New Bern’s Riverside District-photo essay

MISANTHROPY IS EVERYWHERE

Those are the words some literate maniac scrawled on the side of a rusted train car that once sat, with various other industrial castoffs, on a small plot of land behind the office of T.J. McKnight Inc., the piling contractor that, from the late 1970s until just recently, operated on North Craven St. in New Bern, beside Mamie Sadler’s long-abandoned general store and a block west of the Neuse River.

That train car was one of the first things that caught my eye when I began exploring New Bern’s  Riverside District in the late 1990s, seeking scenic oddities to document after enrolling in the photography program at Carteret Community College. I smiled every time I saw it, just knowing there was someone out there strange enough to spray those words across its scarred surface in stylish white script.

Train Car, 2010.

Train Car, 2010.

McKnight’s office was just down the road from the old New Bern Oil and Fertilizer plant, a late 19th century construction whose silos rose stories above the houses and businesses along North Craven St. before being demolitioned in 2016. By the time I began photographing the area the plant was long gone, but remnants of its singular industrial architecture remained. As did a security guard, nearly as antiquated as the odd dagger-toothed machines still littering the grounds, who promptly told me to vacate the premises, immediately.

Fertilizer Plant, 1999.

Fertilizer Plant, 1999.

North Craven St. is just one corner of a larger cross-section of New Bern that has fascinated me since I was a child, an area that runs roughly from Cedar Grove Cemetery on George St. northwest along the National Ave./Oaks Road corridor to Glenburnie Park and east to the river.

It’s a world I was familiar with long before New Bern was the tourist destination it’s known as today, before the Riverfront Convention Center and the big riverfront hotels. In the late 1970s Barbour Boat Works still built Silver Clipper Deluxe’s on the banks of the Trent, on land where the North Carolina History Museum now sits, and a ride up and down the escalator at the Belks store on Middle St. was still a weekend novelty.

But even back then, once you moved north of Broad Street, past the historical plaques and waterfront manors, things were different.

Here was, to paraphrase music writer Greil Marcus, the old, weird New Bern.

These weren’t the buildings that tourists sought out, the ones pictured in the Chamber of Commerce brochures and billboards. These were the places where people worked, day in and day out to provide for their families. These were museums of labor, monuments to survival that stretched back to the era of the lumber mills that once churned night and day throughout the Riverside District.

My dad would sometimes take me on drives down there, telling stories of the summer he spent working in one of those lumber mills, stacking boards still warm from the blade in the heat and choking dust. I wish I could remember more of those stories.

Today, many of the area’s old industries and small businesses have been abandoned, while a few have stood their ground. Though some parts of the city are virtually unrecognizable from the mid- ’70s, when my family relocated here from Greenville, New Bern’s northeast realm still bears the worn, unreconstructed face that I remember from my middle school days. Driving the area now, I follow a map that’s drawn more in memories than asphalt and earth.

On Bern St., F.R. Danyus Elementary, where I attended fifth-grade, has been transformed into a child development center, the drab, prison-like grounds I recall from youth now radiant with day-glo playhouses and the clamor of children. Travel east to George St. and you pass Religious Community Services, where I once shot a photo essay for a school assignment on local soup kitchens. Hang a right and there’s Register’s Glass Shop, which administered to my car’s shattered windshield in the late 1980s after one of my ill-advised off-road adventures.

F.R. Danyus Elementary, 2017.

F.R. Danyus Elementary, 2017.

At the corner of Guion and North Craven streets, take a left and you pass the remains of the fertilizer plant silos, now scraped and bulldozed into rows of small grey pyramids.

A few yards further, across the train tracks and to the right, sits the empty lot that was once home to Tom Mcknight’s piling business, where my uncle worked for years helping construct hotels and piers across the southeast. Roll on another block and you pass Moment of Truth Ministries, formerly a Caro-San distribution office where my cousin was employed as a driver many moons ago.

From here you can see the long white Maola Milk and Ice Cream building near the end of North Craven St. The processing plant closed in 2014 after 79 years of production but a few of the company’s trucks can still be seen on the road and parked out back. For nearly 15 years my grandfather drove one of those trucks, going to work for the company in the early 1950s as a delivery driver before moving up to route supervisor. Until he left this world in March 2016, he would tell stories of his days on the road, bumping along the blacktops of Craven, Duplin, Lenoir and other counties, crates of glass milk bottles clanking behind him.

Maola Plant, 2017.

Maola Plant, 2017.

Circle past the Maola plant on River Road out to National Avenue and there’s Boyd’s Barber and Styling, a family establishment I used to frequent several times a year during my more hirsute teenage years. The sign on the front of the small brick building is fancier these days, but little else has changed.

From there it’s a mile, give or take, to the Oaks Road entrance to Glenburnie Park. I spent a not insubstantial part of my youth sliding down its steep green hills on a sheet of plexiglass scavenged from my grandparent’s nursery and playing on the rusted missile casing, now long gone, that was once a centerpiece of the park’s playground.

 

Glenburnie Park, 2017

Glenburnie Park, 2017

 

There’s other places on the map that I’ve missed, of course. There’s Cedar Grove Cemetery and the old Union Station Train Depot, both of which would require entire articles unto themselves. But there’s also the tiny tin-roofed house on North Craven St., now a florist but formerly a dry cleaning business, that my father once counted among his bookkeeping clients. And the dog park off of Dunn St., where me and my wife let our four-legged kids run wild when we first moved back to New Bern in 2010, before its gate went missing and stayed that way for years.

I know all these roads, all these side streets where the past superimposes itself like faded film stock across the crooked oaks, brick churches and vacant lots. They all have their stories.

But for me, since coming home eight years ago, they all eventually lead to one place: the Donald M. Miller Memorial Park, down at the dead end of Avenue A, a stone’s throw from the river.

Just beyond the park’s picnic table the grass fades into a thin strip of shoreline that snakes behind empty fields and orphaned scraps of chain link fence. If the tide’s right you can follow the sand all the way to the railroad bridge, with its black creosote-enriched support timbers stretching out into the Neuse towards Bridgeton.

Railroad Bridge, 2010.

Railroad Bridge, 2010.

On a good day, a walk along that short stretch of shore reveals random fragments from the city’s past among the knotty roots and shallow waters: an ancient Texaco sign; rusted rail spikes; a stray chunk of cement from the demolitioned silos; parts of motors, gears and other industrial fossils uncovered by passing storms and the river’s slow, erosive caress.

Waterfront Sign, 2010.

Waterfront Sign, 2010.

The lot where the train car once sat, the one that drew me here years ago, is mostly empty now. But those words emblazoned on its side, MISANTHROPY IS EVERYWHERE, well, whoever wrote that was a prophet. The sentiment seems truer today than ever. My own disgust with the human race has certainly never been more pronounced, more visceral.

But still, I keep coming back.

Several weeks ago, I found myself driving through the area at night, trying to clear the cobwebs after a week of late breaking news and early deadlines. At some point I rolled down the window, turned the music off and simply immersed myself in the beauty of the place in a way I wasn’t even sure I was capable of anymore: the streetlights through the Spanish moss; kids on their bicycles wheeling around the old Maola parking lot; shadows across the columned porches and burial vaults; a single light burning in an auto repair shop garage.

