Mary Heath Sweet

Last Update: 24 February 2017

In 1992-94 we made three audio cassettes of Mary Heath’s life from her birth in Avoca, Iowa, up to her move to San Francisco about 1930 and then from 1934 to 1938. Sadly, we never recorded her experiences in China from 1931 to 1934.

My mother, Mary Sweet, died on 15 July 2003. Click here for her obituary. She had been in declining health for some time so her passing was expected; however, it came more suddenly than expected due to a fall on the 7th, which resulted in a broken hip. The hip was repaired but at her age and condition she was unable to make a recovery and died quietly in her sleep three days after being transferred from the hospital to a nursing home.

There was a memorial service in Monterey on Sunday afternoon August 10 at the Highland County Public Library. A brief description of the service appears at the bottom of the obituary page. The program handed out at this service can be downloaded here. [173 kB]   It is a PDF file, for which you need Adobe Acrobat Reader on your computer and linked to your browser. This is a bi-fold program so the two pages should be printed back to back and then folded in the middle. All of the photos on exhibit at the service are posted here in the Photo Galleries — see the links at the bottom of this page.

Recent History

Mother moved to Monterey from Arlington, where she had lived for many years, in 1991, two years after her sister died. She loved the city and she was still living independently but she had become less able to get around to do things and I worried that she had no one really close by to help her if she needed it. My wife, Char, and I live in Mustoe in Highland County, highlighted on the map at right. Monterey is the county seat, eight miles north of us. It has a population of 240 and lies in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains at 2900 feet elevation. She had a garden apartment in a three-unit building just off Main Street. For six years she remained independent. She had a housekeeper every other week but she did all her own meals and everything else. We drove her to the city for shopping but she could walk to the Post Office, bank, library and several stores, all within a few blocks.


The photo shows Mother on the front porch of her apartment with her cat, Roamer, in August 1999. She was in apartment 3, the number just visible beside her bird feeder. Her front room window is behind the tree limbs at right. She could sit at this window to watch the birds and squirrels as well as the comings and goings of neighbors.

In 1997, at age 91, things had begun to change. In May she stubbed her toe and broke two bones in her foot. Two weeks later she suffered a fractured vertebra and spent ten days in the hospital followed by three weeks in a nursing home and two more weeks in recuperation at our house before going home. She still needed some help so we hired Jeanne Reedy to come in four days a week to cook supper and prepare things ahead and Harriet Whitelaw to help her with personal care. They have been with us ever since. Jeanne’s duties grew as Mother became less capable on her own.

The big change came in fall 1999. Mother fell several times, amazingly without serious injury, and she became much more anxious when she was alone, especially if Char and I were not right at the end of a phone cord. She had been a nervous person all her life and had taken occasional light doses of tranquilizers to reduce the stress. When her anxiety increased, Dr. Billingsley changed her medication and then increased the dose. After Thanksgiving we hired another lady to help. By early December Char and I took turns staying with Mother at night to prevent falls when she got up to go to the bathroom. By mid-December we had hired more help and were on 24-hour watch. She continued to deteriorate. I don’t believe any of us thought she would live to see the New Year.

By January 2000 Jeanne had become “Chief of Staff,” supervising seven or eight other ladies. Mother rallied then relapsed. Her anxiety grew and required more medication. In late February Dr. Billingsley consulted with a geriatrician at the University of Virginia and a doctor friend of Char’s. The consensus was that her medication was likely to be doing more harm than good. We started her on BuSpar, which has been either a miracle drug or a remarkable coincidence. Her anxiety was held in check and the confusion and disorientation from which she suffered all winter vanished. She was still not physically strong enough to get around reliably on her own so we maintained our 24-hour watch. However, 2000 passed without noticeable decline, even with the shorter days of winter, which often trigger depression in the elderly.

Looking back it is hard to say exactly when the high point of recovery from her 1999 illness occurred. Her condition remained fairly stable from mid-2000 through much of 2001 but began to deteriorate thereafter. Anxiety began to grow again and some dementia set in. She read less, did not watch TV or work on her crossword puzzles very much and rarely talked to her friends on the phone. She was simply taking less and less interest in her life and her surroundings. She could still walk around her apartment and even take short jaunts outside using her walker as long as one of her helpers was right there to catch her if she faltered.

