(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)