One of my first blogs published here at “trippin” was a story of a man I met in Hanover, Pennsylvania who cared for both his ailing wife and mother in law without help in his home near the hospital where Lisa worked. We met quite by chance while I played basketball at a church near his home waiting for Lisa to get off from work. One day he walked over to introduce himself and we soon became friends. As I wrote then – one never knows what is going on in the houses we pass everyday of our lives nor do we realize the daily hardships some people must endure. His story reminded me of that truth.
This morning I was reminded of another similar story. Jean McCarty passed away on Friday, September 26, 2014. I read her obituary in our local paper on-line and thought back to our first meeting thirty years ago during the summer of 1984. She had a remarkable story and lived an extraordinary life and I was fortunate enough to have known her. The story of her life and how she cared for her severely handicapped children is one of the most inspiring stories of a mother’s love you will ever hear.
Soon after graduating college in 1984, I was hired by (what was then) the Green River Comprehensive Care Center in the Mental Retardation/Developmental Disabilities Department. Our program provided assistance to adults with mental retardation both those residing in assisted living situations and those living at home with their families. Providing in home support to families was necessary in assuring their children could remain at home and live as normally as possible. Respite, personal care and in-home habilitation was part of our services and made life a little easier for the family care givers. During my first summer I conducted home visits to all the families we served and was shocked to realize how many homes I passed on a daily basis where families cared for severely handicapped children. Many of the homes had been re-modeled to accommodate wheelchairs and other necessary equipment. But, aside from an outside ramp, one would never know the daily struggle going on behind those doors. These families were committed to keeping their children at home but needed our help to avoid forcing them to be institutionalized.
But of all the families I met that summer and would work with for the next nine years, none made an impression quite like Jean McCarty. I remember riding along with my good friend and co-worker, Nancy Whitmer, for my first meeting with the McCarty’s and was surprised to know their home was a little, white house on the left of a particularly busy highway that was experiencing major commercial development at the time. Theirs was one of the last remaining residences along that stretch of road and Mrs.McCarty greeted us at the door with her high energy enthusiasm that I immediately took a liking to. She welcomed us inside and started talking non-stop as, I would learn, was part of her personality as we made our way into her kitchen where we sat down. The older farmhouse was clean and well-kept but I noticed a sort of medical smell – much like a nursing home permeating the spaces but was more taken by Mrs. McCarty to pay much attention. She was a small, thin woman but wore a huge smile almost non-stop as she asked me questions about myself and my background. I would learn over time that she was somewhat starved for visitors and conversation since her world was confined exclusively to the little home she lived in and to the children she cared for. Over the next nine years I spent many hours sitting at that kitchen table talking to Mrs. McCarty about everything going on in the world – as if I was her only source for news. It became a service that I could provide.
Soon the conversation turned to her twin children, John and Paula, and she then invited us to their bedroom for a visit. What I saw next made my knees buckle. The small bedroom contained two hospital beds – one on each side of the room where her two twin children stayed twenty-four hours a day – for most of the twenty-two years of their lives. (if my memory serves me correctly – a third child, also handicapped, had died previously.) John and Paula had profound mental retardation and physical handicaps. Mrs. McCarty introduced me to them like any proud mother would of her children and told me they were happy on that day and in a good mood. I would learn over time to understand their moods but this first meeting was nothing but confused shock. Never in my sheltered life had I seen a situation like this. I had no idea people were living with such hardships. And I thought my problems were bad.
I would learn later of another fascinating part of Mrs. McCarty’s story. Before our program had become involved with helping her family, very few people knew she had this situation in her home. It was told to me that one day while at church a nun overheard Mrs. McCarty, a devout Catholic, praying for her two children. From that came a referral to our program to provide her with assistance. Apparently, the McCarty’s believed their children and their condition was their responsibility alone and to that point had never asked for help. Over time the hardship became too great a burden and our help was finally accepted. Of all the families we served none seemed as grateful as hers did for the services we provided. It really was an answered prayer. For twenty plus years Mrs. McCarty cared for these two alone – waking every night to turn them over in their beds every few hours to prevent bed sores and every meal feeding them with a turkey baster. Every night – every day – for twenty plus years.
I left Green River Comp Care in 1993 and lost contact with many of these amazing families as our lives took different directions. I noticed many years later that ‘the little, white house on the left’ had finally been swallowed up by the advanced commercial development and often wondered what happened to Mrs. McCarty and her two amazing children. Today I learned that Mrs. McCarty had passed away at the age of eighty-six. Her obituary stated that her husband and all her children preceded her in death.
I look back on my time those many years ago and wonder what good I really did for those families. My role was more of case management than actual hands-on services. I suppose making arrangements for assistance was important – it just didn’t always feel important. The truth is people like Mrs. McCarty did more for me than I ever did for them.
God – if ever I get to the point of thinking in my life that things are so bad I can’t go on or if I bitch and moan about things not going my way – please remind me of Jean McCarty and her two children inside that little, white house on the left. And remind me, Lord, that Jean McCarty never stopped smiling.
Love – Steve and Lisa