She declined slowly through 2002 and by early 2003 we knew we were just marking time but, since her vital signs remained robust, we had no idea how much time. In late June her decline became more dramatic. Until then she could be more or less counted on to ring her bell when she wanted to get up if her helper was out of the room. I had warned her on numerous occasions that if she got up alone she would likely fall and break something, which would put her in a nursing home or worse. Instinct now seemed to be taking over from rational thinking so there were several instances where she started to get up without calling for assistance. I was just starting to confront the problem, trying to decide how to control this activity, when she did exactly what we all feared. On Monday July 7 her helper carried the breakfast dishes to the kitchen and came back to find Mother standing up, reaching for her walker. Before the helper could reach her she lost her grip on the walker and fell onto her left side.

Surprisingly, she did not seem to be in severe pain but she was unable to communicate so we were unsure if anything was broken. We called the Rescue Squad to take her to Bath County Hospital. X-rays showed a fracture of the femur just below the ball in the hip joint. She was transferred to Augusta Medical Center that afternoon and on Tuesday they did a hip replacement operation. The operation went fine but, given her age and condition, her prognosis for recovery was 50:50 at best. She was transferred to The Springs Nursing Center on Friday. She was barely conscious and had eaten practically nothing since the operation but she rallied slightly on Saturday. She ate a little and we talked on and off for nearly an hour, some of it nonsense but some quite clear and rational. Sunday and Monday saw no improvement. On Tuesday morning at 0600 the nurses reported she was sleeping quietly and by 0625 she had stopped breathing.

This is not a time for grief but rather a time to celebrate her long and useful life. Her burdens have been lifted and she is in a better place. She had many fine accomplishments, mostly in service to others, during her life and was disabled only for the final years. A few years ago Donald McCaig wrote about the passing of the oldest resident in his section of Highland County. In closing he said, “Every community is a gathering place moving through time and when Uncle Peewee died, we lost what he knew but we never thought to ask him about. His humor leavened us. We lost that too. With the death of our last nineteenth-century man Williamsville has moved entirely into the twentieth century and the ex-Confederates Peewee knew so well have slipped farther back into the darkness.” Mother’s life spanned nearly a century and we, also, have lost her memories.

Letters & Photos

Mother’s 1999 Christmas Letter was actually written in January 2000, at the depths of her illness, and mostly tells the middle part of the story laid out above.   [html format]

Mother’s 2000 Christmas Letter primarily updates her condition but hits a few other highlights.   [html format]

Much belatedly I have posted Mother’s Christmas letters for 2001 and for 2002. Both letters are PDF format. You must have Adobe Acrobat Reader installed on your computer to see these files.

There is an archive of the notices we posted about Mother’s health in 2000-01. I have left it here for historical completeness but is unlikely to be of much interest anymore.

Photo Gallery 1 contains ten photos taken in Iowa between 1907 and 1925.   [240 kB.]

Photo Gallery 2 contains seven photos taken between 1929 and 1940.   [143 kB.]   This gallery is deficient and should be expanded.

Photo Gallery 4 contains eleven photos taken between 1945 and 1990, while Mother was living in Arlington and Falls Church.   [254 kB.]

Photo Gallery 5 contains ten photos taken in Highland County,VA, between 1992 and 2001.   [260 kB.]

Photo Gallery 6 contains seven photos of friends and relatives taken between 1981 and 2000.   [200 kB.]

Photo Gallery 7 contains 23 photos from the memorial service and the exhibit at the Highland County Library, 10 August 2003.   [535 kB.]

Photo Gallery 8 contains 35 photos of Mother’s glassware and other items.   [540 kB.]

The photos in all of the above galleries are low-resolution copies suitable for the web. If anyone would like higher-resolution copies of any of these so more details can be seen, please contact us. We will be glad to send out anything we have, by e-mail for an item or two, or on a CD.

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