Love Prevails

DSCF6795

(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)

[NOTE:  This is the draft of the final chapter in the book I have been writing about my mother’s life.  Previously I had titled it, “Dairyman’s Daughter.”  As I concluded this chapter I realized that was an inadequate title.  So, I have retitled the book, “When Love Prevails.]

Though she had learned how to function in spite of grief and loss, Mary was not insulated from its impact.  Sometimes an emotional trough of emptiness engulfed her between swells of spiritual assurance.  Most days she tackled the situation by putting on a cheerful “face,” as she called it.  Just as she put on cosmetic make-up each morning, so she dressed her mind with prayer and assurance.  It was all a matter of framing reality in a faith perspective.

This was a process Mary developed years earlier when Hugh’s cognitive decline began to worsen.  Until the later stages of Alzheimer’s set in, he appeared normal–but his words and attitude indicated he was not himself.  The impact for Mary was a deep sadness she wished she could cover up or bypass.  As she often expressed it, ‘I lost my husband while he was still living.”  Coping required a daily faith-building routine.

Hugh was undeniably dead, yet very much still alive, and present, in her mind.  She took meditative jaunts through her memory closet, recalling warm moments when their souls had intertwined.  The bond they shared was deeper than even the worst situations they faced.  Recalling her wedding vows, Mary mused, we had poor times when things seemed the worst they could get, and times of great joy and fulfillment.  We went through sickness as well as miraculous healing.  Despite obstacles and opposition, we were rich in spirit, abounding in joyful celebrations that overshadowed difficult things.

While browsing through picture albums Mary sniffed back a gush of empathic yearning, wiping away oozing tears that threatened to drain her inner reservoir.  Until deaith parts us, we promised.  Death!  It’s already here…so suddenly!  I should have been ready, but I wasn’t…I’m not!  Help me Lord.  You lost your Son on the cross.  I know you feel this pain inside me…I know you are here for me now.

“By God’s grace,” Mary often commented to her closest friends, “I get through the lonely times.  Every morning the sun brings light, beauty, and promise–an opportunity to get a fresh grip on my life.”

Volunteer activities helped fill her days with energy, insight, and purpose.  She increased her quilting activities, drawing inner strength with each stitch, remembering her days learning to sew with her Grandma Mary.  Sometimes she went shopping with friends or family members.  Before Hugh’s disabilities set in she had bought a used car.  As Hugh became unable to drive, she was able to transport him wherever he needed to go.  After he died, she became a source of transportation for others in the retirement community–the “old folks,” as she referred to them.

Ironically, it was this very activity that signaled a turn in her own life.  One day she drove three friends to town for a shopping trip.  Pulling up in front of the store, Mary stayed in the car while the other two women helped a third who used a walker get out of the back seat on the driver’s side.  Mary realized she had pulled up so close to the car in front of her she would have to back up before she could pull away from the curb.

Hearing the doors shut, she put the car in reverse and began backing up.  Suddenly there was a noise behind her, and people on the sidewalk were yelling.  Her heart skipped a beat as she hit the brake and looked in the rearview mirror.  She saw nothing, but one of her friends opened the passenger door and said, “Stop!  Don’t back up any more!”

Mary got out and saw people helping her friend with the walker get to her feet behind the car.  She gripped the fender and sucked in her breath as her knees weakened.  “Oh, my gosh!  I thought you were on the sidewalk.”  The woman was not injured, but had fallen when Mary’s bumper hit her walker.  That was the last time Mary drove.  There were no charges against her, no injuries, and neither the car nor walker were damaged.

Telling her sons about the incident later she said, “I could have run over her.  I don’t think I can see well enough to drive anymore.”

Mary had been having some eyesight issues.  A few years earlier she was diagnosed with macular degeneration (AMD) following an eye exam.  She remembered her response.  “I’ve known people who had that, but I thought it was a side-effect of diabetes, which I don’t have.  I was borderline at one time, but it cleared up through changing my diet…and exercise.”