What I found there, in a corner of New Bern that sometimes feels all but forgotten, were some truths, old truths and not very comforting ones, but truths all the same. I take solace in that. And I hope some small piece of that New Bern remains, years from now, for my son and his children to discover, and wonder at and smile.

 

 

McKnightÕs, 2018.

McKnight’s, 2018.

Train Tracks, 2017.

Train Tracks, 2017.

Bus Stop, 2017.

Bus Stop, 2017.

Maola Truck, 2017.

Maola Truck, 2017.

Lot, 2018.

Lot, 2018.

Train Tracks, 2010.

Train Tracks, 2010.

Footprints, 2018.

Footprints, 2018.

Glenburnie Park, 2011

Glenburnie Park, 2011

Donald M. Miller Memorial Park, 2011.

Donald M. Miller Memorial Park, 2011.

Fertilizer Plant, 1999.

Fertilizer Plant, 1999.

Fertilizer Plant, 1999.

Fertilizer Plant, 1999.

Warehouse, 2018.

Warehouse, 2018.

Gate, 2010.

Gate, 2010.

X-Wing, 2017.

X-Wing, 2017.

Spectral Door, 2016.

Spectral Door, 2016.

Union Station Train Depot, 2017.

Union Station Train Depot, 2017.

Sign, 2010.

Sign, 2010.

Donald M. Miller Memorial Park, 2010.

Donald M. Miller Memorial Park, 2010.

Shoe, 2018.

Shoe, 2018.

Safety Inspections, 2018.

Safety Inspections, 2018.

Dog Park, 2010.

Dog Park, 2010.

Silos, 2010.

Silos, 2010.

 

Advertisements

Downtrodden Treasures

18

There’s a certain strain of Southern eccentricity that presents itself to the more blandly rational minded among us as the compulsion to collect, to gather and store all manner of oddities from all categories of the human experience, from the mundane to the grossly compelling. Most of these curious compilers remain unknown until their deaths, when stunned relatives are confronted by decades of obsessively accumulated odds and ends.

Such was not the fate, however, of a rare specimen of Gothic small town impracticality named Mary Eva Blount Way, whose wild menagerie of found treasures has been showcased at the Belhaven Memorial Museum since 1965.

Fragments from a puzzle that could only be solved by its creator, the items housed in the museum, which range from Civil War artifacts to lovingly preserved medical oddities, stymie attempts to assign rhyme or reason. Housed in the top floor of the historic town hall in Belhaven, a windy nook of a town located on the north shore of the Pungo River, the museum is the last will and testament of a woman who, in the words of her husband, “never quite grew up.”

32

Mary Eva Blount Way was born in 1869 at the tail end of Reconstruction. Her family was among the most prominent in North Carolina: William Blount, her great uncle, was one of the signers of the United States Constitution and served as the governor of the Southwest Territory (which included most of modern day Tennessee).

She lived, it seems, in a manner that paid little heed to the conventions of “ladylike behavior” that prevailed in the late 19th century. She married a Quaker ship captain. She caught and dissected snakes for schoolchildren to inspect. She wrote poetry.

And beyond all reason, she gathered and grouped whatever struck her fancy.

In “The Story of Mrs. Mary Eva Blount Way” an unpublished autobiography, she relates:

“I was born on a farm in Beaufort County on the day after Christmas and I have had Christmas in my bones ever since…I was married June 24, 1887 at the age of seventeen and came to live in this old house (Beech Ridge) as a bride. It is located four miles from Belhaven.

“I have five children and they are all married and live in five different states from Texas to North Carolina. My youngest son entered the service in 1942 and my husband died in July 1943, so, since then, I have been living alone here except for an accumulation of souvenirs and treasures of about 62 years of my life.”

The collecting of things seems to have been an early, if not lifelong, pursuit for Way. Legend says it began with a gift of four antique buttons that were given to her by her mother-in-law, a small token of affection that would eventually grow to over 30,000 buttons. As word spread about Way’s mania for interesting objects, donations poured in from friends and neighbors who wanted to help build her personal collection.

In 1940, during the height of World War II, “Miss Eva” as she was affectionately known by the local residents, decided to raise funds for the Red Cross by displaying the treasures in her home for a small fee. The homegrown museum proved a sensation with the locals, so much so that it was extended to the family barn in order to showcase the more than 10,000 items that Way had collected.

An article in the August 1951 edition of the Washington Daily News provides a snapshot of the elderly widow during the years when her museum of wayward objects was still growing. The writer describes her as “a woman who has never thrown away a thing… A housewife, snakekiller, curator, trapper, dramatic actress, philosopher, and preserver of all the riches of mankind…”

Following her death in 1962, Way’s family accepted an offer of $3,000 from Belhaven residents  in exchange for her entire collection, which was eventually housed at the original but defunct town hall in the heart of town. On April 1, 1965, the Belhaven Memorial Museum officially opened to the public. The curious, the bored, and the cockeyed have been filing through its doors ever since.

28

“History is stranger than anything our imaginations can dream up.”

That’s the assessment of Arthur Congleton, who has served as the museum’s guide for the last 20 years. Though he’s discussing a bit of Civil War political minutia (Abraham Lincoln’s attempt to jail a Supreme Court justice) he could just as easily be describing the conglomeration of loosely ordered “stuff” stretched across the former basketball gym’s dimly-lit vault.

With its creaking hardwood floors and lingering odor of mothballs and mildew, entering the museum is a bit like stumbling upon an attic sealed from time for the last 150 years, an attic stocked by a spinster history buff who quite possibly moonlighted as a mad scientist.

“Can you imagine all of this in one lady’s house?” Congleton says, sweeping his eyes across the shelves, aisles and glass displays. “It would be fair to say she was eccentric. I think her attitude toward life was ‘Why not?’”

Indeed. How else to account for a life spent compiling, among other things: a dress worn by a local 700-pound woman (she died in bed and had to be craned out the window); an unspent Civil War shell; a German World War I half-boot pulled from an amputated foot; fleas dressed in wedding costumes and arranged under a magnifying glass (supposedly a gift from gypsies who stayed on Way’s land); a human skeleton; an antique x-ray machine; an anchor believed to be from the War of 1812; several snakes (killed by Mrs. Eva), one stuffed, swallowing a wooden egg, another made into a necktie; various farm implements and decaying dolls; jars of home canned products, including one gelatinous mass labeled “chicken fat;” containers of dog teeth (circa 1950) and snake eggs (date unknown); a WWI machine gun; a stamp-sized Bible; and an April 15, 1865 edition of The New York Herald detailing Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

3

They’re all there, some marked with faded, handwritten labels, some placed in apparent random array, to be pondered but never explained.

Any one of those items would be worth an historian’s interest. But they’re not, if truth be told, why most visitors make their way up the steep wooden staircase to the second floor of the old Belhaven Town Hall. What brings them in, what brought me in, are the things relegated to the back of the museum, like dark dreams suspended in liquid amber.

