Going Out with Style

For Libby Yocco, preparing for death included a postmortem coiffure by a loving granddaughter

Jun 14, 2000 at 4:00 am
Lisa Bonstell-Harris finishes her last client, round-brushing the woman's hair with a blow-dryer, tousling it with her fingers. She tames an unruly curl with a spritz of hair spray and snips a renegade strand, gradually working her magic and putting it all into place so that the result is perfect. Lisa dusts the client off, removes the cape. With the air of a goddess, the woman traipses to the cashier. It has been a good day at the salon, Façade Ltd., across from the St. Louis Galleria. Lisa's book is heavy this day: 15 heads cut and styled. Some receive a blow-dry -- that's extra. She doesn't do coloring, facials, waxing, manicures or massage. Those are all done in different departments; the salon is specialized. Lisa is strictly a hairdresser and has been for 14 of her 32 years, longer if you count the high-school years when she did hair for friends and family before going to beauty school.

At 5:30 p.m., she leaves her station and packs her things, and she's gone. The 27-mile commute gives her time to switch modes, from the chatty milieu of the upscale salon to the semirural setting of her home in St. Peters, quiet except for the excited cries of the two little boys as she walks in the door, "Mommy! Mommy!" Husband Ryan, who picked up the kids from daycare and arrived home an hour earlier, already has dinner on the table.

Thursday, her day off, Lisa drives a few miles down Highway 94 to Harvester Road. She makes a left turn and soon pulls into one of those condo villages with the pastoral-sounding names. She grabs the two boys, Kaelin and Tysen, from the minivan and raps on a door. A woman, 30-ish, her sister, lets them in. Off the living room, in a cheery room with one window looking out into a backyard, the old woman lies bedridden. She's dying, the congestive heart failure and colon cancer gradually sapping the life from her. With the help of two kinds of morphine, she patiently waits. She has the vocal talents of Engelbert Humperdinck, Natalie Cole and Placido Domingo to keep her company, the TV to watch. She has her bell to summon family members from elsewhere in the home, her condo in which she once moved freely but now lies captive. Feeding tubes, oxygen tubes and a catheter assist bodily functions, protract existence. At 81, her mind is sharp, but her body is brittle and consumed. Any time now, any time. "It's been a full life," Nana whispers. "I've enjoyed it. God's been good to me. I'm ready anytime He wants to call me. I hope it's sometime soon."

The last time Libby Yocco left the prison of her bed was February 1999, when she took a turn for the worse and the family called 911. The doctors said her condition was too delicate for any invasive procedures. After a brief stay in the hospital, she returned home to languish. The last time she went out when she actually wanted to go somewhere was October 1998, to attend granddaughter Suzanne's wedding. At that time, family members began dropping in daily, spending daylight hours with Nana. Since the 911 call in February, the family, by shifts, has been physically present around the clock. The primary caregivers are Roseann and Paula, Libby's only two daughters. Their older brother and his wife help out on weekends, the six grandchildren occasionally -- in all, some 10 people have banded together to support the woman who has been the center and the guiding light of the family, la capitana.

"I really appreciate my family," says Nana from under the covers. "I feel like they are sacrificing so much for me. Not many families would do this."

Sitting bedside, granddaughter Lisa pooh-poohs this comment: "Oh Nana, as if you never nursed any one of us through colds and flu, measles and chickenpox. So go on with you."

Long ago and not so far away, Libby Cusumano enjoyed walking through the aisles of the downtown Famous-Barr, checking out the latest styles, imagining herself in a new dress with her set of friends at the band concert in Fairgrounds Park, perhaps, or the theater. That was a swell time, the live stage shows at the Ambassador and Loew's State theaters. For a 25-cent admission, you could see some great shows -- Eddie Peabody, the comedic banjo player, might be there or, better yet, that cute Ginger Rogers. Libby's girlfriends were fun, but she really liked the company of Joe Yocco. It was no secret she was sweet on Joe, who had always lived across from her in the mostly Italian neighborhood just north of downtown, on Eighth Street between Cass Avenue and O'Fallon Street. They went to Patrick Henry grade school together and later attended O'Fallon High, though Libby dropped out after one year to work at Max Scholer's, a factory that made women's belts. Later, she would move on to Haaf Olive to work as an olive packer. Her family needed the extra income, and she was glad to do her part.

