Waltraud Raule Joyner, 1943-2018

My mother has passed, aged 75 years.

The Joyner clan, circa 1972

My mom, Waltraud Joyner, died yesterday afternoon from a combination of illnesses. She was 75.

She has seemingly always had health problems but lived a reasonably active and happy life until the past few years. She had fluid retention issues literally as long as I can remember, requiring her to be on diuretics. Ditto thyroid problems, which were likewise treatable. She had uterine cancer circa 1972, requiring a partial hysterectomy. By sheer happenstance, my dad was on Army recruiting duty in Houston at the time, so she was treated at M.D. Anderson, one of the finest facilities in the world. She was diagnosed with diabetes upon our return from Germany in 1979. This, over time, led to a variety of related ailments, most notably glaucoma (treated with surgery), nerve damage, and extreme swelling of the lower extremities. Over the last decade or so, she’d developed congestive heart failure, requiring both a pacemaker and open heart surgery to repair a leaky mitral valve. Her breathing was labored, ostensibly requiring her to be on oxygen, but she stubbornly refused to comply most of the time. She was afflicted with gout. And her kidneys slowly failed, such that she was on dialysis at the end–probably two or three years after she should have started. There are probably a half dozen ailments I’m forgetting.

She had been in and out of hospitals and rehabilitation facilities for the last few years. The combination of overlapping diseases was bad enough but she often refused to follow the protocols, thus compounding the problems. In particular, while the post-hospitalization stints in rehabilitation facilities got her strength back up, she quickly returned to an insanely sedentary lifestyle.

It was in many ways understandable. The complications from diabetes made it harder to get around, as she had lost quite a bit of sensation in her feet. And the congestive heart failure and kidney issues compounded that, contributing often substantial swelling. So she tended to spend her days and nights in a reclining chair in the living room. But, of course, the immobility compounded the other issues and contributed to obesity, which in turn made movement even more difficult, creating a vicious cycle.

Her penultimate hospital stay began Thanksgiving weekend and lasted almost a month. She was released to rehab late last week and seemed in much better spirits when I talked to her by phone the next morning. But she was only semi-coherent when I talked to her Christmas Day. She crashed that night and was rushed back to intensive care. Her friend and caretaker, Wanda, called me around 10pm to let me know she was back in the hospital but that there was no need to hurry down. I talked to her nursing staff around 530 the next morning, got mixed reports, and made the 12-hour drive down. I was able to talk to her neurologist, who said she had suffered damage to the middle brain from oxygen deprivation and, upon prodding, was candid that the prospects for recovery were essentially nil. Contrary to the instructions in her living will—but perfectly understandable given emergent circumstances—they had put her on a ventilator. I made the grim call to take her off early yesterday morning and the rest was just waiting for nature to take its course.

I’ve written much more here about the circumstances of my mom’s death than in my dad’s remembrance almost nine years ago. Sadly, though, she had lived with them long enough that her illnesses began to define her and even change who she had been.

Because I was both the only child and married late, I spent most holidays with my parents and visited often, particularly when I lived within a reasonable driving range. I moved to the DC area in 2002, got married in 2005, and had my first child in 2008, so we gradually shifted to trading off visits, with them coming my way more often. In the last year or so of Dad’s life, he couldn’t make the trip and we did our best to get down there. And, once he passed, Kim, Katie, and I went down every three or four months for a while.

A few months after dad passed, Mom had to have open heart surgery. Because Kim was pregnant with Ellie and Katie wasn’t yet 2, they stayed behind. The surgery itself went smoothly; indeed, better than expected because they were able to repair the valve rather than replace it.  The recovery seemed normal enough and she went from ICU down to a regular bed. I was getting ready to head back up to Virginia when things took a drastic turn for the worse and I had to fight to get her re-admitted to the ICU. Thankfully, she was soon stabilized and made a strong recovery.

Had we lost her then, at 67, it would have been tragic in a way that it wasn’t eight years later. She was still reasonably vibrant and merely an older, somewhat less healthy version of who she had been.

The next year was life-altering, with the birth of my second daughter in June and the sudden death of my wife in November. Aside from the normal changes one expects from those events, it made getting down to see my Mom next to impossible. The drive is too far to make with very small children, especially alone, and the combination of flying with them to Atlanta, juggling them while I rented a car and installed car seats, and driving another two hours to my Mom’s house was rather too much.  For a couple of years, Mom and Wanda would drive up our way every few months but it soon became too much for my Mom to endure. So, we were reduced to the weekly phone call and annual visits, usually in mid-summer.

Somewhere along the way—I think it was while Dad’s health was declining—she began cutting people out of her life. While the Joyner clan was never the most gregarious, she had always had some relationships. We moved into the house in Alabama in November 1980, making it by far the longest she lived anywhere. She had built up friendships with a couple of neighbors, a fairly large circle she called the German Ladies (fellow spouses and widows of retired soldiers who likewise hailed from Germany) with whom she had regular coffees and Bunko games, and a couple longtime friends from previous stops in Dad’s career with whom she maintained long-distance relationships via telephone.  She had always been one to hold grudges and cut off relationships based on slights that struck me as insignificant. But by the end, she just didn’t want to be bothered. While one would think she would have wanted the human interaction, she was down to Wanda and me. She enjoyed seeing her granddaughters and talking to them on the phone but they didn’t really know her very well.

