My sister Barbara (Lehndorff) King passed away March 3, 2017, from an aggressive brain tumor. I still am coming to terms with it. As readers of this blog may remember, Barb and I were very close. She was my big sister. Nine years older than me. Barbara was the fearless one who traveled the world but who was by your side when someone was sick or had trouble. She made innumerable trips from Reno to be with my parents when they were ill and for the big occasions in life. Barb took on legal guardianship of my brother Paul when he was not getting medical care for his epilepsy. Barbara and my niece took the legal steps to protect him.
She came here several times, when Kathy was failing from Huntington’s Disease and when she came home from the hospital after a bout with pneumonia. As recently as October Barb flew to New York to hear me perform at the Bitter End. She was barely able to walk after her hip replacement surgery, but she was fearless.
On the one hand, I shouldn’t be surprised at all. Barbara had a lot of physical problems and issues. She had weight issues; was pre-diabetic; her hip surgery resulted in a chronic infection. She was in constant pain. She had sleep apnea but refused to use her mask.
But she was always sharp. Until she wasn’t.
There were little signs of cognitive problems. I always figured there were plenty of other excuses. She was a Lehndorff. She was 75. She was in a lot of chronic pain and that would distract anybody from doing some necessary things. But her house was getting really messy. She was forgetting to pay certain bills. She was losing her iPhone and was losing the ability to operate it. And her driving was chaotic (to be kind). Recently she showed up at a friend’s home to return something she had borrowed. When the friend opened the door, Barb was standing at the door. But her car was parked in the middle of the lawn. On the other hand, she was working at the University of Nevada as recently as early December.
In December she decided to visit a friend in Florida for Christmas. The next thing we heard she was in a hospital there with horrible leg and back pains and swelling in her legs. There was a suspicion that it might be related to the chronic infection from her hip surgery last year. She was able to fly home but her doctor arranged to have her admitted to the hospital in Reno just to see what was going on. He used terms like failure to thrive. That was confusing to me. They used that term with Kathy when she couldn’t eat or get nourishment.
When Barbara got home from Florida the heat was off. She had forgotten to pay the electricity bill for the second time. The next morning her daughter, Nicole found her asleep in her running car, trying to keep warm. The hospital did testing, but I think it was mostly on her legs and back and released her. But it was obvious that she couldn’t live in her house by herself anymore. A search was begun for a retirement setting for her to move to. A friend tried to help Barbara figure out her bills and paperwork. Her son Morgan took over her finances and bill paying.
Everything happened fast. She gave up her dog, Nellie and stopped driving. She moved out of her house and into a retirement apartment place in Reno. And tried to adjust to life there. She had a few good days. Many friends came to visit. She complained about the food, but that was almost a good sign. During this time it was almost impossible to call her. Her phone either wasn’t charged or her mailbox was full. You couldn’t leave a message. I would send a text message but get a blank text in response. Again, I could rationalize everything. Even sleeping in the car: Kathy and I had to do that when our power went out for a week. And I figured the pain and meds were preventing her from doing paperwork and bills.
In January when I did get in touch with her, she asked me if she was “Losing it?”
She said, “I’m only 75, and Mom was 90 and sharp.”
Even in the assisted living place, she was having issues. It was a long way down the hallway to the dining room. And she was struggling with her walker. She had one of those emergency call button pendants. But she was often pushing the button as if it was her personal butler, ” I can’t find my phone!” Or “Could you help me find my charger.” She also fell a few times. Around February 10, they thought she needed a higher level of care and should be moved into a nursing facility.
So, in mid-February, after another fall, she was brought back to the hospital to evaluate whether she needed to go to a nursing facility. That was when they told Nicole and Morgan that Barb probably had a stroke or heart attack at some point. I was thinking, “Well that explains everything.”
Barbara was moved to a different part of the hospital. On February 20 they did a scan and found the large tumor in the middle of her brain. Treatment and surgery were discussed. I think there was a surgeon in San Diego that had experience with that type of surgery. But the prognosis wasn’t good. I heard that it might give her a year. And she most likely would be unable to talk or walk. Barb and the kids decided that she would rather pass away surrounded by friends and family in Reno and try to enjoy her last days.
