Through Dark Valleys

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(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.)

Lost and Found!

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After retiring from the ministry, I continued a habit I had relied on for decades.  I kept a calendar/workbook to organize my activities, and compile important records I would need at the end of the year.  

During the first eleven years of retirement, I traveled as an artist.  I also worked on staff in several churches, or served part-time pastoral appointments.  In my calendar/workbook, I recorded meetings, visits, events, attendance, and even honorariums.  I also had a contact list of key people.

The next stage of retirement involved becoming a caretaker for my wife as she dealt with a severe neurological condition.  My notebook came to contain an elaborate network of medical information, providers, and related material.   

During this time I also began writing.  My calendar/notebook, became the repository for pertinent information and contacts related to publishing.  

So, when a question arose Easter Sunday about scheduling something, I reached for my calendar/workbook…

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Lost and Found!

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After retiring from the ministry, I continued a habit I had relied on for decades.  I kept a calendar/workbook to organize my activities, and compile important records I would need at the end of the year.  

During the first eleven years of retirement, I traveled as an artist.  I also worked on staff in several churches, or served part-time pastoral appointments.  In my calendar/workbook, I recorded meetings, visits, events, attendance, and even honorariums.  I also had a contact list of key people.

The next stage of retirement involved becoming a caretaker for my wife as she dealt with a severe neurological condition.  My notebook came to contain an elaborate network of medical information, providers, and related material.   

During this time I also began writing.  My calendar/notebook, became the repository for pertinent information and contacts related to publishing.  

So, when a question arose Easter Sunday about scheduling something, I reached for my calendar/workbook.  It wasn’t on my desk, or in my car.  I practically turned the house inside-out trying to find it, to no avail.  It was gone!   

I tried to remember where I might have put it down away from home, and made some phone calls, with no success.  When I prayed about this, I felt an assurance that it would turn up.  I even had an intuitive picture in my mind of my workbook lying on a paved surface somewhere.  I called places I’d been, but no one had seen it.  No one had turned it in.

On Tuesday, I decided it was simply lost, so I bought a new one.  My wife and I called places to recover appointments we knew were scheduled in coming weeks.  Many clues were in my computer, but not a duplicate of the workbook.  

Tuesday evening I noticed my cell phone was turned off.  I found a missed call with a message from a man I’d never met, who lives near our home.  He had found a calendar/notebook along the heavily-traveled highway in front of our subdivision.  Seeing information inside that looked important, he started to look for the owner, ultimately calling me.

I called him back and we met a few minutes later.  I thanked him and gave him a copy of one of my Dinkel Island novels.  I also thanked God.  The book was in rough condition, having been through a deluge of two severe thunderstorms, and there were tire tread marks on it, so it had been run over.  Most entries are still legible.

Finally, I realized what had happened.  I had loaded some things in the back of my car on Saturday.  The calendar/notebook in my hand made it difficult to do this, so I put it on the roof of the car, intending to move it inside.  Then I went into the house for something before backing out of the garage and driving away–forgetting I’d left the notebook on the roof.

We have a low speed limit in our subdivision, so it rode on the roof until I stopped, then accelerated, pulling into traffic.  That’s when it came off the car.   Remembering this, I could identify the pavement I’d seen in my prayer/vision.  

The lost was found!  It was never lost to God, but it was to me.  When I prayed, but didn’t understand the answer, God sent someone else to recover it for me.  Thanks be to God!

In our bustling world of emotional frenzy and surface interactions, we sometimes miss the honest goodness that resides within most people.  I thank God for one good man’s efforts.  I hope I am as diligent for others.

Paul!

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(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 put her hand on his.  “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…

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Paul!

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(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)

 

The Big Five-0

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(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)

Mary sat on a couch in front of the fireplace in the COHOPE dayroom, a quilt wrapped around her shoulders.  Hymns emanating from a local radio station anchored the atmosphere with a calm sense of security.   It was Monday, Januay 21, 1985.

Outside the weather was bitter.  The coldest air mass in 86 years had the entire eastern third of the country in its grip.  Heeding weather forecasts, Hugh had spent the weekend making sure the water pipes under the building were protected, and the heating system working properly.  He had brought in extra firewood.  Mary and the cooks had made sure the pantry was stocked.  There was no storm associated with this air mass, just bitter, cold temperatures.

They had not picked up the day students because of the weather.  To conserve heat, they closed off the classrooms and everyone gathered in…

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