Her final years were a sad caricature of old age. She sat around in her recliner watching Fox News, giving her such a distorted view of what was happening in the world that she was genuinely shocked when Mitt Romney lost. When she wasn’t watching news, she usually had it on QVC. A woman who had always been reluctant to spend money on herself was suddenly buying tons of crap for which she had no use and, indeed, didn’t use. Her house is packed with unused dishes, gadgets, and tchotchkes. About the only joy she had otherwise was televised sports, particularly tennis and Alabama football. The latter, at least, gave us something other than her ailments and the grandkids to talk about.

It wasn’t always that way, of course.

She grew up in a suburb of Mannheim, West Germany. She was the fourth of five children born to Wilhelm and Luise Raule. Her father, known as “Opa” (grandfather) even to his kids since well before I was born, was a semi-skilled laborer. Her mother, “Oma,” was a housewife. Theirs was a “mixed marriage,” with him Catholic and her Lutheran; this was apparently a big deal in 1930s Germany and it took some doing to get permission from the parents to marry. Overall, it was by all accounts a reasonably happy childhood, if one without much money.

My mom was working as a clerk at the PX on the base in Mannheim when she met my dad. They married in September 1964 and moved stateside the next year. She was due to become an American citizen on November 16 but my birth postponed that for a month. She adjusted as well as could be expected to her new surroundings—a new country and a language with which she was far from fluent and a rather hateful mother-in-law—but they would soon be reassigned to Germany again. After a year or so, Dad got orders to Vietnam and we stayed behind with her parents.

We moved quite a lot, although perhaps not by Army standards. Upon Dad’s return from Vietnam, he got orders to Houston for recruiting duty and he liked it enough to get an extension on that job, which was then followed by two years of junior college on the Army’s dime. So, we were there from 1968-1975. Next, it was a year in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri and then three years back in Germany, this time in Kaiserslautern. That gave us a good chance to reconnect with her family, which was a good thing because Opa would pass shortly after we returned stateside. We lived a year and a half in El Paso, Texas, where we planned to retire, until the Army decided to move us one last time. We settled in Jacksonville, Alabama, a few miles from Dad’s last duty station at Fort McClellan.

Among her fondest memories was having her mother over to visit us twice shortly after Opa died. If Oma had ever been out of Germany, she certainly hadn’t been on an airplane before, much less another continent. She had a blast the first time, still quite spry and able to experience all manner of Americana. She was a bit more feeble the second trip but still enjoyed herself.

In many ways, I think Mom defined herself by Dad’s and my achievements. While she maintained a life of her own, she was first and foremost a wife and mother. Once I had moved out and began my career in earnest, she grew impatient for grandchildren. I would be 43–making her 66—by the time I delivered on that.  By contrast, I graduated from high school on her 41st birthday.

Perhaps because she had moved so far away from home, she never resented my being unable to visit more often. We kept in touch by phone weekly but, while she never stopped worrying about me (in particular, she was anxious for me to remarry after Kim’s passing) she never wanted to burden me with her own health issues.  I frequently tried to get her to move up my way, where she could not only see her grandchildren more readily but also get access to far better quality healthcare, but she was settled in her ways and didn’t want to leave her house.

I’ll miss her terribly and it’ll be odd, indeed, for 10 o’clock Saturday morning to roll by and not call. I wish she had lived longer. But I especially wish she’d lived more of the life she had in those final years.

Mom and baby James late 1965/early 1966

Mom and me circa 1976

Mom, now an “Oma” in her own right, with the girls shortly after Ellie’s birth in 2011

FILED UNDER: Obituaries
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. SKI says:

    So sorry, James. May her memory be a blessing and a comfort.

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    RIP.

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Also want to say, it’s tough becoming an orphan, no matter how old you are. Hold tight your daughters, James.

  4. Kathy says:

    Sorry for your loss, James.

    Your mother’s last years sound a lot like my father’s last years, including some of the same ailments, and repeated hospital stays.

  5. David M says:

    RIP, I’m sorry for your loss

  6. DrDaveT says:

    Not gonna try for anything insightful or deep here, James. Sincere condolences, and best wishes going forward for you and yours.

  7. Mister Bluster says:

    My sincerest condolences to you and your daughters and the family.
    May she rest in peace.

  8. Stormy Dragon says:

    Sorry for your loss.

  9. gVOR says:

    Sincere condolences. And thank you for sharing some of your life.

  10. dennis says:

    Condolences, James.

  11. Chuck says:

    Prayers for your family. December is turning out to be a bad month for parents. We just lost my mother in law last week too.

  12. Slugger says:

    Deepest sympathies. Her spirit and goodness have a permanent place in your heart.
    Love the photos especially the first one. She looks beautiful.

  13. The Q says:

    James, sorry for your loss my good man. I choked up reading your intimate remembrance. I know it’s not easy losing both parents and your best friend.