It was the Depression. Money was scarce, but at least Joe had a job as a driver with the old St. Louis Star-Times newspaper. Libby and Joe and others from the neighborhood enjoyed recreations that were easy on the pocketbook. Old pictures show them on picnics, swimming. In 1941, the young couple got married. The war looming, Libby got a job at a munitions plant in the converted Continental Can factory on Kingshighway. By the time Joe was drafted, they had a child on the way. In the Army, Joe drove a half-track, and he saw action on Normandy Beach during the D-Day invasion. With a Purple Heart and other medals, he came home to a grateful wife and a 4-year-old son who had learned to walk and talk while he was off fighting the Germans. Joe got back into the life, landing a job as a manager for St. John's Liquor -- "He sold it," says Libby proudly, "but he didn't drink it" -- and Libby could finally settle into the role of housewife.

"When Dad came home, she never worked anymore -- she stayed home and raised all of us," recalls Roseann Bonstell. Time passed. Joe and Libby had Roseann and Paula. They moved from the old neighborhood to Bellefontaine Neighbors. There were weddings, baptisms, First Communions, confirmations, graduations and more weddings. The family proliferated to the current tally of seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, with two more on the way. In 1986, Libby lost Joe to cancer. Seems like every family has a bugaboo, and for the Yoccos it is cancer. There is cancer on both sides of the family.

Her body an autumn leaf barely hanging on the bough, Nana, if she has her druthers, will go as gently as possible into that good night. But cancer and congestive heart failure don't let one ease into eternity as if putting on a comfy old pair of slippers. By the end of June 1999, Nana is having a tough time. The vomiting is increasing, her catheter is giving her trouble and her kidneys are shutting down. She slept in fits and turns. Even the morphine wasn't bringing the relief it once had. She has been resigned to pass on for several months now. "I thought it was going to be fast," she proclaims, "but it's not."

Well, if the Reaper was going to tarry, an invalid such as Libby might as well make the best of the time at hand -- to reflect, to say goodbye, to shore up certain unfinished business such as the tablecloths. When she was well, Libby had embroidered fine linen tablecloths for each of her granddaughters. Each one was different. The five granddaughters each picked a design, and Nana began her work, creating beauty out of needles and threads and nimble movements. Although Libby fell ill before the youngest granddaughter's tablecloth was finished, she was determined to complete the task. Debilitated as she was, she set to it. The strokes weren't as deft, the stitches took longer, but, says Paula, whose daughter received the linen, "she sewed and sewed until she got it done." Her daughter, says Paula, "thought it was beautiful and will always treasure it."

Despite Nana's insistence about being ready to go -- she jests that "God may have forgotten about me" -- Lisa thinks she's holding on for a reason, the imminent birth of two great-grandchildren. Maybe so. Mark Twain was born during the 1835 visit of Halley's Comet and said he would die on the occasion of its next appearance; he was true to his word. And for whatever reason, St. Catherine Laboure predicted as a young woman that she would never live to see the year 1877; she died Dec. 31, 1876.

Yet die we must, and in anticipation of the inevitable, certain arrangements have been made. Visitation will be held at Stygar Funeral Home on Mid Rivers Mall Drive in St. Peters. Burial will be in Calvary Cemetery -- beside Joe. Nana will wear the pink dress that she wore at her granddaughter Christina's wedding. Lisa will do her grandmother's hair, just as she has been doing it these last 14 years. That postmortem cut-and-style will seal a pact made when Lisa was a high-school senior. "Fifteen years ago I made a promise to my grandfather," says Lisa. "The family would put me through beauty school, and while I was learning, they would pay me to do Nana's hair, but once I got a paying job it would be free haircuts, basically forever."

The deal came to include gratis coifs not just for Nana but for the entire family. One recent "day off" was spent doing cuts and coloring for a parade of friends and relations. Lisa says she doesn't mind.

When Lisa was in eighth grade, a friend of the family opened a salon. Lisa's mom was the receptionist. "Us kids liked to hang out there, and one day my sister wanted her hair cut. Kim, the salon owner, didn't have time to do it, so I did it and everyone loved it, and I knew then what I wanted to do." During high school, she practiced on a coterie of family and friends, never straying from her aspiration. "I was smart in school -- I was in the National Honor Society -- and my teachers were having a fit because I was going to beauty school instead of college. I graduated in 1985, and I took the summer to have fun, but when everybody else went away to college, I started LaPlante School Of Hairstyling." After a few short term jobs, she landed at Façade. That was 10 years ago.