“This has nothing to do with diabetes,” the doctor replied.  “There are two forms of AMD…’wet’ and ‘dry.’  You have the dry form, which involves deterioration of light-sensing cells on the back of your retina called the macula.  It causes blurred sight and with time, can cause vision loss.  You won’t become completely blind, but you will lose sight in your central area of vision.”

Mary remembered her shock.  “What can I do about it?  Is there something I can take?”

“Unfortunately, this isn’t something we can cure.”  He let that sink in for a moment.  They were sitting in his examining room where he pointed to a diagram of the eye and explained what he was talking about.  “There are some things, however, that can help, such as vitamins, laser therapy, medications, vision aids.  We’ll work with you.”      

When she got back to the Home, Mary shared what was happening with some close friends.  Knowing what an avid reader she was, someone asked what she was going to do without being able to read as much.

“I’m going to do what I always do.  I’ll just find a way around the problem.  I have a magnifying glass if I need it and, besides, publishers do make large print editions for people with vision problems, and I have a large-print Bible.”

Mary was not about to give in to AMD.  She’d face a lot of challenges in her life, but she never thought of herself as a victim.  To do so would only give the disease power over her.  She signed on to receive services from the “Talking Book” program offered by the Virginia Department for the Blind and Visually Disabled.  A magnifying lamp in her sewing room became valuable for more tasks than threading needles.  She continued quilting, learning to work by touch, not just sight.  Her peripheral vision was still present, and miraculously she retained some central vision in her left eye due to what the doctor called an unusual hole in the macula.

Keeping house, cooking, doing her laundry–everyday tasks she had taken for granted in younger years now became ways to maintain normalcy.  On holidays and other occasions her sons and their families, her daughter’s family, and her grandchildren and their families visited.  Supper around the kitchen table felt as natural as ever, although her loved ones saw signs that she wasn’t as sure of herself as time went along.  On occasions like birthdays and key holidays they would reminisce and try to look ahead.

“So, let’s see, you’re 97 now, is that right, Mom?”

“I guess it is.  Doesn’t seem like it.  I never thought I’d live this long.”

“How does it feel to be this age?”   

Mary faked a look of surprise at the question.  “Why, it just feels normal.  I feel just about the same as I always have.  A few more wrinkles, and of course, my eyesight’s not as good, but I don’t feel any different.”

Some time later things changed.  There was no disaster or anythig, just an admission that she was feeling tired trying to keep up.  Her eyesight was getting worse and she feared making a mistake while cooking.  I never wanted to go to Assisted Living, she mused.  Once you go over there, you never come back.  I’ve never felt ready for that…until now.  Maybe the time has come.  It would be nice to have somebody else keeping things clean and cooking.  Hmmmm!

She prayed about it and called one of the staff members she had known for years who was always there for her.  They discussed it, and Mary decided it was time to go.  She called her family and talked it over.  They made the formal arrangements, then set a date when everybody who could helped her sort through things, decide what to give away or sell, and what she could use living in one room instead of three.  She had long ago negotiated with her children and grandchildren about what things would go to whom, and now they were being distributed.  It was a stressful time, but everyone knew it was the right move.

In the midst of it all Mary remembered her mother and dad moving from Keezletown to the Masonic Home in Ohio.  It feels so strange…so uprooting.  I guess they felt the same way, although they never expressed it.  She had visited them there and remembered how well her dad had made the transition.  “I can do this,” she told herself, “the Lord being my helper.”

Once the furniture was in her room, it seemed much smaller than it had looked when empty.  Mary closed her eyes tightly and squeezed her palms.  I can do this!  She looked at her bed with one of her quilts on it, tucked up against the same bookcase headboard Hugh had made for her decades ago…but it felt different. A small closet was filled with her clothing.  I’ll have to figure out a better way to organize that!  There was a separate bathroom, but the washstand was in the room with her.  That won’t do!  I’ll get a screen to hide it.

She had a small TV set, two dressers, and a bookshelf that also contained her tapes, radio and tape player.  A secretary desk she’d had in the apartment stood flush to the wall beside the window looking out upon a tall tree, and the courtyard below.  She arranged a half-dozen small plants on the window sill.  They’ll love it there…put some life in the room.  Under the window sill she had a small desk with her sewing lamp, and a chair.  The Home provided a recliner which completed the setting.

