|Dying With Grace ~ by Maury Thompson
as featured in the Post-Star, October, 2006
Dying with grace
As one local man faces death, he shares his life
|By MAURY THOMPSON [email protected]
Monday, October 16, 2006
Editor's note: Ken Ball was the first resident at St. Joseph's House of Grace, a home for the terminally ill on Henry Street in Glens Falls.
The home provides housing and support services for up to two residents at a time.
Staff writer Maury Thompson met once or more weekly with Ball, and chronicled the 87-year-old man's final months of life.
GLENS FALLS -- On his 87th birthday, Ken Ball didn't have enough wind to blow out the five candles planted in the middle of a lemon meringue pie.
So volunteers at St. Joseph's House of Grace helped him.
"Well, Ken's got four years on me," said 83-year-old Art Lea, one of the volunteers who joined with Andrew Rawding in singing an off-key rendition of "Happy Birthday."
Ken was the first patient at St. Joseph's, a home for the terminally ill on Henry Street in Glens Falls.
The birthday dinner is an example of how staff and volunteers try to make patients as comfortable as possible.
Ken, who turned 87 on Dec. 3, talked about the dinner for days before and for months afterward.
Sitting up in his bed that evening, Ken could hear the clattering of pots and pans out in the kitchen.
"Boy, that ought to be a good dinner. He's working like crazy," Ken said.
Rawding, the whirlwind in the kitchen, is a financial planner by trade, but in his spare time he likes to cook.
When he cooks at St. Joseph's, Rawding, chairman of the home's board of directors, lets patients plan the menu.
"He said to me the other day, 'I think I'm going to have lobster,'" Rawding said. "I said, 'OK, lobster it is.'"
Then Ken had second thoughts.
"Then he said, 'No -- the doctor said to keep an eye on my cholesterol,' so the lobster is out," Rawding continued. "So flounder is in."
St. Joseph's provides housing and support services to terminal patients who do not have sufficient support to live in their own homes.
Ken had lived alone since his wife died in the mid-1980s, then moved into the two-bed renovated facility on Henry Street when it opened in November.
"When they brought me down from the hospital, the ambulance driver didn't know where it was. He had to stop and ask the postman," Ken said a few days after his arrival.
"I plan to stay until spring, and then maybe I can go home," he said.
That goal, by any stretch, was optimistic.
Patients at St. Joseph's are expected to have only three months to live.
Ken stretched his sojourn to nearly 10 months, outliving three other patients who came and passed on in the adjoining room before his death Sept. 7.
Volunteers and staff said Ken taught them about determination and how to die gracefully.
"He almost went along as if life was normal," said volunteer Gene Connell. "But what you could see was a change in his appearance."
The one constant was the smile that broke out on Ken's face whenever someone greeted him.
"I'm getting old. I'm not afraid to die," Ken said the only time in some 40 or 50 visits with a reporter that he talked about death.
The brief discussion came during a Dec. 1 conversation that started with the Iraq War and worked its way into a discourse on religion and the afterlife.
"I think people need to think there is (an afterlife)," he said. "It gives them some hope."
Ken's theological perspective was simple.
"That's about the sum of my religion: I think there's a creator, and I think someone manages the weather," he said. "People need religion because they're running scared."
Ken wasn't afraid of death, and he wasn't in a hurry to find out what happens afterward.
"When it comes, it comes," he said.
Sometimes there were hints of concern, such as the way he would frown whenever someone in the room mentioned hospice.
But if he felt inner turmoil, Ken kept it to himself.
"He said, 'I don't want to dwell on it,' " volunteer Patty Brown recalled last week.
But Ken did several times offer his advice about grieving for her husband who died from cancer, Brown said.
"He'd talk to me about that," Brown said. "I'd run home and write down what he said so I could remember it down the road."
Being at St. Joseph's provided Ken with an outlet for his wit and encyclopedic knowledge built up over four score and seven years.
"He didn't want to sit down and say, 'I'm dying,' and 'Oh my God,'" said volunteer Lisa Morphis, in an interview after Ken's death. "His little stories were his way of reaching out."
Conversations with Ken crisscrossed time and geography.
In November, Ken started out talking about downtown Glens Falls in the 1940s and '50s.
Ken had lived across the street from Roy Wilcox, who managed the Thom McAnn shoe store on Ridge Street, near where Scoville Jewelers is now located.
"He used to tell me in the summer they argued about what night it would stay open, because most of the people that had stores wanted to close," Ken said. "They made pretty good shoes and they weren't too expensive. I don't know if they're still in the business or not."