It won't be the first time Lisa has done the hair of a decedent whom she knew in life. She has also done her cousin Tony, a friend's mom and her Aunt Vita. With Vita, who passed some 10 years ago, the funeral home was reluctant at first. "We had to tell them it was one of her wishes," says Lisa. The funeral home relented and let her come into the preparation room with Vita. "They didn't want me in there alone," she recalls. "They were afraid I might break down emotionally, so they sent an embalmer in there with me. It was the first experience I had, and it was kind of neat, though it was bizarre how they had her set up -- that I only had to do the top and the sides of the hair because the back would be on a pillow." The embalmer, says Lisa, gave her some pointers, "how careful you had to be using curling irons and blow-dryers, which could burn the skin and leave marks because it is difficult, the body's fixed, there's no normal give-and-take.

"I felt like it was something I could do for her, like a gift," says Lisa. "You see people (in repose), they don't look like themselves, because their hairdresser didn't do their hair. It was nice to look in there and know she looked like herself."

Morbid? Macabre? According to Steve Koosman, director of the funeral-services educational program at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park, it's not all that uncommon for families to be involved in readying their loved ones for that final curtain call. "They couldn't do anything really until the body has been embalmed," says Koosman, "but as far as doing hair, makeup, assisting with dressing, that would be OK. Funeral homes today are probably more receptive to that because they realize it's a way of closure."

It's common practice for a funeral director to ask the family for a photograph of the deceased so the embalmers can see what the person looked like in life. Smaller funeral homes have necro-cosmetologists/hairdressers on call, people who work regularly in salons but moonlight making the dead look presentable for their funerals. The larger funeral homes have in-house staff to prepare the remains. Kriegshauser Mortuary, for example, has five full-time union-licensed embalmers who do everything from complex restorative techniques -- achieving a tolerably aesthetic presentation of a car-crash victim, for example, or masking an unsightly condition of jaundice through the application of various makeups -- to the simple act of cutting hair. At Kriegshauser, embalmers cut the men's hair and a licensed beautician does the ladies' hair -- unless other arrangements are made.

Says Frank Heckler, director of mortuary services at Kriegshauser, "It's nothing out of the ordinary that a family requests their own private hairdresser to come in or they provide their personal cosmetics. And often families make some minor alteration at the local funeral home. They might say, 'Mom didn't have that kind of lipstick," or that sort of rouge, and they'll do a little touch-up on the remains."

Koosman sees this trend as a harking-back to perhaps a healthier outlook on death. "We've gone almost full circle," he says. "A hundred years ago, it was the families that took care of every act associated with the funeral, and then it kind of moved to the funeral homes, where the funeral director took care of everything for the family. Now it's kind of moving back the other way, where the families tend to be more involved, not just in dealing with the dead human body but in all aspects of the funeral service. Rather than be spectators in the funeral process, they're now becoming participants, and I think it's doing more good for the families -- it helps them deal with death more easily."

Roseann and Paula are in the living room of the condo. Lisa, too, is there, with her boys. Libby is in the next room, earphones on, listening to Harry Connick Jr., gazing out on a beautiful Indian-summer day. Roseann is talking: "Mom was a nurturer, someone the whole family came to. She took care of her sisters, who lived with us off and on. If things happened in their lives, a divorce, whatever, they always came to us, so we were kind of a center."

"It wasn't just our immediate family that she did that for," replies Paula. "She nurtured cousins, friends. She was always the surrogate mom."

"She's really a person who took care of everybody, that's what she did," says Roseann. "You see how the people who come to visit are so devoted to her."

"True," says Paula. "So anything that I do or my sister does or our kids do, it's like a labor of love for us. It's not a sacrifice, in a sense, because it's what we need to do to give back for everything she's given us.

Autumn turns to winter. Libby holds on, her health ebbing slowly, inexorably. In January, two everyday miracles occur: Her great-grandchildren are born, one on Jan. 6 and the other on Jan. 13. As soon as possible, the family brings the infants to Libby's bedside, where she can see her descendants fresh and firsthand. Says Roseann, "I know sometimes she would pray to God to die, that she was ready because she was tired of suffering, but I think she held on just for those kinds of reasons -- the babies' being born -- and that she was so grateful she got to see them and enjoy them for a while."

Winter turns to spring, and still Libby holds onto some precarious ledge in the here and now. She has been bedridden for 14 months, lost a lot of weight, and her quality of life is sorely diminished. Even Engelbert Humperdinck can't cheer her up. The family, empathetic as ever, is nonetheless growing weary of the round-the-clock vigil. On April 10, Libby's sister, Rose, passes away, leaving her the last of five sisters. She does not take the news well. "We don't even know what's keeping her alive," says Paula the day after Rose dies. Libby grows depressed because she can't attend the funeral.

