(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)
The ancient psalmist wrote, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil: for you are with me; your rod and your staff–they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4 NRSV)
Paul’s death was the darkest valley Mary had been through. Her grandma’s death had been a deep loss, but it also felt normal. She’d lost her parents, two brothers and her sister. Each of these brought a brief period of grief, but with Paul it was different. Losing him felt like losing part of herself. He was her son, flesh of her flesh, whom she had nurtured in her own body…then continued to nurture in the face of his disabilities. She had centered much of her life around him. His death hurt.
Loss, however, was mingled with joy. Paul was now free from the limitations that had bound his body, but not his spirit. She knew lingering in sadness would be self-focused and debilitating. Adept at trusting God in the face of mountainous challenges, she plunged her grief into the flow of God’s grace, emerging quickly with a soothed mind and settled soul.
A memorial service was held at Paul’s church on March 7, two days after he died. Mary and Hugh felt overwhelmed when over a hundred people attended, flooding them with with words of consolation, and personal testimonies.
“I loved Paul’s book,” someone said. “It was so inspiring to read his words, knowing what it took for him to express himself. I know how hard it must be for you now, but I’m sure God has him in his arms.” Someone else added, “Paul always had such a bright spirit. He was an inspiration.”
Over and over, Mary heard similar comments as people offered her and Hugh their condolences. Later she wrote in her journal: “Today at Grace Covenant Church we said our goodbyes to Paul with a Praise and Worship Service, in his honor, to the Glory of God. It was so good to be in the House of the Lord. My heart is at peace.“
Life went on at COHOPE, and so did Mary. She developed a practice of reading Bible passages and devotional writings every day, selecting words that spoke to her soul, and hand-writing them in a journal she began keeping the day of Paul’s memorial service. Her process of spiritual discipline enabled Mary to function productively each day, investing herself in caring for other people with whom she shared a bond of love.
In the dark valley of Paul’s death she tapped into a level of God’s presence and strength that can only come through grief. She soon found this process helpful as she rounded another bend in her life journey, encountering another dark valley. She began to realize that her companion and soulmate for over fifty years was not “himself.” He had always been a clear-headed, hard-working pillar to whom she felt anchored. Even before Paul’s death, she realized, there had been signs her husband was losing these very qualities. She had pushed this aside then, but now had to face it squarely.
Sipping a cup of tea at the kitchen table where she’d been journaling, Mary remembered a morning when Hugh had driven five miles to Harrisonburg on some errands. She recalled a phone call from him. “Mary,” he said with an uncustomary panic in his voice, “where am I? I’m lost. They changed the road.”
She remembered the shock she felt. This isn’t like Hugh! What’s he talking about? He didn’t tell me where he was going. After retiring, Hugh had taken up woodworking and carving, which had led to an interest in creating and repairing clocks. I wonder if he got lost taking a clock to someone? Often he would walk at the mall, then add in another errand or two. Mary, keep calm!
“What do you see around you?” she asked.
“I’m at a gas station, but I don’t know which way to turn. There’s a barn in a field that I’ve never seen before.”
“Can you ask someone in the station to help you?”
“I don’t know any of these people.”
“Okay…well, perhaps you made a wrong turn someplace. Can you go back where you started? Maybe that will help you find something you recognize.”
After more discussion, Hugh agreed. Mary prayed for him, but felt uneasy for a couple of hours. Finally she heard his van come up the driveway. She wanted to act calm, yet stay alert to whatever was going on. He came into the house.
“Well, I see you figured out where you were,” she said, looking up from the roast she was preparing for the crock pot.
“What are you talking about? I’ve just been to the mall to walk. I do that all the time.”
“I just wondered because you called me and said you were lost.”
“Me? Lost? Don’t be ridiculous. I never get lost!” His voice was harsh, then softened as he seemed to change moods, pulling her to himself and kissing her. “So, what’s for supper?”
Pondering this now, Mary realized she had missed the emotional roller coaster her husband was experiencing because she’d been so immersed in Paul and COHOPE. In this new dark valley she would have to assume more responsibility and control. Hugh continued to look normal, but often functioned in a confused state. Digging into things he had primarily handled, she became aware of just how tenuous COHOPE’s finances had become.