The conversation shifted to talk about discount department stores and foreign trade.
"You're gonna watch China," Ken said. "It was on TV the other night; they're graduating thousands of engineers. And they've got small towns, like this one town makes nothing but neckties, makes thousands of neckties and sends them all over the world -- cheap neckties. And they're going to start exporting cars and airplanes."
Talking about China reminded Ken of his time in the service with the U.S. Air Force in India during World War II.
"While I was in New Delhi, that general had Chinese soldiers. They were kind of American-Chinese," he said. "They went through New Delhi. Stillwater was his name. General Stillwater, and he had quite an army of Chinese-Americans."
Ken often talked about coffee, which he drank with Equal -- not Sweet and Low, which he said was too sugary.
The poorest-quality coffee beans go into decaffeinated coffee, Ken said he learned from a television documentary.
"Most coffee grows on bushes and it's hard to harvest," he said, explaining how farmers in California were experimenting with growing coffee plants on grape arbors.
A volunteer brought in a cup of Green Mountain brand coffee, sold at McDonald's, for Ken to try, which led to a sequence of taste-testing various brands of gourmet coffee.
"I heard that Dunkin' Donuts coffee is the official coffee of the Yankees," he said.
At St. Joseph's, Ken made new friends and renewed old acquaintances.
"A woman came in last night and I said, 'You look like Mrs. Doty," Ken said one day in December. "And it was Mrs. Doty."
MaryAnne Doty was the wife of John Doty, who was part of the former Tri-county Model Railroad Club Ken organized around 1970.
"It's a beautiful hobby. You have to learn carpentry, electricity -- do a little engineering," Ken said. "The one problem is it's getting a little expensive. But what isn't?"
The club met in Fort Edward for a few years and later met Friday evenings at Mahoney Notifier on Cooper Street in Glens Falls.
Leaders of the club could never remember the code to disarm the alarm on the front door.
"So every Friday night, we set off an alarm to the Police Department," Ken said. "So finally they figured it out: It's Friday night; It's just those crazy railroaders."
The Doty family had moved away from the area in 1971, and only recently moved back.
"I was aghast that he even remembered me from so many years ago," MaryAnne Doty said. "One of his visitors made the remark that every typesetter he ever knew had an extensive memory."
Ken used GI benefits after World War II to get trained as a linotype operator, using the hot lead method.
"What killed us was when offset starting coming in. That was a whole new way of printing," he said.
Freebern Press in Hudson Falls, where he worked for many years, was the only place people called him Larry, so as not to confuse him with Ken Freebern, the owner.
Ken's full name was Lawrence Kenneth Ball.
The same day Ken talked about Mrs. Doty, he showed off an autograph from WTEN television weatherman Andy Gregorio.
"He lives in Glens Falls," Ken had said several weeks earlier. "I don't know what time he goes down in the morning, probably 4 o'clock."
A volunteer recognized Gregorio in the supermarket, and asked for an autograph for Ken, who watched the weather faithfully.
"Channel 10 comes on at 5 in the morning. Well I don't tune in till 6 because every half-hour they keep repeating," he said.
He routinely tuned in again at noon and 6 p.m.
"Then at 10 at night, I watch Fox. Channel 7," he said. "And that to me is the end of the day."
Ken also watched women's college basketball, particularly if University of Connecticut was playing.
"Someone asked me, 'Well how come you watch women's basketball instead of men's?'" Ken said, going on to answer the question.
"I said, 'Well, men play for themselves. Women play for the team.' ... I guess it's women's nature. Women are more clannish than men. I don't know what you call it, sisterhood or what."
Mimi and Frank Shields, volunteers at St. Joseph's, heard Ken talk about the lady Huskies.
Their son, the athletic director at Connecticut College, got them in touch with the UConn sports information director, who provided a photograph of the team, autographed by all the players.
The Shields gave it to Ken on Christmas.
"They could have knocked me over with a feather," Ken said. "That's the best gift I could ever have."
In January, volunteers took down the Christmas tree in the living room and set up a card table to hold jigsaw puzzles.
As the weeks and months went on, Ken continued to talk about spring, even as his complexion steadily lost color.
"Spring can't come too early for me, because that's when I'm waiting for to go home," he said in early January.
On Feb. 1, he said, "I've been sleeping a lot lately. I guess it's a defense mechanism to pass the time."
On Feb. 26, Ken laughed as he talked about the time the cooks ran out of beef when he was stationed in India during World War II.