Throughout her life, Way came to possess a series of medical exhibits, some of which were donated by a local doctor. Encased in jars of preservative, a one-eyed fetal pig, a two-headed kitten, and a harelipped dog peer out from their murky recesses. Two fawns, curled sweetly as if sleeping, share shelf space with a small, gape-mouthed shark.

9

Round the corner and lower your gaze, and you’re confronted with what appears to be an especially unappetizing pot roast in a fish tank. Closer inspection reveals that it’s actually a 10-pound tumor removed from a female patient and carted off from Pungo District Hospital.

There’s other things to be found there in the half gloom as well: a jar of baby copperheads, an eight legged pig, a slyly contorted octopus. But the museum’s most jarring exhibit, by far, is its most human: three prenatal babies, one bent forward as if in prayer, placed side by side, the light from a nearby window illuminating their barely-formed features. They would be old by now, as old as Mrs. Eva perhaps, these peaceful siblings of chance, whose futures are forever locked inside their pale, silent anatomies. They slumber through the decades behind their murky glass, of this world and some other.

And watching over them all, a dolphin’s skull smiles down from atop a curio chest.

2

Amy Weston remembers the mummified squirrels. She remembers the antique dolls and collection of curled, ingrown toenails. But most of all she remembers the flea bride and groom.

“Our class used to come here when I was in elementary school, and I just thought that was the coolest thing. Back then I convinced myself I could see the little man and woman through the magnifying glass,” says Weston, a 37-year-old Belhaven native who moved to Portland, Ore. a decade ago.

According to Congleton the museum has approximately 1,000 visitors each year. He says many of them, after touring the nooks and crannies of the room and its exhibits, have one simple question. Why?

“They want to know what would possess a woman to collect all these things. I’m not sure there’s an answer for that?” he admits.

The collection is the only clue left, it seems. Following her death, Mrs. Eva’s sprawling house at the edge of Belhaven stood empty for years until it was battered to the ground by Hurricane Isabel in 2003.

“Her home is a real piece of art, filled with an amazing array of items, ranging all the way from a trillion buttons down to the finest china, and all is properly cared for, carefully labeled and displayed for the thousands of her eager visitors. Her feeling, humor, and grace when she reads poetry would put to shame some of the finest Broadway actors and actresses,” the Washington Daily News once reported.

There’s a photo of Way propped against a shelf in the back of the museum. It show an old woman, late 70s perhaps, dressed in a long sleeve calico house dress holding up a dead rattlesnake that stretches from her shoulder down to her slippers. Beneath an unruly thatch of white hair, Way is grinning, like a child showing off a particularly neat, but possibly illicit, discovery.

Propped against the shelf beneath the photo, what remains of the snake, its skin, is stretched across a piece of rough hewn lumber.

“So friends of mine, please all forgive
My praising these downtrodden treasures,
But they make my life so easy to live
That my work becomes a pleasure.”

Those words are from a poem Way wrote, “My Old Shoes” that she included in her autobiography. Though written in praise of sensible footwear, they could just as easily describe her attitude toward each of the fascinating relics she gathered around her in life. And maybe that’s all the explanation we need.

 
The Belhaven Memorial Museum is located on East Main Street, (or Business 264), on the second floor of the historic Belhaven Town Hall. The museum is open daily from 1 p.m. until 5 p.m., every day except Wednesdays. Admission is free to all visitors, however donations are accepted.

16

26

10

34

20

6

24

21

30

 

Leavin’ On My Mind: Harvey Futrell turns 107

1006752420 nc_nsj_Harvey Futrell2

Harvey Futrell can still remember a childhood spent working the tobacco fields of Onslow County, the feel of the warm, rich earth between his fingers, the summer sun on his face, and the new life emerging with the turning seasons like a familiar miracle.

“It was the greatest joy I’ve known in this world,” says Futrell, who celebrated his 107th birthday Thursday. “I’d sit up on the cultivator and sing and whistle all day long, just as happy as a person could be. That’s the most beautiful work anyone’s ever done.”

Futrell, who has been a resident of Brook Stone Living Center in Pollocksville since 2016, recalls that time, more than a lifetime ago for most people, with a mix of nostalgia and rueful humor.

“When I got big enough to follow a mule I started plowing. Most people don’t know a thing about that kind of work, and I’m glad. I was raised in the sunshine, the rain, the snow…” says Futrell, his voice trailing off as he sinks into a revelry of those older, somehow more vivid days.

Born in 1911, Futrell grew up in a small house near Catherine Lake, in what he describes as the “deep country” of Onslow County. Coming up with little money and even less formal education, he learned what he could from his mother and stepfather, hardscrabble tobacco farmers who did the best they could for their 10 children.

When he turned 19, Futrell left home (“It was September, early fall”) to live with an aunt in Jones County. “She was a very religious person,” he recalls, smiling. “We would go house to house singing hymns during the week until we got tired, and I grew to love it.”

The joy found in melody and words has remained with Futrell ever since.

“Have you ever listened to a bird sing?” he asks. “It’s the most beautiful thing in the world.”

In 1932 Futrell married Margaret Cottle of Comfort, on the front steps of the Jones County Justice of the Peace office in Trenton. The couple would have four children, three sons and a daughter.

1006752420 nc_nsj_Harvey Futrell3

As he grew into adulthood, Futrell followed a path similar to his ancestors, working as a tenant farmer and carpenter.

“I went from place to place farming. I thought I was doing something on my own and I was; I was finding out how cruel life really is,” he says.

Futrell attributes much of that hardship to the poor educational opportunities he was afforded early in life.

“I didn’t have no school. But I know letters and I’m pretty good at spelling some things,” he acknowledges.

In 1965, on Thanksgiving Day he remembers, Futrell moved into a house on Fire Tower Road in Jacksonville, working two acres of land raising peanuts and chickens for the home’s owner, a Marine employed at Camp Lejeune.

“I never signed anything, I just said, ‘Ok, I’ll take over the house.’ When the owner got the place almost paid off he died, and I had never signed a letter or nothing. I didn’t have a thing to prove I belonged there. That’s why people need an education.”

Luckily, Futrell and his wife were already of an age to begin drawing Social Security, which allowed them to pay off what was still owed on the house.

Futrell says he often had to improvise to make ends meet on his small farm. He recalls building a makeshift tiller rake out of a piece of plywood run through with a box of 10 penny nails.

“I put ropes at the front corners of the board and put that rope over my head and ran it under my arms. Then I used manpower to drag that board and drag up the weeds,” he remembers.

With his health failing, Futrell was eventually forced to give up the farming life and his later career as a professional carpenter.

After 72 years of marriage, his wife passed away in 2004.

“We never had an argument. I wouldn’t stay in the house when she was mad. You can’t argue if there’s no one there to argue with,” says Futrell, his pale eyes flashing with humor.

Unlike many who carry on past the century mark, Futrell still has family nearby. His oldest son,  Harvey Futrell, Jr.,  lives just down the road  in Jones County, while his youngest, William, is in  Elizabeth City. Futrell’s daughter, Shelvia, currently resides in Pink Hill.

“He’s always been a pretty good guy. He has his ways, and he’s stubborn, but I never knew him to whip on any of us,” recalls Harvey Jr., who joined his surviving relatives for a impromptu birthday party in his father’s honor Thursday.