"That took a toll," says Roseann, "because that's very hard -- not to be at your own sister's funeral. They had talked on the phone just before Rose died, and when she died, my mother said to me, 'I hope she comes to get me.' And she died a month later."

On the evening of May 24, Roseann was about to change watches with her brother and head off to join the rest of the family, congregated at a nearby bowling alley to celebrate her husband's birthday. The home-health nurse had left for the day, and though Libby's breathing was "funny," there was no indication that things were any worse than they have been. But then her breathing slowed to an alarming rate. Even the nitroglycerine tabs would not help pick up the respirations. The family was summoned from the bowling lanes, and they sprinted from the parking lot to the condo to see Nana before she passed. "We all crowded into her room," Lisa recalls. "There was a fixed look on her face, and she was gazing at the ceiling. Her breathing was so labored. We took turns holding her hand, telling her that we loved her and it was OK. One tear fell from the corner of her eye, and I wiped it. I said, 'That's it.' We took her pulse, and there was none. I looked at the clock. It was 9:03. We'd been there for five minutes, long enough to say goodbye."

"It took us by surprise," says Roseann, "even though she'd been sick all that time. And you know, it doesn't matter if someone is a 100 years old or if they've been sick a long time, when you really love somebody, you are never prepared. I was not ready to lose my mother."

While waiting for the mortuary rig to arrive, Lisa worked her magic on Libby. "She had needed a haircut really bad, but she was too sick to sit up and let me do it," she says. "So now my cousin Gina and I sat her up, and Gina held her head -- she was getting cold and little stiff, but you could move her -- and I was able to cut it back short like she wore it. And you know how older people get whiskers on their face? Well, she would always tease and say, 'Don't bury me with whiskers on my chin!' So I made sure I got all the hair."

"How that girl did that!" says Roseann. "But she so wanted my mother to look good, like herself, in the way she used to look. And she would say things, talk to my mom while she was doing it. It was hard for Lisa, but from the day she went to beauty school, that was something she did for my mother and she didn't want any one else to touch her. It was her gift to my mother. She got it all done, and then she broke down really bad."

"I was shaking -- I mean, I was upset," says Lisa. "She looked skeletal. But I just wanted her to look good. My grandmother had always taken such good care of herself, got her hair done every week. And even when she got sick, she still cared about her appearance, but then she got to the point at the end there where she didn't even care. She would say she didn't feel well enough, and before it didn't matter how bad she felt, she'd get up to have her hair cut. And so we just wanted to give her back her dignity."

Libby had lost too much weight to wear the pink dress that she'd worn for her granddaughter's wedding, the one she had planned to be buried in. Instead, the family went to Dillard's and picked out a pretty rose-colored crepe dress, with pink-satin trimming and pink pearls sewn on the jacket part of the dress. "The inside of her casket was pink," notes Lisa, "so the pink of the pearls and her satin trim looked really good against the lining of her casket. But more important, she looked peaceful, which was a comfort to my mom and my aunt. Grandma had agonized for so long in such pain, and they weren't sure she'd reached peace yet. So it was good that they saw her at peace."

It was left to Lisa to consult with Jeff Thompson, embalmer for Stygar Mortuaries, regarding her grandmother's finale. "I was real particular about the makeup, because I didn't want her to look orange or outlandish in any way. He understood, and that Saturday he did her makeup and invited me to come see what he had done. It looked good, really, and he explained that by the funeral on Tuesday it would settle in, look nicer and softer."

While in the embalming room, Lisa touched up Libby's hair, which was falling out because of the medication she had been taking before she died. Lisa teased the thinning strands to give it a fuller look. She combed it just so. "It was done, but I still kept fussing with it because ... because I didn't want it to be over. I started talking to her. She always watched the "Monday Makeover" (Façade's longstanding before-and-after showcase on KSDK-TV), and she would always critique the work: 'Oh, that one looked really good,' or, 'How come they cut her hair so short?' So I'm talking to her and I said, 'Gosh, Gram, when everybody sees you on Tuesday, they're going to think I pulled one of those switch-the-ladies. You're going to look so good, it's going to be the best "Monday Makeover" I've ever done.' And then when I was finished, the tears were coming, and there was my Gram, so pretty, almost like the same woman before she was sick."