"And the British wanted us to eat some of their mutton, and our commanding officer said, 'No way, Americans aren't going to eat mutton. And I agreed with him," Ken said.
"As cuisines go, I don't think the British have good cuisine," he continued. "I think the Italians have the best cuisine, and the Germans have some good dishes. The Germans do some good things with cabbage."
Ken said he wanted to go out to eat at the Heidelberg restaurant in Queensbury when he went home in the spring.
On March 7, Ken said weather forecasts were starting to look favorable.
"Maybe the day after Easter -- maybe I can go home," he said.
On March 25, he talked about geese sightings.
"Somebody was in the other day and they said they saw two flocks, and the one flock they couldn't decide who was the leader. They kept switching back and forth," Ken said. "A lot of people call them Canadian geese, and that's wrong. They're supposed to be called Canada geese. -- It's just a technicality."
Ken was excited about spring.
"I don't know for sure, but I think I'm going to try to go home after Easter," he said. "Yeah, I'll be glad to get home -- like the old saying, 'There's no place like home.' ... It's not definite, but that's what I'm shooting for."
Ken was upbeat on April 9.
"I had a pleasant surprise this noon," he said. "Someone brought in some turnips. I've never had turnips before, and I came to find it was a pretty good vegetable."
Easter came and went and Ken stopped talking about going home.
Volunteers planted tomato plants in a window box so Ken could watch them grow, bear fruit and ripen.
Birds were chirping outside Ken's window on April 20, and he talked about the squirrels running around in the yard.
It appeared the strategy of gardeners from Warren County Cornell Cooperative Extension worked. When they planted a perennial garden in August 2005, they selected varieties that would attract butterflies and hummingbirds.
On May 27, Ken said, "Even on television, about all I watch now is Yankee baseball."
On June 11, he was about to watch another Yankee game.
"I think they're going to play a game at 1:15 or 1:30, so I'll tune in," he said. "I used to be a Boston fan years ago. Then, for several years, I wasn't anybody's fan."
On July 3, Ken talked about watching Independence Day baseball games at Derby Park in Hudson Falls in the late 1940s.
The Whitehall Pachyderms had a standout player.
"Oh gosh -- when I want, my memory fails me," Ken said. "I think the name was something Sinclair. I think he was supposed to try out for the majors. I think they called him Bubby Sinclair."
Other teams were the Glens Falls Merchants and Glens Falls Commodores.
Ken said he wasn't sure if the Commodores were sponsored by a restaurant on Warren Street in Glens Falls of the same name.
"Quite a popular restaurant as I recall," he said. "There wasn't a specialty like Italian or anything. It was just a good restaurant."
The mention of Italian food led to a discussion of the origin of pizza, which led to discussion of how spaghetti originated in China, which led back to Ken's military days in India.
"We were told, 'Don't eat in any Indian restaurants, but you can eat in the Chinese restaurants,'" he said. "The medics would go and inspect the restaurants, and the Chinese were the only ones that passed."
GIs liked Chinese food.
"It was mostly noodles, and their prices were right. The GIs didn't make much money," Ken said.
The noodles were fried to a hard consistency, similar to pretzels.
"The Chinese made up kind of a stew with the celery and vegetables. As soon as you put it on the hard noodles, it would soften them up."
In mid-July, he added another television show to his daily routine.
"See weekdays, I watch Judge Judy, but she's not on Saturdays," he said. "Some of them try to slip something by her, and she cuts them down to size."
Conversations through the summer continued to revolve around current events, history and the Yankees.
On Sept. 1, Ken looked up and smiled, as usual, but did not talk long.
"Well, is today the first of September?" he asked, and commented about the Yankees before drifting back to sleep.
"He's starting to separate from us now," said Brown, the volunteer. "We'll go into the room and he'll say, 'Don't you have something to do?'"
On Sept. 4, Ken looked up and smiled, but was too weak to speak.
He died Sept. 7, just a few hours before this reporter stopped to visit.
Volunteers were a few pieces short of finishing the third jigsaw puzzle since January.
Staff and volunteers cleaned his room and left it empty for a week so volunteers could go in and grieve.
Volunteer Lisa Morphis, sitting in the empty room, smiled as she recalled one day when she was wearing high-heeled shoes that made a clattering sound every time she walked around the house.
"He looked at me and said, 'If you wear those shoes one more time, I'm going to take them out and burn them.'"
A month later, volunteers had bonded with another patient, yet tears welled up in Brown's eyes as she spoke about Ken.
"You can't say, 'Oh, I'm never going to get close again.' -- Wrong!" she said.
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