The Final Hours of Rosalynn Carter’s Life, in the Town Where It Began

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post
Rosalynn Carter waves as she makes a rare public appearance, at the Peanut Festival Parade in Plains, Ga., on Sept. 23.

As Rosalynn Carter’s health steadily faded Saturday night, her husband, Jimmy Carter, sat beside her bed in his wheelchair.

At 96, she had an infection that had not improved with antibiotics. The day before, she had entered hospice in her home and her caregivers shifted from trying to prolong life to making her last days more comfortable.

“My Dad told her he loved her and thanked her for all the wonderful things she had done,” said James E. “Chip” Carter III, who was in his parents’ bedroom with other family members. “Then he asked us to leave so he could be alone with her.”

The 99-year-old former president sat holding the hand of the former first lady, his wife of 77 years, for about half an hour. “I’m sure he was praying,” Chip Carter said.

Then, late Saturday, aides helped Jimmy into his own hospital bed. It had been placed feet-to-feet with his wife’s hospital bed, so the Carters could be propped up and face each other and talk.

But when the sun rose, Rosalynn was no longer able to speak. At 2:10 p.m. Sunday, with Jimmy looking at her from his bed, Rosalynn’s journey from the tiny farming town of Plains, Ga., to the White House and national fame ended where it began.

“Tears were coming out of his eyes,” Chip Carter said.

Jimmy Carter was never one to sugarcoat difficulties. His unvarnished talk as president about the challenges the United States faced was often cited as a reason he lost his bid for a second term to Republican nominee Ronald Reagan in 1980. When it came to mental health issues, Rosalynn was an early advocate for more frank public discussion.

It was no different with aging; family members said the Carters also felt no need to hide the effects of growing old. Earlier this year, Jimmy Carter decided to publicly disclose his wife’s dementia diagnosis.

While many famous people guard their image and hide frailty, the Carters did not. Two months ago, they rode through crowds gathered at Plains’s biggest festival, making no effort to hide their declining health. It was a urinary tract infection, a health problem that is particularly common among older women, which her body ultimately could not fight off.

Jimmy Carter remains mentally aware and at times remarkably sharp, but he is physically weak, according to family and friends. He hopes to attend his wife’s funeral in Plains next Wednesday and a tribute earlier next week at the Carter Center in Atlanta, according to his family.

“It all depends on his health,” said Chip Carter, who said since many of his clothes no longer fit the former president, a new suit is being readied for him.

Family members said Jill Biden and all former first ladies, including Melania Trump, have been invited to Rosalynn’s funeral. Rosalynn was involved in that decision, despite public disagreements over many issues between Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, and Donald Trump, a Republican.

“My mother was a gracious person and she would treat everybody with respect, including a former first lady,” Chip Carter said.

President Biden is also expected to attend the funeral at the Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains. Country music stars Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, who have continued the Carter’s humanitarian work building affordable homes with Habitat for Humanity, are likely to sing at the funeral, two people with knowledge of the plans said.

After spending time around Rosalynn after she took her last breath, her children moved to Jimmy’s bedside, Chip Carter said. But a few minutes later, Jimmy Carter asked, as he had the day before, to be left alone with the woman he first met when he was three.

“Dad told me several times over the last nine months that he had always thought he would outlive Mom and protect her until she passed, but that now he wasn’t sure that was going to happen – and that upset him,” Chip Carter said. “But he stayed alive. We all told him how proud we were of his relationship with her and of how he looked after her.”

Jimmy Carter has been in hospice care since February. While Rosalynn was able to move around with a walker until last week, Jimmy has used a wheelchair for months.

He has been especially quiet in the past few days and at times has had trouble speaking, those who have been with him said. In the hours after his wife passed, he spent time with Tony Lowden, a pastor who had served at the Maranatha Baptist Church, which the Carters attended before their health failed. But he keeps going and eating; just this week he took particular delight in a favorite caramel cake made by his niece Marle, the daughter of brother Billy Carter, who died in 1988.

“I’m 73 and my siblings and I are lucky to have had them this long,” Chip Carter said. “They have taught me – and so many of us – grace.”