The William Cordes Family
By Mary Stone
When William Cordes learned he had only a short time left, he was OK with that. At 86, Bill, a father of five and former Xerox employee, had lived a full, happy life. What did worry him was the work his family had ahead of them: taking care of the increasing demands of his failing body 24/7. To care for him was their wish, not his.
He wrote about that to the volunteers at Hospeace House shortly before his death in April 2022. “The part that bothered me, really made me sad, was knowing that my children not only had to say goodbye to their father, but they would have to take 100 percent responsibility for my care and every need or request,” Bill wrote. “Saying goodbye is going to be hard enough for them. I do believe you know it, and I know it, but they don’t know it yet until they experience it.”
Volunteers at Hospeace House absorb the pressures and worry for families and their loved ones. But even more than that, Bill’s family says, they gave him a life with new friends and connections he formed during the four months he was there.
“It meant a lot to him to have companionship and be able to ‘shoot the breeze’ and have some lighthearted moments,” Daughter Julie Owen says. “He genuinely enjoyed talking to them, which was so important to his well-being by easing his mind and keeping his spirits up.”
When Bill was hospitalized it was Christmas 2021; Bill’s children Julie, Christopher, Lisa, Ted and Michael were planning to care for their dad at home when the logistics had become a rollercoaster. Bill had been dealing with colon cancer for more than a year by that point, but now the end was in sight, Bill opted for hospice care.
The familiar whiplash families must endure began for the Cordes family when the hospital was ready to discharge Bill to a nursing home. The family needed more time to find the best possible placement for their dad. A mad dash to research, find, apply for and secure a reputable institution ensued.
Julie, a director at Heritage Christian Services in Rochester, is an organizer by nature, and like her siblings, is well connected with other professionals in the area. The children leveraged their connections to get recommendations and sent letters to the places they liked best and even found one. To seal the deal, Son Chris Cordes says their dad needed to provide proof of liquid assets in the six-figure range.
Julie and Chris say their father had nearly enough, but how would they break it to him? The nest egg that took him decades to amass would disappear in one fell swoop. They had no choice, they thought. “You're expected to market your loved one almost like they’re going to college,” Chris remembers. “It was the cold calculated bureaucratic health care piece of this.”
At the eleventh hour, Bill’s daughter-in-law mentioned Hospeace House in Naples, NY, where two of her friends had volunteered. The little house on the hill, Chris says, he saw in passing over the years, was going to welcome his father in his final months on Earth. And Hospeace House would do so without any charge at all.
“All you have to do is get him here,” the Hospeace House Director said. It was a relief, but to Chris and Julie, it was no coincidence. The timing was too perfect. Chris calls it a blessing. Their father was going from a cold, institutional setting with rules and interruptions and restrictions to a home. He got to choose his own room. He chose one with a desk and a sliding glass door, Chris says. The contrast was huge: Bill had trouble wrapping his head around it.
Julie says: “The best part of it was when Dad sat down in his room, and said, ‘What are the rules here?’
“They said, ‘This is your home. There are no rules unless you have a rule for us, like not to knock on the door before 7 am.’”
The house became their home for the next four months, and the Hospeace House volunteers became their family, Julie says. Bill ate meals like he used to have at home: coffee, eggs, bacon, toast. He still had a hearty appetite, and his cognition did not decline until his final week.
“From the personal care offerings and menu offerings to the first day when they greeted us at the door, the staff and volunteers at Hospeace House were accepting, accommodating, loving, compassionate, giving and dedicated to my dad’s care,” Chris says.
When Bill moved in, Julie and Chris recall he had trouble accepting all of this care and attention were free. There was a level of guilt for him. So, the checks he would have written to pay for his groceries, utilities and rent, he paid to Hospeace House instead. That was important to him, Chris remembers.
Bill didn’t just die at Hospeace House, he lived, his family says. He turned 87 there; Julie says he was spoiled with cakes, gifts and cards. Volunteers and family celebrated Valentine’s Day, and on St. Patrick’s Day, one volunteer danced an Irish jig while another played violin. Naples Central School students brought items they collected for Hospeace House and visited with Bill. In a 37-second video from the day, Bill cheerfully tells eight of the students:
“It’s a pleasure for me to get up in the morning: The sun is up and to see what’s outside. I want you to know that the people at Hospeace are good people. They just happen to be ill. And we have the good fortune of having your neighbors come in and help us. We like to be able to tell everyone ‘thank you’ because it means a lot to us.”
When we think of the Hospeace House it’s not just a house on the hill where people die, Chris says. There is light there; there are friends and cooking smells, music and laughing, jokes and the sound of basketball games. At Hospeace House, he says, there is life.
When Bill commented that he wished he could visit the nearby farm of Angela–a volunteer at Hospeace House–she decided to bring her farm to him. She brought chickens to his bedroom. They clucked on his bed and poked around. William petted the animals–something he would not have been able to do in an institutional setting, the family says.
During Bill’s stay, the siblings stayed upstairs and made meals in the kitchen as they wanted. They even kept their family dog, Lucy, there. The siblings were free to see their father as they wished–except when he wanted time alone, as he did daily. During those times too, the family could feel at home.
Instead of feeling consumed with the demands of meeting their father’s medical and personal care needs, the family shared memories and experiences, enjoyed long conversations.
Julie thinks, as a traditional man, her father sometimes saw men and women in old-fashioned roles, and thought it might well be for that reason he died the night he did, when the women that night happened to be gone and only the men remained.
Bill passed away on his terms, just as he lived.
“This house has changed all our lives, even some of us that may not know it yet how it changed us,” Bill wrote in February 2022. “The good people that make this possible are what make the world a beautiful place.”