“He’s had quite a life. When him and my mom got married they had a dresser, a bed, a stove and a cabinet, and that was it,” says Shelvia.

Futrell, who still has a full head of crisp white hair and a disarmingly youthful grin, insists his religious faith has sustained him in good times and bad throughout the last century.

“Going to church seems like a good start in the right direction,” he says. “Jesus said strait is the gate and narrow is the way. But I haven’t been in a church in over a year; I got arthritis in my legs, can’t walk.”

Futrell is decidedly unsentimental when discussing his own current mental and physical health.

“I’ve got no education, I’ve got to where I can’t see too good, my hearing’s gone. So what am I?” he asks.

As if to answer his own question he breaks into a favorite hymn, “Leavin’ On My Mind,” one that seems to hold new meaning with each advancing year.

“This old house that I’m livin’ in, is needing repair

All the windows and the shutters

Keep lettin’ in the cold, cold air
I say to myself “Gotta fix ’em, when I can get the time

But all I’m getting lately is leaving on my mind.”

Though he would like to see the next presidential election, Futrell says that wish comes with some reservations.

“I told the Lord I’d like to live a little longer, but I put some conditions on that. I want to be able to wait on myself. Right now, I can get out of my bed and into my wheelchair by myself. So we’ll see.”

Still, says Futrell, he often marvels at the extraordinary life he’s been granted.

“Something is gonna’ get you, that’s a fact,” he says. “But I don’t think it’s gonna’ get a whole lot of 107-year-old people.”

Greenville native recalls moments of terror during Hawaii missile false alarm

1006232962 nc_nsj_Hawaii family (1)

Laura Martin stands with her husband, Johnathan, and three children, (l-r) Hunter, Madison, and Talmadge near their home in Oahu, Hawaii. The family was at home on the morning of Jan. 13 when the island’s residents received a false warning that a ballistic missile was inbound.

For 38 minutes on a warm Saturday in January, Laura Martin thought the world was coming to an end.

The day began like any other lazy weekend morning at the Martin residence in the family’s adopted home of Oahu, Hawaii. Martin’s husband, Jonathan, was preparing for his normal Saturday donut excursion, while her three children, Talmadge, 12, Hunter, 9, and Madison, 7, still slept. Undecided whether to pull herself from bed or doze away the morning, Martin’s half-slumber was interrupted by her frantically buzzing phone. Irritated by the disturbance, she reached for it, waited a moment for her eyes to adjust, and was instantly jolted awake by the message on the phone’s screen: EMERGENCY ALERT: BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

“My heart sank. I did a double take and literally shook my head in an attempt to change the words that were in front of me,” remembers Martin.

Like other residents of the Hawaiian islands that were receiving the same message at that moment, Martin’s mind reached back to the recent emergency siren tests the state had implemented throughout the islands. The citizens had been instructed to ignore the noise, to simply carry on with their daily lives.

Martin, a second grade teacher, had always been in the classroom when those sirens had sounded over the last several months.

“We were always told that if a missile was launched in our direction from North Korea, we would have roughly 15 minutes from the time of the alert to the time of impact,” she recalls. “What do you even do in that amount of time?”

The panic stricken landscape Martin was plunged into on Jan. 13 was a world away, nearly 5,000 miles to be exact, from the one she left in 2015, when her husband, an Army officer, was transferred to Oahu. Growing up in Greenville, Martin pursued a career in teaching and spent a year in the classroom at James W. Smith Elementary School in Cove City. Jonathan, who was born and raised in New Bern, is the son of James “Smoke” Boyd, owner of The Flame Catering and Banquet Center.

But last Saturday, amidst the blaring sirens and confusion, Martin wondered if those childhood landscapes might be lost forever.
As they rushed to gather their children and secure their dogs, she realized neither her nor her husband had a clear idea of where they should be headed. Although the emergency siren tests had been sounding across Oahu for several months, Martin said they had yet to discuss what to do in the event of a real missile alert.

“I guess I was always hopeful it would never come to fruition,” she admits. “Perhaps that’s why it was so surreal when we actually received the alert that a missile was inbound to Hawaii. That was also probably why we had no plan and did not know what to do at first.”

As they drove away from their house in the family van, Martin sent a text message to family members back in North Carolina. She quickly received replies — “I love you” and “Keep us updated.” Choking back a flood of emotions, Martin says she refused to respond “with anything resembling a goodbye. I didn’t let my mind go there.”

Following a trail of neighbors to a nearby barracks, the family parked and was waved inside a concrete room on the first floor. With the 15 minutes to the missiles expected impact quickly expiring, Martin says she tried to mentally prepare herself for the blast.

“After the initial feeling of helplessness subsided and we were in a safe place, I couldn’t stop wondering what the outside world was going to look like afterwards,” she remembers. “Were my dogs going to be ok? Would our house still be standing? Is this the beginning of WWIII? Will our lives ever be the same again?”

1006232962 nc_nsj_Hawaii family3

Children and their parents huddle inside a military barracks on the island of Oahu, Hawaii on Saturday, Jan. 13. The island’s residents fled their homes after receiving a false warning that a ballistic missile was headed their way. 

Watching as soldiers filled jugs of water and families, many still in their pajamas, sorted through backpacks of emergency supplies, Martin says she was filled with a surreal sense of calm.

“For some reason, I never thought we were going to die. I kept insisting it wasn’t real, even though nothing (at that point) told us it wasn’t.”

The scenes from the barracks that morning are etched in Martin’s mind: young children playing innocently with the few toys they had brought; the worried faces of their older siblings; soldiers answering their constantly ringing phones; quiet mothers and wives, waiting for whatever came next.

“Every minute was an eternity, not knowing how long we would be in there and what the world would look like whenever, if ever, we were able to leave…,” she would write in a blog post two days after the incident.

And then, as suddenly as it began, the crisis was over. A soldier announced it was all a mistake, a false alarm.

When asked how her family responded after learning there was no incoming missile, Martin says the sense of relief was almost overwhelming.

“The tension in the room was so thick you could have cut it with a knife. As soon as the words ‘false alarm’ were spoken, we could finally breathe. A weight was lifted off our chests.”

1006232962 nc_nsj_Hawaii family2

Residents of Oahu, Hawaii gather in a military barracks on Saturday, Jan. 13 after receiving an alert that a ballistic missile was inbound. The alarm proved to be false but caused panic throughout the island. 

Still stunned, residents filed out of the barracks into the late morning sunlight and began making their way home.

From her students, Martin has learned that the island’s families dealt with the incident in three basic ways.

“Some people kept doing whatever they were doing; some gathered as a family and prayed; others sought shelter, even if it was in their own bathrooms or closets.”

She says among the larger Oahu community there is a growing sense of anger over the false alarm.

“Officials are actually receiving death threats. Someone made a huge mistake that affected tons of people,” says Martin. “It cannot possibly be fun for him right now. It was very traumatic for many people and it’ll take some time to get over it.”

As the spouse of a soldier who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Martin says she worries about the current dialogue between the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea.

“War with North Korea would be devastating and would be a type of war that no one should ever experience,” she says. “The thought is terrifying. I cringe when I watch the news and hear of tensions between our president and theirs. Peace is crucial.”

