Helen Payne
The Story of Helen Payne (Part Two)
Wednesday, November 5th All Things Considered

Host Linda Wertheimer concludes the two-part documentary, focusing on Mrs. Payne’s final weeks of life: a family picnic organized at the end of the summer, and her family’s reaction to her rapid decline. We talk about grief - and coping with the loss of the woman who was primarily responsible for holding a vibrant family together - and the toll her care took on her daughters.

You can read the transcript:


ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST: And I'm Robert Siegel.

This week, we're spending time thinking and talking about death and dying. We've heard people talk about improving the quality of life at the end of life, but obviously death is not a concept. It's a sad and painful, sometimes terrible, reality.

We've had the opportunity to look closely at that reality because of the extraordinary generosity of one family. The family of Helen Payne agreed to share their experiences during this past summer, while Mrs. Payne was dying.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: Helen Payne died the last week in August at the age of 81. She had leukemia, a kind of cancer which destroys the body's capacity to produce healthy blood cells. When she was diagnosed, she was not expected to live very long.

Helen Payne surrounded by some of her daughters
(from bottom left) DeeDee, Marylee, Glenda, Missy and Carolyn

Her six daughters and her daughter-in-law made plans to care for her at home, which was her wish, and tried to prepare themselves for her death. But then, Helen unexpectedly felt better. For a time, the leukemia stood still. The family began to hope.

Her doctor, Anthony Felice, told us then that it's difficult to provide an accurate timetable for a fatal illness.

DR. ANTHONY FELICE, ONCOLOGIST TO HELEN PAYNE: You think someone's going to progress in a particular way based on the national history of the disease, but the bottom line is not everybody does that. You're expecting someone to die, to have a demise over the course of time, and it's not happening, and actually she got better.

And I mean, that's good, but I think what the family also has to deal with then is they prepare themselves for the end of life and you're kind of waiting and you're waiting and you're waiting and it's not happening. And it becomes emotionally distressing, too, because you're then in a state of limbo.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: The person who felt that most strongly was Glenda Crabbe. The daughter of her mother's first husband, Glenda took on the major responsibilities for Helen's day to day care. She was also the advocate -- questioning the doctors, coping with Medicare, checking prescriptions, making decisions, signing documents. It was, as Glenda said, hard.

GLENDA CRABBE, DAUGHTER OF HELEN PAYNE: I don't know how to wait on nobody to die. I really don't. If she dies, I'm OK with that. But just to see her, you know, be so sick, and then still be here.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: When you prepared yourself for this experience, did you prepare yourself for it to take this long?

GLENDA CRABBE: No, no I didn't. No, I did not, and I shouldn't even not have prepared myself.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: Glenda was her mother's choice to take over her role in the family in future. Helen's matter-of-fact designation of a successor was also a signal to her children that she wanted them to be ready for what was coming.

And the magnitude of that coming loss was never far from their minds. The youngest sister, Dee Dee, who left a job in Houston to come home to Virginia and help, talked about Helen.

DEE DEE PAYNE, DAUGHTER OF HELEN PAYNE: When I was in Texas, I found this while I was looking through one of my notebooks.


It's a rough draft, so I hope I can read what I've written: "I remember my childhood watching you work hard to make life easier for me. I remember you making a home out of a house -- houses -- condemned. I heard you outside in the chill of the morning chopping wood to make a fire, so that the house would be warm when I got out of bed. I heard you singing in the kitchen and the smell of food cooking to feed me. I saw you come home tired from working all day every day, to ensure we had money to meet our needs."

"I believe while I was sleeping, you were up praying. I know now how when I complained about the shoes I wore and my clothes being hand-me-down or out of style, that I really had a hidden treasure -- a treasure more valuable than brand name materials. I know now that clothes will either out – I will either outgrow and/or fashion will continue to change, shoes will become old and worn, but love is from everlasting to everlasting."

"You represent the tree by the rivers of waters bearing fruits of the spirit of God. I glorify God in his infinite wisdom that created love and called it 'Mother.'"

So, she's just -- she's just been a wall all our lives. That's why it's going to be really hard.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: Helen's blood counts continued to be good, but then a mysterious pain appeared in her back almost overnight, immobilizing her. She was hospitalized, but after a few days she came home. Her doctors could not diagnose her pain without surgery. The family said "no" to that, and the doctor agreed.

Antibiotics didn't help much. That left managing the pain, with a pump delivering continuous doses of intravenous medication, and that made all the difference.


HELEN PAYNE, MOTHER, GRANDMOTHER, GREAT-GRANDMOTHER: I'm feelin' – with the pains and things, my back is a lot better, a lot better. I just thank Him every morning I get up. I just thank the Lord that I can get up, do for myself, dress myself, go into church Sunday.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: You know, you talk about how you thank the Lord every morning when you wake up that things are going as well as they are.


LINDA WERTHEIMER: But when you got those heavy-duty warnings that you had leukemia and it was very dangerous, I wonder if you thought about how you'd want to spend the last months of your life, and if that thinking has changed?

HELEN PAYNE: The doctor can't determine my death. No one knows that but God and me. I just feel like when my time come, I just ask Him to let me lean my head over and go on to sleep. I've been promised a home.

He told me I already had -- my name was always, already written down in the Book, on high. I, sometime I think I'm seeing all the people right now, 'cause they in my dreams so much, and I believe this is the way you're gonna see your family.

Now week before last, I even jump by my grandmother, and she's been dead umpteen years.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: Do you think that you're dreaming about your family because of this illness and...

HELEN PAYNE: I do. I think that way, I do. Because I never done that before, but it's every night, I'm with one of them -- either my mom, my dad, my husband, my sister Blanche, and I'm always -- we are always cleaning and cooking, cleaning and cooking, getting ready to go to church.


'Til sometimes I hate to go to sleep, 'cause it -- I wished I could dream about something else to myself.


LINDA WERTHEIMER: This was a strange time for Helen Payne's family -- a time of hope and dread. On the one hand, they took their cues from Helen, who was feeling relatively well. On the other, she told them in many ways that her time was short. They agreed to do nothing further to prolong her life – no more transfusions; in fact, to do nothing more than manage her pain.

In these circumstances, this family did what they often do: planned to get together -- a family picnic at sister Joyce's house in the country.


When we arrived mid-morning, the badminton net was up, the horseshoe pitch measured, the kitchen was filled with food, and the barbecue was standing ready. Helen Payne was holding court under a shade tree, seated on a wing chair brought out from the living room.

UNKNOWN: ... me, oh, oh they were buying those up at...


HELEN PAYNE: Yeah. Now, you know it. Now take them things, throw 'em right in the trash can.

UNKNOWN: Y'all, it's the -- there has to be a certain...

LINDA WERTHEIMER: Arriving grandchildren kissed her and put their babies in her arms -- "the greats" as she called her 40-some-odd great-grandchildren. One granddaughter, coming from out of town, had a new baby and an album of wedding pictures to be admired.


GRANDDAUGHTER OF HELEN PAYNE: This is in Nassau, Bahamas and...

HELEN PAYNE: Oh, look at that.

GRANDDAUGHTER: ... July the seventh was the date we got married.

HELEN PAYNE: That's nice.

UNKNOWN: Ain't that nice?

GRANDDAUGHTER: Oh, it's such a beautiful place. We enjoyed ourselves.

HELEN PAYNE: I know you did.



Dateline: Linda Wertheimer, Washington, DC; Robert Siegel, Washington, DC

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