On February 22 she was moved into palliative hospice care at the hospital. Bringing her home was no longer an option. Since she had committed to moving into assisted living, her house was cleaned out and on the market. We were advised to come sooner, rather than later. I found the earliest flight on SouthWest. There were offers of places to stay in Reno with friends, or cheap rates at hotels.
On Thursday, February 23, I got Marty checked out by his vet and made arrangements for him to stay with our dog sitter, Joanne. I had also tried to resume fostering basset hounds with New England Basset Hound Rescue and had a basset hound mix named Droopy living here. I started making arrangements to transfer him to another foster home. When I called Barbara’s son, Morgan to see how she was doing, they were in her hospital room. He said let me see if she can talk. Barb got on the phone and I told her I was coming. She asked me if I needed help getting out there. I told her I’m doing okay.
Then as I was talking to Morgan, she started singing:
“So long, it’s been good to know you. So long, It’s been good to know you. So long, it’s been good to know you….”
We sang together for a bit. She remembered more of the lyrics than I did, tumor or not.
Nicole and Morgan sent out the word that she was enjoying chocolate milkshakes and any kind of chocolate with nuts. Later that day she woke up suddenly and told the people in the room, “Live life with gusto!” That was the last day she was responsive. I was never able to speak to her again.
Friday, February 23, I finished up some work and notified my clients that although I was out-of-town I had my MacBook and all my files. So, I could continue working. Friday morning I drove Droopy the foster basset to a parking lot in Westfield MA for the transfer to his new foster home. I felt bad because he was such a sweet dog. Funny looking but sweet. And almost house broken. Oh well.
Saturday, February 25, I brought Marty went to Diana’s Pawfessional Grooming for an early morning appointment. The main issue was really getting his nails cut. In the afternoon I delivered him to Joanne with his food, medicine, and instructions. By 3:30 I was on my way. I left my car at one of the self-park lots that ring Bradley Airport. The last time I went to Reno (after Barbara’s hip surgery) I looked into cab or limo service. It turned out it was more expensive to get to the airport from Hampden than the actual round-trip flight. I haven’t checked on Uber, though.
The flights were fine on Southwest. To Denver. Then to Reno. Barbara’s friend, Susie met me at the airport and we went to the hospital. I would be staying at her house. Barbara was comfortable and not in any pain. Morgan and Nicole had already returned to their homes to regroup, recharge and get some clean clothes. Connie, another friend of Barbara’s was spending the night by her bedside. It was something she wanted to do.
We were encouraged to eat chocolate. The closet in her room was full of the chocolate with nuts Barbara had requested.
I’ve lost track of the days. What I did. Who was there, and when. Barbara had touched the lives of so many people in Reno and everywhere. One of my jobs was to limit the visitors and commotion in the room. I also kept an eye on her pain. If her brow looked furrowed. Or she started trying to move around, that meant she was in some distress or would be soon. There were a few occasions when she started coughing and choking on saliva. The nurses were able to get her a scopolamine patch and Atropine drops. I had used both with Kathy. The difference was I was just a monitor. The nurses did all the nursing.
Susie had a classical guitar that her dad had given her, so one day we went to a Guitar Center and picked up a set of strings. She was planning to take guitar lessons and I offered to put strings on it. I brought the guitar with me to the hospital and played and sang to Barbara. She had taught me to play guitar when I was about 11 or 12. There were certain songs that she really liked of mine. But it was impossible to tell if she could hear it but I didn’t think it was bothering her.
One afternoon a musical therapist came in and asked if we would like to hear some guitar and singing. We said sure. It was very relaxing. She sang songs by James Taylor and John Denver. She had an iPad where she could look up the lyrics to many songs. I even played a little backup. It was an interesting experience and distraction. Barbara also had visits from a therapy dog and even her own dog Nellie came and jumped into her bed to snuggle with her.