Though still shaken, Martin says her family has come to see the events of Jan. 13 as a learning experience. They have since stocked up on flashlights, food, water, and first aid kits.

“And now we know where to go if it happens again,” she says. “The missile that never was was actually a huge wake up call.”

Martin says she still has a sense of guilt about leaving the family pets behind, something she says her children haven’t gotten over.

“Once we returned home, we showered the dogs with hugs and treats. If it happens again we have a plan, and we know where to go. This time, however, we would take the dogs.”

 

A language all their own: Karen refugees find a new home at Rhems United Methodist Church

1003606067 nc-nsj_Karen refugees

They’ve traveled here for homecoming, this early September morning, in their used cars, shining white pickups and Sunday best, parents leading by hand their children and elders across the damp grass and up the steps of the small country church.

The latecomers wipe the morning dew off their shoes and walk through the red double doors, passing one by one beneath the sign that reads, “Enter as a stranger, leave as a friend.”

The pews are filled by now, so the members draw in close against the walls, greeting each other in languages foreign and familiar, “God bless you. God bless you.”

They’ve joined together today to enact a uniquely Baptist, and even more uniquely Southern tradition, a celebration of memories past and of new beginnings. For many of those gathered here, those memories stretch back further than the local farmland and rivers, back across decades and oceans to their home country of Burma and the refugee camps where entire generations of their families were born and raised.

Many of them arrived in Craven County by night, 10 years ago or last week, climbing from planes and walking, alone or with loved ones, into the vast strangeness of American life.

And here they made their homes. And here, at Rhems United Methodist Church, they found a family.

***

When the first Karen (pronounced Kah-REN) refugees arrived in North Carolina 13 years ago, it’s unlikely they saw themselves as pioneers of a new community. Most were simply seeking escape from the region’s seemingly endless civil war.

The Karens are among various Burmese ethnic groups that have fought for their own independent states in a series of conflicts that date back to 1948, when the country gained independence from Britain. Most Karen people are subsistence farmers, living in small mountain villages, growing rice and vegetables and raising animals.

Due to the ongoing civil war, approximately 140,000 Karen currently live in refugee camps along the Thailand-Burma border.

Though they traditionally practice Buddhism, approximately 15 percent identify as Christians, likely due to the influence of 19th century British missionaries.

The first Karens to resettle in New Bern, Ye Win and his wife, pregnant at the time with their first child, arrived from their former home in a United Nations refugee camp in 2004. They were seeking a better life for their young family, one that didn’t include killings, torture, landmines and forced labor by Burma’s military regime.

Luckily, they found Helen Dawley, a retired teacher who had recently arrived in New Bern from her home state of Florida. Dawley was a member of Rhems United Methodist and also worked with Interfaith Refugee Ministry, a local nonprofit that helps resettle refugees in the New Bern/Craven County area.

Dawley assisted Ye Win and his wife with transportation and other needs, helping them get on their feet in their adopted homeland.

“I had time and a car, so that’s how I helped” says Dawley, who recently celebrated her 91st birthday.

After another Karen family arrived several months later, Dawley convinced the church’s United Methodist Women’s group to sponsor the refugees.

Though Dawley saw her service to the Karen as an expression of her religious faith, she also recognized, in their commitment to community and family, a way to revitalize her house of worship.

***

Ask any of the senior members of the congregation and they’ll tell you: In the early 2000s, Rhems United Methodist was a dying church.

“We were averaging 30 to 35 worshipers, the average age was probably 75-80. Maybe one or two young people but mostly older people, so we were struggling,” says Rev. Connie Stutts, who came to the church at roughly the same time the first Karen refugees began arriving in New Bern.

In response to the church’s dwindling membership, the congregation began praying for a new generation of worshipers to rejuvenate its weekly services. Most of all, they prayed for children.

Those petitions were partially answered through Ye Win and his wife, whose child was baptized in the church in 2005.

Then, in 2006, the U.S. made a decision to open its doors to Burmese refugees from Thailand, bringing an influx of Karen families to the country.

“We had at that time a large number of Karen that came into our community, and not all Christian. So it kind of shook up New Bern, the schools as you can imagine, and some of the churches. So we became one of those safe haven places,” recalls Stutts.

The answer to their prayers came as “quite a shock” to some church members, Stutts admits.

“This was a church that didn’t have any children and all of a sudden there are lots of children, and they’re active children who are used to active church and vocal church, so it was challenging to some of the older members,” she says. “Some of them just simply embraced it and said ‘We prayed for children; thank God, look what he’s brought us. Yeah, it might be challenging but it’s a good thing.”’

1003606067 nc_nsj_Karen refugees2

One of the church members who embraced the change was Melanie Matthews, the youngest of five generations of her family to attend Rhems United Methodist. Matthews grew up in the church and recently found her way back after returning home to North Carolina in 2015.

“I cried, actually. It was pretty magnificent because it’s a church in the middle of nowhere in North Carolina where people are not very accepting of outsiders. So to see my church that I grew up in turn into this was pretty amazing,” she remembers.

Melanie says the Karen refugees have fundamentally changed the Rhems community.

“It’s opened a lot of people’s minds. I’m glad it’s turned into this because I don’t think I would be here if it hadn’t.”

Melanie’s grandmother, Ann Matthews, has deep roots at Rhems United Methodist. When church members walk through its doors each Sunday, wood cut from her family’s farm decades ago creak beneath their feet and helps support the steeple above their heads.

The arrival of the Karen refugees, she says, was received as a blessing by most, but not all, of the church’s congregation.

“It was a change; some liked it and some didn’t. I liked it. Maybe two or three couples left the church, but generally we grew to love them (the refugees),” she says. “It’s hard for me to recognize them all and get all of their names but I know quite a few of them and I’m delighted they’re here.”

Through her work with the Craven Literacy Council Ann tutors several young Karen refugees who are currently working toward their U.S. citizenship.

“I can see it in my grandma,” adds Melanie, “how much it’s changed her.”

The church’s most senior members, 91-year-old John McLean, and his wife Peggy, 85, have been attending Rhems United Methodist for over six decades.

Peggy is blunt when she describes the negative reactions of some church members to the Karen’s arrival.

“Well, I’ll tell it like it is, we had some members to leave. I think they thought the Karen would come in and take over. I’m not sure exactly what they thought, but they were not happy so they didn’t need to be here,” she states flatly.

Despite the initial growing pains, Peggy says the Karen have helped fill a void left after many of Rhems United Methodist’s young members moved away.

“They were very friendly, very open, very nice people,” she says of the first Karen members to come to the church. “They were just very easy to get to know. It was hard for us to communicate but they would still speak, hug us…very friendly people. They’ve been a blessing to our church.”

“The Burmese are very giving people and very much a part of what goes on in our church,” adds John.

Rev. Stutts says the Rhems United Methodist congregation has responded in kind. Unlike other churches that have taken in Karen refugees, Rhems has integrated the newcomers into every aspect of the church experience, from the choir to prayer services. According to Stutts, the Karen have also been named to church leadership roles.