When it seemed things were in order, her family members left.  Mary was touched by all the attention and help she’d received.  A few friends had tried to poke their heads in the door to welcome her, and she knew they’d be back.  She sat in the recliner and looked it all over.  Suddenly fatigue set in and she closed her eyes. Lord, I’m here.  I’m thankful to have this place.  Help me learn how to live with all the changes.’

She opened her eyes at the sound of a knock on the open door to the hallway.  It was the head nurse and one of her assistants who introduced themselves, then went over rules and procedures.  Mary clarified that she wanted the door closed at night, then a thought struck her.

“What time will you come in to check on me in the morning?”  When the nurse replied, Mary said, “Just one thing…don’t be alarmed if you come in and see me on the floor.  I’ll be doing my exercises.”  She explained about having done Paul’s exercises for him every morning for decades, and having adapted them for herself. “In fact, if I’m not on the floor, that’s the time to be concerned!”  They said they understood.

Mary ate most of her meals in the dining room, assigned to a table with three other residents who became a kind of “family” to each other.  Eating institutional food became a difficult adjustment.  She was eating many of the same things she’d had at home, but it felt different.  One day Jim dropped by at lunch time.  Mary was sitting there poking at her food with a fork, but not eating.  She looked up at Jim,

“Do you see this?  Do you see what they want us to eat here?  I don’t know what this is, and I won’t eat it!”

Jim said, “Let’s see what we have here.”  He took her knife and fork and cut into the meat.  “Mom, that’s grilled chicken.  It seems to be tender.  What don’t you like about it?”

Mary gave him a look of distrust.  “I don’t believe you.  Here’s what it says on the menu.”  She held up a sheet of paper with a list of food choices.  “I can’t even pronounce what this is.”

“I see what’s going on, Mom.  I think they’re trying to make your meals more exotic, so they’ve given things some new names.”

“Well, they can keep their names.  If I order chicken, that’s what I want…not some exotic thing.”

It took time, but she adjusted to the food and the “new culture” plan the Home was using with its menus.  Sometimes she skipped means in the dining room, substituting Ensure or other snacks she kept in a fridge down the hall.  Every two or three weeks she had Jim take her to the grocery where she stocked up on items that helped her maintain some sense of independence.  Whenever she missed a meal her table “family” inquired about her.  Sometimes she said there just wasn’t any privacy at all in such a setting.

There was a table in the hallway near her room where people worked on puzzles, which she sometimes enjoyed.  There were various planned activities, programs put on by visiting choirs or other groups, chapel services and daily devotions.  It wasn’t all so bad, she sometimes admitted secretly.  One good feature was the quilting room where she’d been working for several years, located outside her room and down the hall.  When family members came to visit there was a large community room they could use by arrangement…which was great for birthdays and at Christmas.

During one of his and Sharon’s visits, after she’d been settled for quite a while, Hugh T said he had been re-reading the memoirs she had written in 1989.  “Mom, have you ever thought about writing an addendum to that?”  She had ended it with Merle’s death.

“Well, I guess I could.  I’m glad you still have it.  I’ll have to give that some thought.”

A short time later she tackled the task.  Despite her macular degeneration, Mary had maintained legible handwriting over the years.  She found herself expressing her grief over Hugh’s death and how it had affected her.  She surprised herself since much of this was repetitive from her memoir, then she realized what she’d been doing.  Her grief was still alive, and she’d been getting back in touch with it consciously.  Deep inside she knew this was therapeutic.  She wrote:

“So, now I’m here living in Asst. Living at the Home because of my health problem, Macular Degeneration.  I can’t say that I’m always happy living here.  I’m used to being able to be more active physically and going and coming as I want.  Also, I miss a larger space, to ‘keep house’ and cook my own meals; not to mention driving myself where and when I want to go.  But, I realize due to the sight problem and my age I need to be in a care-giving situation.  At times I get very lonely and want to pack up and go ‘home.’  Then I remember ‘why’ I am here.  I’ve been blessed with a caring family all my life and I still am!”

