The soft singing of a hospice worker filled the room as she gently applied lotion to Polly’s fragile hands.
It was June 19, 2016, and Cody Butler sat next to Polly, having minutes before received a call to rush over to the Austin rehabilitation center Polly knew as home. It was time to say goodbye to a dear friend.
In Polly’s last moments, Butler and Butler’s husband, Jason Dolly, shared stories with a woman they didn’t know for too long. In fact, they knew little of her past. But what they did know was they were some of the only people Polly had in her life.
They told her, "Go with God," and, "It will be OK," and she lifted her head one last time with a smile. Her breathing slowly faded, and she was gone.
Following her death, the relationship between Polly — aka Elizabeth Christine Hooper, as named on her last Texas identification card in 2012 — and Butler has continued, with Butler traveling across the globe with Polly’s remains in a 2-inch urn as part of his project the Traveling Urn.
On the Traveling Urn website, Polly is memorialized in a series of posts that prompt a conversation about life, death and the mark people leave on the world. Each post features a photo of a travel-size urn dressed up to suit the location. Butler, 40, says this humanizes the urn and celebrates Polly’s spirit.
BUILDING A BOND
Butler first met Polly when he stopped by the long-term rehabilitation facility where Polly lived in 2013 to visit Kyle Mead, a friend who worked there. Butler wanted to talk to the older residents there, feeling they had wisdom the younger generations didn’t hear enough.
Mead led him into Polly’s room, but she was immediately skeptical of the stranger. Polly by nature was a recluse and suspicious of people, Butler says.
Butler would soon learn that Polly was the living embodiment of the very thing he feared about old age at the time — loneliness. Polly was a widow with no family. She spent her days sitting in the rehabilitation center, and the most interaction she received was with the nurses.
"She had a lot of wisdom to share; her spirit was so unique," Butler says. "She was always smiling and happy with me. Now, when it came to some of the nurses, she would give them hell."
Polly, as Butler put it, was a spitfire. She was quick to react to someone who was rude or had ill intentions.
"If she didn't like you, you were going to know," Butler says. "But if you were kind to her and a good person, she could see that. ... She was a force to be reckoned with."
Their friendship blossomed from a place of empathy. Butler felt he needed to be there for Polly because no one else was, and it became clear to him that the friendship meant a lot to her, too.
At least once every two weeks, Butler would walk into Polly’s room with a lottery ticket, a Diet Coke or chocolate to brighten her day. One day, she even asked Butler to bring her some whiskey.
Polly was kind and never expected gratitude. She would send gifts to other patients in the facility with her personal allowance from the rehab without them knowing. She also enjoyed writing letters to people, including Butler’s mother, he said.
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After a Thanksgiving when Butler’s mother took Polly apple pie and fried okra, Polly ate the pie every day for two weeks, enough to alarm the doctor. Butler’s mom adored Polly, and Polly wrote her a lovely letter of thanks.
Lots of times, Polly would not send the letters. Following her death, Butler even found a letter she had written about him.
"If you have no one to take care of you in life, then you're just buying time. Before I met Cody, I cared about no one, not even myself," the letter read. "Now I'm trying to get well and can do what he does to give to others and to give other people a reason to live. ... I believe that people who have no one are only borrowing time until they pass from here."
LEARNING TO LET GO
Polly suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and, later, dementia. Her memories began to dwindle, and as her condition worsened, she was left unable to read and write as she often used to.
Butler remembers the first time he saw Polly and she didn’t recognize him. It was sad to watch her memories fade, but he started to see light in it.
Polly’s memories of her younger life remained, and Butler learned new things about her. She thought the people around her were familiar faces of her past, even though, in reality, they were the same nurses day in and day out.
"When you’re faced with loss, grief and death, you must always find humor in situations, otherwise it will consume you," Butler says.
At the age of 75, Polly had admitted herself into the rehabilitation center. She made a home there with the few things she had — a few pieces of clothing and jewelry, a journal and her Bible. No one knew much about her background, except for the fun stories she shared of her past.
Her stories were usually about crazy moments in her young adulthood, like the time she told Butler she was dancing too scandalously in a gentlemen's club and was kicked out.
FINDING A FUTURE
As Polly’s dementia advanced and her COPD worsened, Butler learned that because Polly had no next of kin, she would become a ward of the state when she died. Butler didn’t want to see that happen.
Butler and his attorney sat down with Polly to propose the idea of him becoming her legal guardian. She told the attorney, yes, she agreed with the guardianship and that she was unable to take care of herself anymore. She wasn't afraid, though, she said, because she believed God would take care of her.
When Butler asked Polly if she wanted to be buried or cremated, she said, "I don’t like the dirt, and I don’t like the heat, so you figure it out."
They decided on cremation. With the little money Polly had to her name, Butler wanted to make sure every cent was spent on her, so he went urn shopping. He used $400 to purchase several types of urns, including a biodegradable one and a travel-size one. In his home sits Polly’s main urn with all her ashes. Before he takes a trip, he takes some of the ashes with him in the travel-size urn.
With Butler’s husband being in the military, they traveled often. Following Polly’s death, he decided he would take her ashes on his trips with him and spread a little bit of her all over the world.
Instead of having a traditional funeral that only a handful of people would attend, he celebrates Polly in every adventure so she may live on.
He decided to make the journey a conversation starter by making a website and posting about Polly, traveling and what the traveling urn makes him feel.
Mead, the friend who introduced Butler to Polly, said Polly was one of the first patients he formed a relationship with when he started working at the facility in 2011. The stories she told, he says, will always stick with him.
In particular, he thinks about the time she said she robbed a bank when she was 18 years old. She said she was hiding outside, ready to be the getaway driver. Right when the men she was with started walking out of the bank, she said, the police grabbed them, so she drove off. Mead asked her if she knew what happened to them and she said no, she never looked back.
Mead keeps one of the last photos he took with Polly on his desk. He says she was a wild spirit.
"She always talked about wanting to travel to different places, and I think (the traveling urn) is a cozy way of memorializing her and letting part of her see the world, because she never got to do that," he said.
Butler opened up the Traveling Urn experience to everyone. As he started sharing posts on social media, people were interested in getting involved. A few of Butler’s friends and complete strangers who have learned of the story have traveled with Polly’s ashes and blogged about it on the website.
Through the Traveling Urn, more people have been able to reflect on what the traveling urn represents. Barbara Purcell, a friend of Butler’s, took Polly on her honeymoon trip to Tanzania, taking photos of the urn on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, Ngorongoro Crater and the Zanzibar beach.
Purcell and her husband were touched to honor Polly’s memory, a woman they never met but knew meant a lot to Butler.
"(Bringing the urn) added another layer of meaning of getting up the mountain, which is not easy and not everybody makes it up there because it can be physically challenging, but maybe she sort of inspired us in a way," Purcell says. "I think the concept of the traveling urn, what Cody has done, is so important because yes, it honors the memories of Polly in depth, but really it's about getting out there and seeing the world and enjoying this life."
Polly’s legacy lives on through the people she touches through the traveling urn. The website continues to be updated with adventures and photos of the urn.
Butler hopes to spark a dialogue on death and the fears that surround it. He says death is so removed from our eyesight that it creates a fear for people, but if we celebrate life on a regular basis, that fear is diminished.
"I share her memories every time I go do something exciting. It's a constant, wonderful memory of the times that we spent together," Butler says. "And I would hope that maybe people might have another way that they celebrate and honor their loved ones on a more regular basis."