”We’ve been able to do something the other churches have not done on a large scale, which is we don’t have an English speaking service and a Karen speaking service, we have one service of worship together,” says Stutts. “Over the years we have learned to really celebrate the traditions of each culture and really see God in each other and learn from one another.”

***

When Pawsay Paw arrived in New Bern in 2007 with her husband and two children, she spoke no English and had little understanding of American culture. Yet compared to the world she came from — one that would be frighteningly alien to most westerners — her new home was a wonderland.

“We had been in a refugee camp for 17 years; we had no way to go back to our country because we didn’t have freedom,” she says in careful, halting English. “And then we had a chance for the resettlement in the U.S. I wanted a better life for my children, because we had nowhere to go, we just stay in the camp, we cannot go out.”

Paw says church members lent their support when she and her family had little else to live on. Shortly after her arrival, with only a part time job and lacking funds to pay an electric bill, she turned to Rhems United Methodist for assistance.

“I came to the church and they have an emergency fund and asked if I could borrow $25 to pay my bill and they gave me a check for $25. So it is very great for me, I will never forget about that. When I got my money later I paid it back for another family if they need help,” says Paw.

1003606067 nc_nsj_Karen refugees4

Paw says adjusting to America offered other challenges as well, such as learning how to drive and opening a bank account.

“I have to learn everything from how to use the phone and how to use the electronic stove or microwave, because we didn’t have this kind of stuff. It is totally different, we had to learn everything new, just start from zero,” she says.

The Karen families who arrived prior to Pawsay Paw’s built a support system that helped cushion the landing for future refugees touching down in the New Bern community.

When Naw Beh Bay relocated to New Bern in 2004, she searched for a church where she and her three sons could worship in a way that honored her Baptist upbringing, and that would offer support for newly-arrived refugees.

“The religious worship at Rhems is almost the same as the Karen. When we worship we know we worship God and Jesus Christ,” she says.“This church helped a lot of our refugees; any time we got in trouble they’ve been there to help.”

One of the biggest tests of that support came in 2008, when a van carrying a group of Karen returning from a worship service in Morehead City was struck head on by another vehicle. The driver of the van and another man were killed and a young woman was left in critical condition.

As their pasture, Rev. Stutts visited the families of the deceased and injured to offer what comfort she could.

“I’ll never forget I took my shoes off and walked in and the wife is sitting in the middle of the floor and there’s all these Karen women and there’s this mourning that’s going on and I don’t know what they’re saying, I don’t understand what’s happening,” remembers Stutts. “ But I remember seeing that the women sitting by her were squeezing her arm to comfort her. And so immediately I moved to her and I sat down and squeezed her arm as I’d seen the others do, and I just prayed.”

The accident, said Stutts, was instrumental in knitting the church and the Karen community together.

“We were no longer the white church with refugees, but we were Rhems United Methodist Church,” she states.

For many of the younger Karen refugees, the church has been a constant throughout their lives, a safe haven from an outside world that could often be disorienting or even hostile.

Joshua Htoo, Bay’s son, remembers arriving in New Bern as an eight year old and finding few other refugees to help guide the way.

”Our family was one of the first families to come to New Bern, so getting help was really challenging compared to refugees who arrive right now,” he remembers. “Now there are so many people who have been here and done that already.”

Htoo recalls the “really big” sense of culture shock he experienced at the time.

“The first thing I remember is going to school at Oaks Road Elementary on the bus and I was really afraid. I didn’t know how to speak the language, people are looking at me. It was a big shock.”

Htoo said one of his biggest challenges was navigating the idiosyncrasies of the Southern dialect.

“Just getting used to the culture, the way people dress, the way people talk. Especially, New Bern being in the South, the accent is something that I had to get used to.”

Htoo says he eventually picked up the language and local customs by becoming involved in sports.

“I actually communicated with other students better in PE class, doing something like playing soccer. That’s what I try to tell other kids, play sports, you’ll make friends and have teammates and you’ll pick up the culture so much faster.”

Htoo went on to form CAPAY (Coalition of Asian Pacific American Youth), a New Bern High School club that promotes the importance of a college education. He’s also become a living example of that ethic: he is currently a freshman at the Citadel Military College seeking a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. Htoo is set to graduate in 2020.

Rhems United Methodist, he stressed, has played an outsized role in his academic, and personal, growth.

“This is a great church, they welcomed us with open arms,” he says. “It was like family, like coming to a family that we didn’t even know.”

***

According to Rev. Stutts, the relationship between the Karen community and Rhems United Methodist has been one of mutual rejuvenation.

“Those relationships where there’s give and receive on both sides are really important for the church, because we never want to be like ‘we’re the white people that know everything and let us help you.’ We understand that we needed the Karen community as much, and possibly more, than they needed us.”

1003606067 nc_nsj_Karen refugees3

The church members stress that, paramount among the blessings they’ve received from the Karen is their devotion to community.

Ann Matthews recalls a Karen birthday party she attended as “the most moving ceremony I’ve ever been in.”

“It was not a birthday party,” she remembers, “it was a birthday celebration of this child and how precious he was.”

“I love the call to community, the reminder of the importance of community that I get from the Karen,” says Rev. Stutts. “We as Americans think ‘America is the best nation and everyone would be happy to be here.’ But there are things we lose because of things that we incessantly must have.”

“Courage,” says Stutts, when asked what she’s learned from the Karens.

“They really have courageous faith. I would like to be like them without having to go through what they’ve gone through, but I’m pretty sure that kind of faith only comes through the fire.”

***

Like a song, or a river, the Rhems United Methodist homecoming service has a rhythm, a rising tidal flow.

The service begins with the sharing of joys and sorrows. A congregation member says the church’s Karen youth group recently cleaned her gutters “joyfully and happily.”

Stutts mentions an earthquake in Mexico, flooding in Burma, India and Bangladesh.

Another woman says she is thankful the descendants of those who built the church can be here this morning.

Today’s lesson is from Exodus 12, the story of the Passover, read first in Karen, then English.

“The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.”

A group of Karen singers slowly make their way to the front of the church, forming a loose semicircle beside the alter. An acoustic guitar cuts through the congregation’s chatter and Rev. Stutts calls for a song, “Old Church Choir.”

“Can you hear it? Can you hear it? Ain’t nothing gonna steal my joy. That old church choir singing in my soul.”

The entire congregation has joined in now, their voices reverberating off the wood paneled walls and pastel-tinted stained glass windows.

The song rolls and rises, borne along on a swell of Southern English and Southeast Asian tongues, punctuated by the cries and laughter of children.

“I say that our language at Rhems is love, it’s not English, it’s not Karen, it’s love,” says Stutts. “And love knows no bounds, there’s no walls it can’t go through or knock over, and we had a lot of walls to knock down.”

Vanishing Point: three stories of loss and understanding

1011890305 nc_nsj_Alzheimer's lead art

Elizabeth Brinson’s hands tremble slightly as they come to rest on the yellowed newspaper article, the late morning sunlight spilling in through the window behind her falling faintly across the story’s black and white photo. Her fingers touch the image of the still-young man who gazes out uncomfortably behind black frame glasses and linger there gently, as if the past detailed in the faded newsprint was a fragile, living thing, easily damaged and lost to memory.

“He was very, very bright, genius I.Q. That was what was so devastating about this illness, he couldn’t read, he couldn’t write. We’ve got thousands and thousands of books…,” explains Brinson, her voice trailing off into the shadows of the room.

The news article details the life of Brinson’s husband, Ken, a man who served his country in the U.S. Army before devoting himself to education, who stood on the front lines of school integration in the early 1960s and did his best to offer solace and safety to the young black children in his care.

The man featured in the paper’s “Personality in the News” profile is the one Elizabeth Brinson fell in love with and married in 1961, the same man who, in the years just before his death, became a virtual stranger as he slowly succumbed to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.

The story of Elizabeth and Ken Brinson, like the story of the other Alzheimer’s patients and caregivers featured in this article, follows a predictable trajectory of diagnosis, deterioration and loss. And like all such stories, in its remarkable, bittersweet details, it is utterly and uniquely their own.

“I haven’t grieved,” says Brinson. “I’ll tear up, but I haven’t broken down and cried. And I think a lot of it is because I grieved for him so long before he died.”

“For better or worse”

Brinson1

In 2007, three years before he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and nine years before the disease claimed his life, Elizabeth Brinson began to understand something was wrong with her husband.

“All of a sudden, if we needed a plumber, he wanted me to call the plumber. Or if we were getting ready to take a trip he wanted me to make the arrangements. That was not like him, so I realized he was backing off things,” she recalls.

Three years later, during the couple’s 50th anniversary vacation in Hawaii, Ken contracted meningitis and underwent a battery of tests.

“They could not do an MRI on him because he had a pacemaker. But they did enough CAT scans that they saw things that were not normal. When we came back the report that came from Hawaii to our local doctor said they suspected Alzheimer’s.”

Brinson says her husband accepted the diagnosis with a measure of relief.

“He didn’t rail about ‘why me?; he didn’t do that at all. I think he had known himself for a long time that things weren’t right and now this was an answer. So we joked about it and we talked about; we didn’t hide it.”

Brinson describes her husband as a “gentle man” who, in 1964, played a crucial role in integrating one of the oldest high schools in North Carolina.

“He was a principal in Warrenton and I think they took in seven black students that year. The first day of school Ken had sent me and our son to Raleigh to my mother and daddy’s house, because the Ku Klux Klan came in and was threatening,” she recalls. “The first bus that came had one little black girl on it, and Ken came down the steps and down the walkway to the bus and she was sitting right up front scared to death and shaking. And he went on the bus and talked to her a little bit and said ‘Come on now, we’re going to go to school.’ And they walked into the school and nobody did anything. He did that with each bus that came in. That’s one of the things he was most proud of.”

Brinson2

Ken would go on to serve as superintendent of school systems throughout the state, including Goldsboro City and Durham County schools.

Unlike many Alzheimer’s patients, Brinson said the disease progressed relatively slowly after her husband was diagnosed.

“The doctor said most people go in a straight line and then they go down steeply. Ken went more in waves. He was higher functioning up until the end than a lot of Alzheimer’s patients. He couldn’t write, but he could still tell a joke and he could do Sudoku up until just a few months before he died. He was just a unique man.”

As the disease progressed, Ken began to hallucinate, a change that would have life threatening implications for Brinson.

“I laid down on the sofa with him because my back was hurting,” she remembers. “He put his arm around my waist and had his hand on my head. I was lying there and I looked up to see if he was asleep and he tightened on me, and I realized he was somewhere else. Whenever I moved he would tighten his grip.”

Luckily, Brinson was able to reach her phone and call 911.

“The police were able to get in and pry him off of me. He had been hallucinating that someone had broken into our house.”

With his mental and physical health in decline, Brinson made the decision to place Ken on hospice care. Just prior to that decision she was told by doctors that her husband’s pacemaker battery needed to be replaced.

‘In talking to the doctors and Ken and my children, I decided not to replace the battery,” says Brinson. “My doctor said ‘If he needed a pacemaker at this stage would you put him through that?’ and I said ‘no,’ so he said ‘You’re justified in not making him go through surgery to replace it.’”

Brinson pauses before continuing.

“Ken and I had promised years and years ago not to let each other be vegetables, and it was going to be that way (for him).”

Brinson was eventually able to transfer her husband to Courtyards memory care center in New Bern. She brought in a bed and stayed with him from early morning until he fell asleep.

Ken’s final days were tranquil, she says. His pacemaker battery stopped on a Saturday morning, three months after he began living at Courtyards.

“I woke up and he was breathing differently,” she remembers. “They came in and I said ‘Is he dying?’ He slept away that week and then…went away.”

“We were married 56 years, he was my life,” she says. “I just know we did the right thing for him. I wouldn’t advise it to anybody, I would just say this is what was right for us.”

“You know your husband’s eyes”

Maisack 1

“I’m the kind of person who thinks they can do anything.”

Sylvia Maisack laughs nervously as she thumbs through the journal she kept as a day -to-day log of her husband’s seven year descent into the depths of Alzheimer’s disease.

“I kept him home with me longer than I should have, probably, past the point where it was safe for me,” she acknowledges.

Turning to a journal entry dated August 21, 2015, she reads: “On the 19th Don hit me hard on the head as I bent over to help put on his underwear. His mood and aggression was present but I was surprised by it, didn’t know he was going to do that. It frightened me to think what if the hit had been harder.”

Luckily, Maisack caught herself on a shower chair after she was struck, but the incident left her right arm in pain for weeks.

“That night I knew, I could have died,” she says matter-of-factly.

In another journal entry from earlier that month, Maisack describes her husband’s accelerating mental and physical debilitation.

“It’s so hard to see Don in his present condition — depressed, irritable, angry, distressed. He seems to have a headache in the morning. He has imbalance, abnormal stance and gait. He’s stooped over.”

Even after the disease robbed him of his ability to read, Maisack says, Don would still struggle to maintain an appearance of normalcy.

“He would sit by the window with a stack of magazines, pouring over them, appearing to try to understand them, and then just end up turning the pages,” she remembers.

It was not the life Maisack and her husband, who grew up together in Hagerstown, Md., envisioned when they moved to New Bern in 1991, following Don’s retirement from NABISCO.

“He worked his entire adult life for the same company, started off in the stockroom,” says Maisack. “In those days people stuck with a company if they treated them right. We got lots of free cookies.”

Maisack credits her experience as a registered nurse working in schools and intensive care clinics with her ability to manage the stress of caring for Don after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2009.

“That helped me probably as much as my faith, which is number one,” she says. “My Bible is always right beside me.”

Maisack says her husband began exhibiting signs of Alzheimer’s as early as six years before his diagnosis. A 2003 note from his cardiologist mentioned that he was exhibiting poor memory retrieval.

“At that time, however, he wouldn’t admit to having any memory problems,” remembers Maisack.

Don’s friends, however, noticed changes even earlier, she recalls.

“I was speaking to one of his golf buddies and he lost his ability to keep his golf score long before I saw changes here at home. I picked it up in other ways, with mistakes in the checkbook, leaving the bridge game at night and he forgets how to get home and it’s only a few blocks from where we live. All of a sudden, that’s what was happening.”