  14. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Deepest sympathies.
    I lost my mom a few years ago.
    I understand your pain.
    My thoughts are with you and yours.

  15. EddieInCA says:

    Dr. Joyner,

    Like you, I lost my wife way too early. I lost my father about 4 years ago. My mother, aged 84, is still with us, fortunately. My sincere condolences to you and your family.

  16. Grumpy realist says:

    Sincere condolences. One of my best friends died a little over a year ago of similar health complications (and at far too young an age.)

    Thank you for the details of your mom’s life.

  17. Michael Reynolds says:

    Condolences. That’s a tough hit to take.

  18. Todd says:

    As we get into our 50s we know that call is going to come one day, but we’re still never quite ready for it. I’m so sorry for your loss.

  19. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    My mom passed away about a month after I returned from teaching in Korea for 8 years. We’d last seen each other the past summer, so I had good memories of her to go with the passing. My condolences to you and your children.

  20. Gustopher says:

    I’m sorry for you and your family’s loss, James.

  21. Monala says:

    I’m very sorry for your loss. It’s never easy, even when it’s not unexpected.

  22. CSK says:

    My deepest sympathies.

  23. Ol’ Nat says:

    Oh dear! Prayers and condolences.

  24. moosebreath says:

    Deepest sympathies, James.

  25. JohnMcC says:

    Very sincere condolences. And very parenthetically, respect in large buckets for following her living will. My dad’s death demonstrated to my family the difficulty with that.

  26. So sorry for your loss.

  27. Franklin says:

    Thank you for the interesting window into her life. I’m very sorry for your loss.

  28. James Pearce says:

    Condolences. That was a great memorial, too.

  29. MarkedMan says:

    Condolences, James.

  30. grumpy realist says:

    (Just to give a shout-out to everyone to please, PLEASE make sure you have a living will AND a will and testament. My friend died intestate and it’s been a lot of extra aggravation and expense we’ve had to deal with–plus, his money is going to people he didn’t intend it to. I’ve heard of cases where both parents have suddenly died in accidents and their children get whisked away to a different country because that’s where the closest blood relatives are, even though there are people locally who are emotionally far closer to the children. So fellow commentators–please don’t assume everything will work out–please prepare “in case of the asteroid hitting you”. )

  31. SC_Birdflyte says:

    My family’s deepest sympathies are with you. May your experiences be similar to ours: as the near-term memories of your mother’s last days fades, may nothing be left but the warm glow of her love, living forever in memory.

  32. Modulo Myself says:

    My condolences, James. And thank you for the well-written, honest, and loving memorial to your mom.

  33. becca says:

    So sorry for your loss, James.

    My mom is 89 and brain damaged from a stroke several years ago. In many ways, we lost her then.

  34. SenyorDave says:

    My deepest sympathies. I lost my mom two months ago, and we were very close. I still forget occasionally and think about giving her a call.

  35. Joe says:

    Condolences

  36. Blue Galangal says:

    I’m so sorry for your loss. It’s so difficult. Hugs to you and your family.

  37. Bob@Youngstown says:

    Expending our sympathy for you and your family.

  38. steve says:

    Condolences James.

  39. Bill says:

    My deepest condolences.

  40. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    I just hope that everything gets well for you and the girls, James.

  41. Hal_10000 says:

    So sorry for your loss, James.

  42. PJ says:

    So sorry for your loss.

  43. Kari Q says:

    I’m so sorry for your loss, James. She was almost the same age my mother was. Mine died a few years ago, and I still think about her and miss her so much.

  44. Sleeping Dog says:

    James, sorry for the loss of your mother. You will always have her in your memory.

  45. dmhlt says:

    Thank you for sharing.
    May all the fond memories of your Mom be a balm in your time of sorrow.
    Requiescat In Pace

  46. Crusty Dem says:

    James, very sorry for your loss. My mother had been ill for many years before she passed, knowing what was coming didn’t stop it from being a difficult time. Take care.

  47. al Ameda says:

    Too young James, too young.
    Thank you for sharing her story.
    I wish you peace and good health.

  48. Scott says:

    James, so sorry to read about your mother. Mine passed away a few years ago. I find that memories have a way of editing themselves leaving some very pleasant ones. Just make sure you talk to your girls about their grandmother often and pass those stories down. Even the little details count. They will appreciate it when they’re older.

    Again, our hearts are with you.

  49. mattbernius says:

    My condolences James. My thoughts are with you and your family.

  50. Barry says:

    I feel for you, James. I went through a long decline with my mother.

  51. Lit3Bolt says:

    Her absence will hit you hard. I’m sorry that she is no longer present in your life, and your children’s. I know you’re being strong for them and I….sorry…needless words, but necessary, be strong for yourself and your children. And yourself. Good fortune.

  52. Marjolein Noyce-Bellinga says:

    You wrote a lovely memorial, honest and reflective and filled with love and some longing. My deepest condolences, no matter what age you are being an orphan is a big difference.

    I miss my mother (my father died when I was a kid, my mom 10 years ago), but I also am sad that my kids don’t have a grandmother and will never know a person I so appreciate and love. I think your memorial will provide them with a solid framework for the memories they have and a sense of roots and belonging.