Times were changing from when they started out. A key ingredient Hugh always used in his promotional literature was a lengthy statement he had devised. “We are a private, non-profit, charitable boarding and day school, whose purpose is to bring a more meaningful life to those who have not been able physically to attend school at the normal age, but still desire to learn and become better able to accept their limitations, feeling that life is good, and so are they, in spite of those limitations. We do not accept any state or federal monies.”
It was a noble undertaking, but new state and federal resources began to put COHOPE at a distinct disadvantage. Hugh didn’t know how to adjust to that. There was more competition now. Financial needs increased, but private contributions began to fall short. To meet this, Hugh invested his entire inheritance in the organization. He made adjustments that hurt rather than helped, such as narrowing the monthly Newsy Letter outreach only to active contributors, which hindered growth. By 1990 Mary realized COHOPE would have to close. The Board of Directors, whom Hugh had consulted less frequently in recent years, came together and the decision was made.
Mary felt relief, tempered by an enormous work load. Hugh could no longer sign his name or write checks. He became increasingly confused about money. Her first task was to get out a letter to all contributors, thanking them for their support, and explaining the closure. Next came finding placements for three remaining residents. With the help of one long-term employee, Mary dug into bookkeeping tasks. There were procedures to follow in everything. She knew tackling it all at once would be overpowering, so she learned to categorize her tasks, taking them on individually as far as possible.
Journaling enabled her to keep a healthy perspective. Along with all of it, she had to care for Hugh. He wasn’t on the sidelines, but enmeshed in the whole process of selling the land, building, furnishings and other property. His condition continued to worsen, which involved constant doctor visits, and changes in medication. During the sale of the building and land, he became unable to grasp what was going on. He couldn’t eat, became bloated, and was in a lot of pain. The doctors decided on a dual diagnosis. Mentally he showed signs of dementia, but his pain was due to diverticulitis.
One day his oldest granddaughter, Diane, came to visit. He welcomed her and seemed to enjoy the visit. After she left, he turned to Mary and asked, “Who was that pretty young lady?”
“That was our granddaughter, Diane…you remember her?”
“Oh, yes. Diane. I’m glad she came.”
That ended the conversation. An hour later, however, he remembered her visit and asked Mary again who she was. Sometimes it was more than Mary could handle. “It seems like I’ve been a caretaker all my life,” she told a friend. “My mother had TB when I was little, then I looked after my youngest brother. Next came Sis with her heart murmur, and then Paul. Now it looks like I’ll be caring for Hugh through whatever lies ahead.”
What lay ahead was rapid decline for him. The purchaser of the COHOPE property planned to open a facility for addicts who were in a stage of recovery where they needed a supportive community as they prepared to get jobs and move back into society. He had not purchased the house, so Mary and Hugh continued to live there. Finally Mary realized they needed to move into a retirement facility where they would have trained caretakers, and less stress for both of them.
Before they could move, however, big changes occurred. It was New Year’s Day, 1993. Hugh was bloated and in severe pain. He stood off in a corner, fear and distrust in his eyes, refusing to eat. Hugh T and Sharon came to visit from Tidewater, where they were now living.
“How long has he been this way?” Hugh T asked.
“About a week,” Mary replied. “I’ve tried to get him to see the doctor, but he won’t go.”
Hugh T turned to his father. “Dad, we need to go see about this, don’t you think?”
“No! I don’t want to see a doctor.”
“I know you don’t want to do that. I understand, but sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do. You can’t go on like this. Come on.”
Gradually Hugh gave in and they took him to the emergency room at Rockingham Memorial Hospital. Mary, Hugh T and Sharon watched as the medical staff assessed his situation. Hugh was resistant. They gave him a sedative and said he should be admitted overnight for observation. Mary felt relief…yet was anxious at the same time. The next morning they returned to the hospital.
“Mr. Harris had a rough night,” they were told. “He was belligerent and we had to restrain him in order to keep him in bed.” The doctors explained that unless he was admitted to the hospital, there was nothing more they could do. Mary had always deferred to her husband when he became resistant. Knowing he didn’t want to be in the hospital, she decided to take him home. Three weeks later he experienced an attack of severe abdominal pain and was vomiting blood. After the last emergency room experience, she knew she had to do something in spite of his objections.
She called an ambulance and he was taken to the hospital and admitted to the Intensive Care Unit. About midnight her son, Jim, arrived from Portsmouth, where he was now serving a church. Soon one of the doctors came to them. “Your husband is sedated now. There’s nothing more you can do here tonight. In the morning we’ve scheduled him for a CT scan.”
Jim took Mary home and the next day they learned the scan showed atrophy of brain cells indicating the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. A few days later he was moved to a room on the second floor. In between hospital visits, Mary began the difficult task of sorting through things they’d accumulated across forty-two years since their move from Cincinnati.
One of the doctors came to her a few days later. “Mrs. Harris, we’ve given your husband some tests that reveal he has colon cancer, which is what’s been causing his pain and distention. We’ve scheduled him for immediate surgery.” Mary felt overwhelmed on the one hand, yet relieve on the other that something was being done.
Following surgery the doctor said they were unable to get all of the cancer, and had removed a section of the large intestine. “It was necessary to do an irreversible colostomy,” he said. “We placed a stoma, or opening, into his remaining intestine through which waste material can be eliminated using a colostomy bag.” He went on to explain how that would work, assuring her that many people lived normal lives once they made the adjustment.
Mary had no doubt this was true, but she had reservations about her husband’s adaptation. Her concerns proved to be right on track. While in the hospital Hugh couldn’t understand what the colostomy bag was, or why he had to either stay in bed, or be restrained in a chair. After a few weeks he was discharged to the Bridgewater Nursing Home where he remained for about ten months.
This became another stressful time as Mary, continuing to live at Keezletown, shuttled back and forth to Bridgewater. She developed a routine, leaving the house at 10:30 each morning, fixing a sandwich that she ate along the way, then spending the day with Hugh. They walked around the grounds, sometimes sitting under the oak trees that lined the driveway. These were days Mary treasured in her heart. Hugh seemed to recover some of his physical strength, but remained disoriented as to time, place, people and events.
One day while walking he said, “I want to ask you a question–if you say ‘no,’ I’ll understand, but I hope you’ll say ‘yes.’ When I get out of here, will you marry me?”
Mary was stunned. She’d read about this kind of scenario in Alzheimer’s patients, but now, for the first time, she realized he really wasn’t sure who she was. She choked back a tear as they stopped walking. She looked him in the eye. “We’re already married. Did you forget that? I’m Mary, your wife.”
“Oh,” he said with a confused expression on his face. “Well, I’m glad.” This seemed to please him, and he remembered–for a while.
In Keezletown, neighbors pitched in to help Mary. During the cold months, someone sealed off the upstairs and other parts of the house she didn’t use. Hugh’s shop demanded attention. She spent countless hours going through things, locating owners of clocks he had taken in for repair, and finding people who could take his tools. As Hugh’s discharge from the nursing home drew near, it became obvious she couldn’t handle him at home. She had to sell the house.
Hugh T met with the people who had purchased the rest of the property and arranged for them to buy it. The proceeds enabled payng off the nursing home bill and purchasing a unit at the Bridgewater Retirement Home. It was a studio apartment with a kitchen, living room, bath and a room large enough for her bed and dresser.
Hugh was discharged from the nursing home on December 15, nearly a year after his New Year’s trip to the ER. At first he was happy to be living, as he said, in a “house” again. The apartment was small, but she thought she could adjust, plus, they were together. It soon proved to be too small, however, and she arranged to move across the courtyard to a larger one-bedroom unit.
Frequently Hugh would go out and walk around the courtyard. She felt comfortable with this since he never left the immediate area. There was a small covered porch with flowers she had planted along the sidewalk, and chairs where they sometimes sat in the evening.
One day she was busy inside and Hugh was out walking. The doorbell rang. It was a policeman with Hugh, who had wandered from the property and across a busy street to the campus of Bridgewater College. Seeing that he appeared confused, the policeman stopped to check on him. Hugh always carried a card with his name and address, so he was easily returned home. He never again wandered away from the courtyard area.
In addition to taking walks, Hugh helped Mary with the laundry and household chores. Eventually he became bored with this and grew restless. Mary talked with Hugh T and devised a “chore” for him where he would assemble a box of nuts, bolts and washers Hugh T would bring him every couple of weeks. This worked out for about a year, then he grew restless again.
Mary suggested getting small pieces of wood from a local cabinet shop for him to sand into smooth building blocks for the great-grandchildren. She made cloth bags for the blocks, and this seemed to satisfy Hugh for some time–until he announced suddenly that he was going to get a job. He needed to make money.
The subject of money, or the lack of it, came up often. On this particular morning Hugh stood in the living room, pointed his finger and announced, “Today I’m going to take my money out of that bank over there!” Then he pointed in another direction, saying, “I’m going to put in this bank over here.”
As always when confronted with his unexpected behavior, Mary played along. “You know, this is Saturday and the bans close at noon. It’s three o’clock now.”
He looked confused for a moment, then replied, “Well, I’ll do on Monday morning.”
Monday he was up early, ready to go to the bank. He was quite agitated and Mary tried to calm him, to no avail. He felt scared. “Let’s talk to Hugh T about it,” she suggested.
By the time she had him on the phone, Hugh had become enraged, yelling and unwilling to listen to anyone. Both her sons were now living in the Valley, Hugh T in Staunton, and Jim in Fishersville. They both came to help her. The stress caused her to have a headache and someone took her to the doctor’s office in Dayton.
While she was there, Hugh locked himself in the basement under the apartments. Several staff members from the Home became involved, and finally they talked Hugh into going with them to the skill care center. He would never return to the apartment.
As Mary adjusted to more changes in her life, she found her daily journaling and prayer time an essential resource for comfort and guidance. She would visit Hugh in the nursing home several times each week. Those were hard times. He would remember his parents and brother, and talk a lot about his high school days, but did not seem to relate to her on a personal level.
One day he fell asleep while she gave him a manicure. When she finished, he awoke and said, “What are you doing?”
“I just finished trimming your nails.”
“Well, whoever you are, an wherever you came from, take your junk and go back there!”
During these years Mary took Paul’s advice from his book, taking “one day at a time.” She reduced the amount of time she spent with Hugh, got involved with volunteer work at the Home, and joined an Alzheimer’s support group, where she also did volunteer work. Expanding her world became a healthy alternative.
Several weeks before Christmas in 1998 the nursing staff told her Hugh wasn’t eating much, and was sleeping most of the time. She had seen this herself, but hearing it officially gave her the freedom to spend Christmas with Hugh T and Sharon, who were now back in Richmond. She also attended her stepson’s wedding. It was a joyful, relaxing break from stress.
On New Year’s Day 1999, Diane came to visit from Alexandria. She stopped by Mary’s apartment, then they walked to the nursing home to visit Hugh. He wasn’t in his room, so they decided he must be in the dining hall and went back to Mary’s for supper. As they returned later, there was commotion down the hall toward his room. Two nurses passed them pushing a recliner like Hugh used. Just as they reached the room, the nurses came out. Mary knew what they were about to tell her. Hugh had died!
Diane sucked in her breath. “Oh! Thank you, Lord.” She put her hand to her mouth, turning to Mary. “That’s an answer to prayer. When we were in Texas, going through those really rough years, it sometimes felt like I’d never get back home. I prayed that God would let me be here when Poppi died.”
She and Mary waited until the room was ready, then went in where an aura of wholeness filled the space surrounding his lifeless body. Hugh’s face bore an expression of calmness and peace. It felt as though his presence oscillated around them. Mary closed her eyes, and held onto Diane. She understood what Diane was feeling. As for herself, she’d been expecting his death. It had always been just a question of time.
She and Diane each had some private time with him. Mary took his cold hand, brushed his forehead, then sat silently with watering eyes. Thanks for being the best part of me all these years, honey. Thanks for helping me through the hard things, and for building up my courage and confidence. You and Paul are together now. Be at peace. Rising to leave, she leaned over and kissed him.
Diane stayed with her NanNan for the next few days. She accompanied her to the memorial service at Bridgewater United Methodist Church on January 4. It was a heartwarming celebration honoring Hugh’s life and all he had given to others. They sang hymns he loved, and used to sing in church.
When Mary went home that night, God sent comfort through the words of Psalm 30, verse 5: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
Mary prayed, Thank you, God, for the life you gave us together. Please take care of my husband!
(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter,” by Hugh Townsend Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris.)