and helping out with the running of what was known as Maple Knoll.

Before long she met John Clark, her future husband. He lived in Guilford and farmed the fields around Lee Road, as well as the land around his family’s farmhouse, some distance away.

Eventually John Clark inherited his family’s farm, and when they married, Ruthie and John lived there.

“It was an old, cold place in winter,” says David Clark.

“When Ruthie became pregnant, she said the farm was too primitive,” her sister explained, “so they rented Maple Knoll.”

They eventually returned to the Clark farm and lived there and farmed and raised three children, a son and two daughters. One daughter died in her 50s of cancer, Greta related. John Clark died in 2002.

For many years during her marriage, Ruthie was a telephone operator for New England Telephone in Brattleboro, according to her sister, who also reported she eventually became an operator at the School for International Training.

Greta also reports that Ruthie was an avid collector of furniture and of objects with which she transformed the run-down farmhouse into a place of great comfort and peace.

Jane Noyes and Bonnie Walker, pool members and friends of Ruthie’s, were there for lunch about two weeks ago and were filled with admiration for Ruthie and for the house and its contents.

“It was so Ruth, just a lovely home, so comfortable,” Noyes said. “You feel as though you’ve lived there all your life.”

Walker also spoke of the sense of the place, the wood stove, the black trivets all over the walls, and the repeated tales of the past. “She told us stories about when she was a young woman and drove a sports car and smoked cigarettes.”

Basically, when you’re there, Walker said, “You are embraced by her, by her home. She’s such an intelligent bright light.”

* * *

An interesting direction that Ruthie Clark took a little more than five years ago was along her path into the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which she cheerfully talked about when anyone asked but was not evangelical about it. She was always open and friendly about her conversion.

The denomination’s doctrine holds that the obliteration of the present world system is imminent and that the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth is the only solution for all the problems faced by humankind.

Christian by choice, the religion’s non-trinitarian beliefs, as well as other tenets, make it distinct from mainstream Christianity.

Her family was once Methodist, but never particularly religious, Shores says. She is perplexed, as are many of her friends.

Some people believe her new spiritual path somehow explains her remarkable behavior on her deathbed.

David Clark says he, too, is bewildered by his mother’s conversion, but, he adds, “Any religion that makes you a better person and makes you live your life better is a good religion.”

* * *

While she had been reasonably healthy most of her life, Ruthie had once been treated for what eventually killed her: a severe circulation deficit that rendered one of her legs immobile. An operation some time ago had failed to correct the problems.

Her family was unaware that she had been experiencing severe pain at the end of October. And then, according to what she told Shores, the pain became unbearable on Oct. 29.

Ruthie called an ambulance and was first taken to Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, then to Dartmouth-Hitchcock.

Her family knew nothing.

Eventually everyone connected.

David went up that night and then returned the next day. Shores arranged to come up Wednesday, Oct. 31, thinking there was plenty of time.

“I remember it was Halloween,” she said. “We had a lovely four-hour visit.” Shores made plans to return the next day.

But an exploratory operation to determine the condition of her circulatory blocks had been done soon after she got to the hospital. Eventually, her leg would have to be amputated.

Tentative plans were made to transfer Ruthie to Thompson House, the nursing home in Brattleboro where she had once recovered. This time, the plan was for her to stay there until she was ready for the amputation.

She recoiled at that plan, and then she told her doctors and her relatives that she wasn’t going anywhere.

“They were keeping her comfortable with morphine and we all thought that tentative plans for the future had been made,” Shores said. “On Wednesday, she told the doctors she was ready to die, and they told her she might be ready in her mind but her body was not ready,”

But that was not the case.

“Her doctors and nurses were stunned when she died on Thursday afternoon,” David Clark said.

“I think she was ready in her own mind, and resolved,” his aunt added.

* * *

During the day, Ruthie Clark wrote the following letter to say goodbye to her friends at the Colonial and to the pool’s owner, Betty Tyler:

“To my dear friends at the Spa!

“I finally landed at Dartmouth and finally gave me the ‘magic bullet’ to erase the unstoppable pain that suddenly hit Monday night. Don’t worry, but do know that if I can’t get to see you, I have no other world to go to except the new world coming (I do firmly hold the Resurrection hope) and I’d rather be sleeping in Jehovah’s memory than [have] no foot! How would I get to see you every day?

“I’ve specifically requested a no obituary, no service cremation, so don’t be offended. I want you to remember me pleasantly and not sadly. I’ve had a good, long run (for a ‘bad actor’).

“You’ve enriched all of our lives, Betty, by keeping open in such hard times, but with your beautiful smile and wonderful Karen and Stefan to help you, you’ll make it. Remember, T.T.T. (Things Take Time) and pages end.

“Andiamo! Au revoir!

“I love you all, but I can’t make [a] list; it would take too long!

“Air kisses. R. Clark.”


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