She went on to address many ways different family members had blessed her. Setting her writing aside, she felt afresh the warmth their love brought her.  Hugh T and Sharon lived in Richmond, so their visits were scattered, but they kept in touch by phone nearly every week.  At Christmas, and one week in early summer, Mary continued a practice she’d developed a few years earlier of traveling to Richmond where she enjoyed staying with them in their two-story house on a wooded lot.  A large deck extended out from the great room, two stories above a slanting yard that ran down to a small creek.  She loved to sit there under an umbrella and listen to the birds and other sounds of nature.  Mary always called this her “bird’s nest.”

Her greatest blessing, however, was having Jim close by so he could look in on her and participate with her in different activities, take her shopping, to doctor visits, and to see some of her friends.  Jim and his wife, Debbie, lived in Staunton.  He was retired, serving as associate pastor for the Bridgewater United Methodist Church.  Some of his pastoral visitation always involved the Home, so looking in on his mom was easy.  With Debbie’s help Mary got to church each Sunday.  After worship they would often go out to eat.  

Another blessing was Jim’s daughter, Debbie, who lived with her husband in Alabama.  About once a quarter she would drive up to Virginia to spend time with her grandma. As great-grandchildren came along, she and her husband Kyle brought them, too.  Another granddaughter, Hugh T’s daughter Diane, visited frequently from Northern Virginia, and later from the town of Strasburg farther up in the Shenandoah Valley.  A network of love prevailed through all the changes in Mary’s life, wrapping her in comfort and peace.

At the same time, there were some discordant notes during those years.  When Mary’s family threw a large 100th Birthday party for her on May 21, 2011, it was a celebration of more than her age.  The previous fall she had been through a medical crisis that put her in the hospital for a few weeks, and involved a stint of temporary dialysis to restart her kidneys that had been affected by an infection.  She had recovered well.  At her party no one would ever have guessed what she’d been through.

As a centenarian Mary became more vulnerable to illness.  She suffered a heart attack during a Bible study at the Home, and Jim was there to see her through the ordeal.  It was not severe, and she recovered quickly.  Another time she developed a MRSA infection that caused her to have a toe amputated.  She did well through that ordeal, too.

In 2015 she remembered she had not finished the update to her memoirs that Hugh T had requested, so she got back into it, recalling Hugh’s journey through Alzheimer’s and its impact on her.  She wrote:

“One of the hardest things to cope with was the fact that he really did not recognize me anymore.  He asked me continually many times a day, Where was his wife?  Where was Mary?”

Here was that trough of grief between the swells of spiritual assurance, surging again in her spirit.  She talked about working with the Alzheimer’s group in Harrisonburg, then went on:

“Because Hugh didn’t know me (as his wife) I told myself ‘I can handle this–the person I know and love is gone, so I’ll take the best care of the person in his body.’

I think I must have succeeded because he asked me to marry him, as he said, ‘When I get out of this place.’  At 103 years of age I’m still trying to deal with each day as it comes, because that I can do–we really have only ‘One Day at a Time’ anyway.”

Here, fourteen years after they were parted by death, the love Mary and Hugh shared was still alive.  In her mind, Mary was still married to him, and she would be for all eternity.  That became clear to most who knew her at the Home when a widower who lived down the hall from her room became attracted to her.  Time and again he would come calling, bringing flowers or gifts.  She told him she was not interested in a relationship…she was married to her Hubert.  He would leave and she would discard the gifts.  He would come back and try again with the same result.  Mary felt sorry for him, but her love for her husband prevailed.  Death had not parted them.

On May 21, 2016, Mary’s family gathered again to celebrate her birthday, this time 105 years.  Jim’s daughter, Debbie, a professional hairdresser, spent time with Mary, cutting and styling her hair, and making her up so her inner beauty shone through her face.  It was another great celebration.