Connie was staying overnight. On typical days Susie would leave me off at the hospital. There were plenty of friends volunteering to stay with Barb. My brother John, his son Hans; and my sister Lisa all arrived from Colorado on Sunday. My niece, Azalea had arrived before me from Alberta, Canada. I also managed to do some graphic work while I was there. There was no pressure from my clients but I wanted something to do anyway.
There were plenty of laughs, too. We had mini celebrations with her friends to tell Tales of Barbara and offer toasts to her. Morgan and Nicole got back to Reno on Tuesday or Wednesday for a few days in between snow storms. We started talking about ideas for a memorial service and where and when to have it. It was hard on them. Some stressful times were followed by apologies to the nurses. The nurses were great and understanding. “If it were my mom, I would do the same thing.”
It seems like every time a hospice nurse would check her they would say, ” It should be soon.” It was different from when Kathy was in hospice. For one thing, Kathy had a feeding tube before entering hospice care. So she was getting food and liquids. But toward the end, if I had known she was ready to pass I would have turned it off. Barbara had stopped getting any food or liquid the week before.
During the dying process, as the body is shutting down it needs less and less nutrition and fluids. Getting intravenous fluids causes more discomfort. Barb kept hanging in there. Because she had sleep apnea her breathing was quite irregular. Sometimes there were very long pauses where it seemed like she had stopped breathing. Then she would start again. Some were feeling that she was suffering because she was still alive. But she just wasn’t ready.
We started to talk about whether Barbara needed privacy to finally let go. We started leaving her alone more often. Finally, very late Friday night March 3, Morgan received a call that she had passed away. I got the word by email and text. Connie had gone to the hospital from her place in Carson City and cleared out Barbara’s things. There was a suitcase, and many photos and plants. And a few gifts and memories. We ate all the chocolate. Barb wold have liked that. A celebration of her life is planned for April 2nd in Reno.
Here is her obituary that my brother John helped write.
Barbara Alice (Lehndorff) King
Barbara Alice (Lehndorff) King of Reno NV passed away March 3 at Renown Medical Center Hospice in Reno after a short struggle with brain cancer. She was surrounded by family, friends, and love in the weeks before her passing.
She was born March 22, 1942, in New Haven, Conn. to Rose Mazzola Lehndorff and Peter G. Lehndorff, M.D. Barbara graduated in 1959 from St. Bernard’s High School in Fitchburg MA. She received her Bachelor’s degree from Boston College in 1963, graduating Cum Laude. She earned her Masters in English Education from the University of Florida in Gainesville in 1979.
She was Emeritus Director of Academic Support Services at the University of Nevada, Reno. Barbara’s passion was in helping all students achieve success in their academic lives, most especially those challenged by disability or socio-economic hardship. She made annual trips to Japan to recruit international students on behalf of the university. In 2010 she was honored for her notable achievements at the annual ‘Honor the Best’ ceremony at UNR.
Barbara also taught at schools in Florida, Massachusetts and in Belgium. An avid globetrotter, she traveled the world for work, community service, and adventure, visiting countries in Africa and in Europe, as well Japan, Nepal, Thailand, and Turkey.
Barbara married Tom King in 1969 in Fitchburg MA. She is survived by her daughter, Nicole King and grandson Nate King, Berkeley CA; son Morgan King, daughter-in-law Leah King and granddaughter Frida King, Arcata CA; brother Peter Lehndorff, Hampden MA; brother John Lehndorff, Lafayette CO, and nephew Hans Lehndorff, Portland OR; sister Lisa Lehndorff, Lafayette CO; nieces Azalea Lehndorff of Calgary AB; and Sarah Porretta of Phoenix AZ. Barbara was pre-deceased by her parents, and by her brother, Paul Lehndorff.
A celebration of Barbara’s life will take place 10 a.m. to noon April 2 in the Great Room, Joe Crowley Student Center, University of Nevada-Reno. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests making a donation to the Heifer Fund. Leave memories at the Barbara Lehndorff King Facebook page. To honor her memory, follow Barb’s advice: