(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)
Some time before Mary and Hugh celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary, Paul accomplished something most people would have said was impossible. It began one evening years earlier when Mary paused to talk with him before saying goodnight. She noticed he seemed restless, and wondered why.
“Paul, you seem a little uptight tonight. Is something bothering you?”
His eyes widened as he responded, “Mother…I have…something…to say,.”
She pulled a chair beside the bed, sat down, then leaned forward. “Okay, I’m all ears. What’s on your mind?”
Paul spoke laboriously, almost taking a breath between each word. “I have…something…to do…and….” His breath gave out, and he turned his head to the side.
Mary stroked his arm. “Take your time. I’m listening.”
Mary was puzzled. Because his speech took so much effort, Paul often made succinct remarks that signaled deeper, unspoken thoughts. She encouraged him to take her to that deeper level. “Is this something you want to do tomorrow?”
“Maybe…I need your…help.”
Mary leaned closer and spoke warmly. “What is it, Paul? What do you need me to do?”
He took a deep breath. “I…want to…write a”…he exhaled…”book.”
Usually Mary had a pretty good idea what was going on in Paul’s mind, but this caught her off guard. “That’s a big order. Are you sure?”
“Yes! God…told me to…write a book…to…inspire people.”
“So, you feel God is giving you a message, and you need me to write down the words for you…is that right?”
Paul turned his head toward her as his body arched to the extent his restraints would allow. He squealed with delight. “Y…yes!” He expelled tension as he smiled. “Can you…do that?”
“Of course! What is the book about?”
She leaned over and kissed his forehead. “That sounds good. I know you have a lot to say. Let’s talk more about this tomorrow.”
Paul relaxed, and she saw how exhausted he was. “Good night,” she whispered as she moved the chair back to its proper place, and turned out the lights. She thought back to the out-of-body experience Paul had shared with her after he nearly died from post-neurosurgical pneumonia seventeen years earlier. That’s when he told her, “I saw Jesus! He said my parents need me here, and i still have things to do.”
When she raised her children, Mary had shared her faith with them. She encouraged each one to listen for God’s call that would show them their own unique purpose in life. Her two sons became ordained pastors and her daughter a nurse. Now she sensed Paul was discovering a unique purpose that would authenticate his life. Lord, she prayed silently, I know you have a special purpose for Paul. Help us see clearly what it is. She went to sleep wrapped in a sense of assurance.
The next day she and Paul established the ground rules. Knowing how much energy this would take for him, they decided to dedicate an hour at a time to the project, whenever he felt up to it. Formulating his thoughts and emotions into words, then waiting while they were transcribed, would take an immense effort from him. She wasn’t sure he had the stamina to actually do this…it would be a long, drawn-out process. He was determined, and a teacher at COHOPE offered to work with them, so they launched the project.
Writing the book stretched out for several years. Finally, in 1979, the manuscript was complete. It consisted of poetry and prose, all hand-lettered. There was a photograph of Paul in the opening pages. To save on cost, they formatted it for letter-sized paper, folded in half. He dedicated it to his mother, and she wrote an introduction. Once they had the copyright, a local printing company in Harrisonburg produced the book.
“One Day at a Time,” was the title Paul gave his book. It was about his journey, learning how to get through life in spite of severe disabilities. He observed the activities, attitudes, and reactivity of able-bodied people around him, then plugged in his own perspective. He had a formula: take things in stride, one at a time, don’t get in a hurry, never stop trying, and trust God in everything. At first reading his words might seem simplistic, but reading through again, with an ear tuned to his spirit, could unlock the hidden depth of his insights.
Paul came to experience a consciousness of God’s presence in everything. He expressed it as “seeing” God and wrote a poem around this theme. “I saw God when I woke up,” he wrote, and called the role of all the experiences where he felt Go’s presence. He saw God in the sunrise, sunset, trees, water, birds, wind, terrain, weather…everywhere. When he saw God, he discovered love at the root of everything.
Constant tension marked Paul’s world. Opposing forces pulled against the center of his life, yet that’s where he found God’s healing touch. When one part of his brain wouldn’t let him express feelings in a coherent flow of words, God’s Spirit would overcome the tension, communicating spiritually beneath the words. The same was true when he wanted to raise his arm and his brain produced a contrary motions instead. God put people in his midst who understood this and helped him resolve the conflicts his movements produced.
Some severely handicapped people faced these tensions by withdrawal. Paul faced them with engagement. His mother gave him that flexibility. Someone would walk up to Mary in a public setting and say, “You should be ashamed of yourself, strapping that poor, helpless young man into that chair!” She would reply, “If you knew him, you’d understand those straps are merciful. They keep him from harming hisef, or others.” Paul would say to her about such people, “If they only… understood…themselves, they…would understand me.” He had great insight.
Paul wrote about his faith in a piece titled, “My Testimony.” He wrote, “The Lord touched me. He filled me with the Holy Spirit. He told me, ‘You are ready to do my work every day. I will tell you what to do. You tell others that I have filled you.'”
He told what happened to him at a Full Gospel Meeting. “People were around me, and then the Lord was with me right in that room. He held out His hand and talked to me. Then He touched me, filling me with His love and the Holy Spirit. And I thought I was drinking water. After that, I felt like the Lord lifted me all the way out of my chair! After He did all that, He took away my fear. Then He took away His hand.”
Mary had mixed feelings when Paul left the Keezletown church to join an evangelical congregation in Harrisonburg, but she had raised her children to be independent. She was thrilled as his faith and excitement grew through that fellowship. Sometimes if felt to her as though he was simply on loan to her and COHOPE–that God would call him home, and the time would have gone by too swiftly. Then she would pick up his book and let the title sink in, “One Day at a Time.” She gave thanks, and treasured each day God gave her with this very special son.
Among Paul’s poems was one titled, “Autumn.” He wrote, “I always love the Autumn wind in October. It reminds me of when I was little.” As the poem unfolds, he says:
“Autumn is here,
And I feel like singing a new song!
The wind is blowing the leaves
Off the trees.
And how lovely it is outside!
What is Autumn?
Autumn is many colors!
How does He do it?
By His love.
And the Lord turns the leaves gently
It was on an autumn day, October 25, 1988, when Paul made a sudden announcement during lunch at COHOPE. “I’m going…on a trip…alone,” he told his mother. “You can’t…go with me…this time.”
Mary saw a glint of excitement in his eye. Hmmm! Something’s up. Maybe he’s hatching a scheme to get someone to take him somewhere–maybe a pretty girl.
“So, where are you going?”
Paul didn’t respond. Seeing a far-away look in his eyes, she decided to let it go–he’d tell her more when he was ready. They finished lunch, and the day wet on with no more mention of a trip. In fact, Paul didn’t speak of it again until five months later.
Early in 1989, Hugh T called Mary with a question. “Mom, how long has it been since you were in Cincinnati?”
Mary thought back. “Gosh, I’m not sure…I guess the last time, Hugh and I went together for some shindig when he was working for Samuels. Why?”
“Well, I’ve been telling Sharon about my growing up there, and it occurs to me I haven’t been back in decades. We’ve decided to take a few days the last week in February and drive out. Now, hold your hat…we’d like for you to go along. Interested?”
It was something “out of the blue,” as the saying goes, for Mary. “Well, that would be wonderful, but I have responsibilities here, and your dad can’t drive distances like that any more.”
“Oh, we’ll do the driving. Just thought it would be a fun trip and give you a chance to go back again. We’re leaving Monday, February 20th, and will be back by Saturday so I won’t have to get a substitute for Sunday. How does that sound?”
“It sounds great! Let me think about it and talk it over with Hugh.”
When she told Hugh about it, he said it was a good idea, and he’d be fine staying there to keep an eye on things, She called Hugh T back and agreed to go.
In Cincinnati, they visited the old dairy farm property in Covedale, which was now a residential subdivision. The Big House was still there, although altered somewhat in appearance. So was the house Elmer and Merle had built, but the house where Mary was born was gone.
They visited Price Hill, Norwood, Blue Ash, Sharonville, and Clifton. Many neighborhoods had changed, but they found most of the houses where she and Hugh had lived. After a visit with her brother and his wife, they drove out to Springfield to visit her parents’ graves, and Highland County to the burial sites for Hubert’s parents. As planned, they returned to Keezletown on Saturday.
Mary hadn’t realized how much she would miss Paul and the COHOPE family. He was delighted to have her back. Then he made an announcement with a familiar ring. “I’m going…on a trip…soon.”
At first, she thought he was just being playful because she’d been away, and he wanted her attention. Then she remembered five months earlier…back in October. Somewhere in her spirit she heard an alert sounding. Lord, what’s going on here?
A settled feeling came over her. “That’s nice,” she said to Paul. “You can tell me about it later.”
When Hugh T was getting ready to return to Richmond, Paul said to him, “I’ve got…a…secret.”
“A secret? Can you give me any hints?”
“I’m going on…a…trip.”
“That’s the…secret. You will…know…soon.”
After Hugh T and Sharon returned to Richmond, Mary settled back into her routines. Then on Sunday, Paul became ill. He was worse by Monday, and they called the doctor. He had viral pneumonia. When it continued to worsen, Paul was put in the hospital. Things did not look good. By Thursday, he was place in the hospice unit.
“I’m very sorry,” the doctor told Mary. “Paul just doesn’t have the strength to pull through this, We are making him as comfortable as possible. If there are family members who want to see him, they need to come soon.”
Mary sat with Paul Friday night. They had elected to do no “heroic measures,’ and his tubes had been removed. He was sleeping more peacefully than she had ever seen–no twitching nerves, unruly hands, or hard breathing.
Mary leaned back, closed her eyes, and released her emotions. She sobbed a flood of tears. Letting go of her son was so hard. He’d been so much a part of her life for so long. Her comfort was that she knew he was ready, and God would now receive him through that tunnel of light where he had met Paul years earlier, then sent hi back to finish his task on earth.
During the day on Saturday, Paul was alert, relaxed, and speaking more clearly than he ever had before. His siblings and many friends came and went. Hugh relieved Mary for several hours, then she returned. During the night Paul awoke briefly and talked to her.
“I love you, Mother. Thanks for taking care of me. Tell all my friends I love them.”
Then he was ready to sleep again. He smiled. She leaned over and kissed him. “I love you, Paul. God has many wonderful blessings waiting for you.”
He opened his eyes a few moments later. “You will be all right, Mom,” he said, then closed them.
Sometime in the early hours of Sunday morning, he died.
And Mary was all right.
(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter,” by Hugh Townsend Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)