Two months later Mary experienced a medical downturn.  Jim called Hugh T on Monday morning.  “Mom’s in the ambulance and we’re headed for the hospital.”

“What’s going on?  How serious is it>”

“We don’t know, but….”

“Okay, I’m leaving as quickly as I can.  I’ll see you in a couple of hours.”

Mary was talking to the angels when Hugh T arrived.  Jim and Debbie had been waiting with her for hours and he took over to give them a break.  Mary knew her family was there, and it was comforting, but she also knew she was finally going “home.”  God was calling her.  Weakened by IV’s that bruised her arms, she lay in the ER cubicle with her eyes closed, sheets pulled up around her neck.  From time to time over several months she’d had a vision of Hugh standing in her room, dressed in the maroon shirt he often wore.  He looked at her, urgency in his face.  “Mary…come on!  Why are you taking so long?”

It’s time, she whispered in her spirit.  Mary felt the guerney move as hospital attendants rolled her to the elevator and up to a room.  The angels were still there, comforting, encouraging, reassuring.  Hugh T was in the room as she opened her eyes.  The IV in her arm burned and she wanted relief.  She tried to pull out the lines, but her son stopped her.  “Its stinging me,” she said, looking at him pleadingly, wishing this was all over.

“I know!”  His voice was thick with emotion.  “It’s feeding you.  It won’t be long.”

It seemed long.  She closed her eyes and felt the angels with her.  She was aware as Hugh T kissed her forehead before he left to return home at midnight.  A slight smile curled her lips.  Thanks.  I love you.  She couldn’t arouse to the point of words, but she new he heard her thoughts.

Mary drifted through the night, in and out of consciousness, vaguely aware Jim and Debbie were sitting with her.  The bedside phone rang.  Debbie answered, then held it up to her.  Granddaughter Debbie’s voice fell lovingly on her ear.  “Nan Nan, I love you.  We all love you, and it’s okay.  We’ll miss you, but you can go now.  It’s time.”

And love prevailed as Mary Ellen Townsend Harris left this life where she’d spent a hundred-and-five years, her spirit rejoicing as she entered the radiance of God’s blessed eternity.

(Excerpt from “When Love Prevails,” by Hugh Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)

IMG_4343

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Through Dark Valleys

IMG_6220

(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.)

Paul!

EPSON MFP image

(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.”

“No…not now.”

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?”

“God…and…faith.”

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

From glory

To glory,

Like us!”

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.”

“Where?”

“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)

 

Is it REALLY Alzheimer’s?

10605992_1572720409611439_6177673061139324151_n

Not everything that looks like Alzheimer’s Disease, is AD!

I’m Hugh Harris and I worked with my wife, Sharon French Harris, to write this small book that journals our experience with a neurological condition that can mimic Alzheimer’s Disease and/or Parkinson’s Disease.  Dr. Adam Mednick (Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus:  From Diagnosis to Treatment) states that as many as five percent of people who believe they have Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, may actually have NPH!  We wrote our book to try to make this condition that may be correctable visible to more people.

Classic symptoms that flag the possibility of NPH are:  impaired gate, falling, lack of balance; impaired thinking, including loss of short-term memory; and incontinence.  Any of these might be mistaken for normal aging.

The standard test for NPH is a spinal tap and then a three-day period of observation to measure effects when cerebrospinal fluid is periodically withdrawn.  Improvement can lead to implantation of a shunt in the brain that regularly removes the fluid and allows a return to normal functioning.

In Sharon’s case, she was slow to respond to the spinal tap and was diagnosed with irreversible dementia.  Then her responses emerged and she did receive a shunt…but all of that is what the book is about!

We’re not doctors, so this is not a medical/technical book.  It is the story our our journey through diagnosis, the shunt procedure, and recovery.  We have written it in a personal, everyday manner.  If you, a spouse or loved one, a parent, or a friend suffer with the three classic symptoms mentioned above, you and those you care about are the people for whom we wrote this book.

NPH:  Journey into Dementia and Out Again, by Sharon French Harris with Hugh Harris.  Tate Publishing.com   Amazon   Barnes & Noble