When I met my husband in 1986, I also met an amazing lady and friend, his mother. This hardened yet beautiful woman had endured more in her life than my imagination would allow me to understand. Growing up with an abusive alcoholic father, my friend along her mother, a stern West Virginia seamstress and her scrawny little brother, moved state to state hiding from her father and fearing for her life. Numerous times she nursed her mother’s bruises, wounds and broken bones after her father would appear in the night and in a drunken rage, shoot stab or beat her mother with fist and clubs. She called home a field, tent, abandoned car and once when they were lucky, a cellar under a local bar room. Their kitchen for the most part was an open air wood fire, the bathroom a hole in the ground and as she often described the good times, a creek or stream to do laundry, wash or even play for awhile with her little brother. This fearful journey led her thru twenty one different schools in seven states before quitting at age twelve to support her family.
My friend sacrificed, worked and struggled her entire teenage life until she met and married the man of her dreams at age 20. Life now became more secure even though she and her husband both worked medial jobs. No car, TV or even a radio, she revealed to me that this was her first moment in life that she felt safe and happy. She boasted of her small apartment size stove, wooden ice box and wooden barrel stove in the center of their 3 room home as though they lived in a mansion. Her father had stopped chasing them so her mother and brother settled in the same neighborhood as my friend.
She soon had two children and with her husband beside her, their daughter and son became the center of her universe. She had no complaints about the struggles life continued to deal as she worked two jobs to provide a parochial education for her children. Affording school uniforms, books, shoes, church tithing and walking to PTA meetings after many hours of work, these were good times for my friend. My perception of her sacrifice’s only made my friend giggle as she would describe her good times. She had spent her entire childhood and early adult life giving and helping others. My friend knew no other way of life except to give of herself to help and assist people and always place herself second regardless of the burden.
At age 47 and after 26 years of marriage she lost her soul mate to a sudden heart attack. Their life of sacrifice and struggle together, had reaped some material rewards; a small home with humble furnishings, used car and a comfortable neighborhood. For the first time in my life I heard my friend talk of being lost and lonely with no reason to live any longer. She told me about several years of un-characteristic self pity and no desire to get up and continue on in life.
She continued to work, walking several blocks every day, in a variety of weather, to use public transportation to save money on fuel and parking. The weekends were often spent with her children at her small home, barbecuing and spending time together. This was her life until arthritis stole the use of her hands and legs causing her to retire at age sixty. I met my friend a few years before this life altering time. A meeting that would forever grace my life and bring many hours of laughter and memories as I watched my friend rebound to the woman she once was. I would like to believe our friendship gave her the energy and drive to once again overcome hardship. Not a day went by that we didn’t see or talk to each other for hours on the telephone. We did everything together, grocery shop, go to the doctor, vacation and so much more. Yes she was my mother in law but we shared life as sisters.
A few short years later, my husband and I realized she was losing her memory, misplacing items in her house, confusion and forgetting our names sometimes. As her memory was fading, we would laugh together about her forgetfulness. Often I would perform task she thought she completed in order to hide her memory loss from her. As hard as I tried to live in self denial, it was slowly and painfully being revealed, hour by hour, day by day, my friend was going away forever. I could only watch as this terrible disease called Alzheimer’s, was destroying her memory and dignity. I could do nothing for a woman who had done so much for so many, as the light in her eyes was slowly being replaced by a vacant stare.
My friend Mary Catheren, now eighty one years old, sits in a wheel chair at a caring nursing home. Her days are spent staring at walls, television and other residents sharing her condition. Surrounded by loving CNA’S, therapist, nurses and doctors she appears to be happy. Although still a very beautiful wrinkled grandma appearing woman, all that is left is a frail twisted body and a vacant stare. Sometimes there is a grin and even her giggle surfaces on rare occasions.
I am thankful to my Lord and my God for the many memories and the gift of knowing this champion of charity and love. I visit, try to comfort and reflect on all she has given me. Yes, in vain I continue to hope this disease will go away and we can walk the beaches and talk again. If that day never comes, I look forward to finding her in heaven, sharing a great big West Virginia hug and walking the beaches listening to what she has been doing.