Even after his diagnosis, Don refused to acknowledge his declining mental state, Maisack recalls.

“He was very angry. He still was with it enough that he didn’t want to be told. He was denying it, I was denying it a little bit. I couldn’t even get him to stop driving. He went through a red light… we’re lucky we weren’t killed.”

Shortly after his diagnosis Don was prescribed Aricept, one of the early Alzheimer’s drugs. Like many Alzheimer’s caregivers, Maisack says her husband saw few if any benefits from Aricept or other drugs he was prescribed, such as Namenda.

“Who knows if it did any good,” she says flatly. “I don’t know how you evaluate that when you’re just going on a downward spiral. I can’t say the medications had any effect, because he kept deteriorating.”

Maisack says she made an effort to keep her husband physically active throughout his illness, taking him to Courts Plus three times a week to walk on the treadmill.

“Every patient is different and has their own speed and degeneration. Don lost just about everything except his motor skills.”

Maisack also took Don to the George Street Senior Center in New Bern once a week to provide a degree of socialization for her increasingly isolated husband. She also drew on Don’s love of music and cinema to help keep him calm.

“He was a trumpeter as a young man, he played in dance bands,” she says. “Music very often is a factor Alzheimer’s patients never lose, so I’d put on some of his old records. And the Turner Classic Movies, we’d seen them all but I’d put them on for him. Those were the babysitters, they kept him happy.”

She also began attending the local Alzheimer’s Support Group once a month. “When the members learn something that works for us we share it with each other. That was very important to me,” she remembers.

In the last year of his life, says Maisack, Don’s disease progressed rapidly. Due to tissue degeneration he began having difficulty swallowing food, while weakened muscles in his legs eventually left him unable to walk. On May 15, 2016 Maisack awoke to find her husband sitting on the edge of their bed, unable to stand.

“I tried to get him up but I couldn’t. I burst into tears and told him ‘Well, this is the moment we’ve been dreading.’ Because I had told him from way back, the day you can’t walk is the day I can’t take care of you by myself.

“He looked up at me, with those eyes that understood, and I sat him down in a chair and went and called 911, and they came and took him to the hospital.”

After several weeks in the hospital Don was moved to a hospice facility in Newport.

“He was taken off food and liquids; they kept him comfortable with medication,” explains Maisack. “He was given intravenous fluids, but we didn’t allow any other artificial means (of life support), we had those papers ahead of time from the lawyers.”

On his third day in hospice care, a Friday morning she remembers, Maisack received a call that Don had passed away in the night.

In those final weeks, in the rare moments when the morphine would wear off and he would regain consciousness, Maisack believes whatever was left of the man she married was able to transcend the damage Alzheimer’s had inflicted.

I still think we had a slight connection with that spiritual message that I repeated to him any number of  times, but especially that last week: our bodies pass away but not the spirit, that was the simple message. And he looked at me and…you know your husband’s eyes, and they could speak even though he couldn’t speak, and I think something got through.”

“He could fix anything”

Rodriguez2

Debbie Rodriguez’s voice still carries the rich, gritty brogue of the north New Jersey neighborhood where she grew up, a stone’s throw from where she married, in her own estimation, the man who saved her life 25 years ago.

Having divorced from her first husband, and with two young children to raise, Rodriguez remembers the days before she met George, a widow with two children of his own, as a particularly dark time.

“I was probably going to be on welfare, though I never let myself have that happen, had I not met George when I did,” she says. “I probably would have lost the house that I owned. I was making $200 a week and I was paying a $600 a month mortgage.”

Despite an age difference of 13 years, Rodriguez says her husband was an active, self-taught master mechanic who liked nothing better than spending time in their garage, his hands and mind buried deep in one intricate repair job after another.

“He will be 80 in October and I’ll be 67; our birthdays are a day apart,” she confides. “The difference in our ages was never a problem. He used to spend hours and hours in the garage fixing things, piddling with this, piddling with that. He could fix anything, washing machines, driers, anything.”

After the couple moved to New Bern in 2000, George worked as repair contractor across Craven County.

And then, at some point in 2011, says Rodriguez, “that all started to go.”

“He was saying ‘I can’t remember where I put that piece of paper. I can’t remember where I’m supposed to go today, and I didn’t write it down.’ We went through so many different phases.”

The last phase, the one that has left Rodriguez both exhausted and relieved, involved moving her husband to Home Place, an assisted living and memory care facility, 11 days prior to this interview. Much like Maisack, Rodriguez says the choice was taken out of her hands when her husband lost the use of his legs.

“His legs just went right out from under him and he couldn’t get up, and he hasn’t been able to get up since,” she says. “I was literally dragging him around the house. It was inhumane and that’s why I made the decision.”

Rodriguez1

Back in the early years of his disease, before he was diagnosed in 2012, Rodriguez says she chalked her husband’s problems up to normal, age-related memory loss.

“So when things started slipping, I’d get up in the morning and our kitchen would have 25 or 30 sticky notes all over the wallpaper. And the handwriting was getting bad; I was having a hard time even understanding what they were saying on the notes. I would notice he would put the wrong month, instead of September 3 he’d put August 3. I’d look at the note and say, ‘George, August 3 was a month ago.’”

Once a stickler about his hygiene, Rodriguez says she noticed George was going days without brushing his teeth or changing his underwear. She recalls that, during a party at their home, he left the house to go sit on a neighbor’s dock.

“This was someone he had worked for. He told them he just didn’t understand what was going on, he was forgetting everything, he couldn’t remember how to do simple things.”

Those early symptoms seem almost quaint compared to the daily trauma that Rodriguez suffered through several years after George’s diagnosis. By 2014 her husband had become a man trapped in his own mind, with little interest in his old passions.

“Everything that he cared about — he used to read for hours, science magazines and Popular Mechanics and Time magazine, he always kept up with what was going on in the world — it all started slipping away,” she remembers. “He’d read on a couple of pages and then you’d just see him sitting there staring into space.”

Two years ago, says Rodriguez, her husband found a new hobby.

“He’ll sit and color in the adult coloring books,” she says. ‘That became his life, coloring and watching television.”

Around this time her husband also become incontinent.

“I was getting up in the middle of the night and changing sheets,” Rodriguez recalls. “You do that and you try to go back to sleep and you can’t. And then you get up in the morning and the sheets are wet again.”

Rodriguez says the stress of caring for her husband took its toll on her physical health.

“I lost 20 pounds due to stress. My clothes were falling off me; that was the only good that came out of the whole thing,” she jokes.

Alzheimer’s also robbed Rodriguez of a clear understanding of her own identity, she says.

“You lose your sense of who you are. What kind of a person am I? Am I a good person, a bad person, a caring person, a non-caring person. What should I do, what shouldn’t I do. Should I get the car washed or should I go to the grocery store? I have to call the insurance agency, I have to call the drug store.”

Since placing her husband in a care facility, Rodriguez says her initial feelings of guilt have given way to a sense that “I can breath again.”

“You do what you think is best but in the meantime you are exhausted beyond understanding,” she admits. “It’s just now, 11 days that he’s in there, and I’m just starting to feel like a person again.

“It’s almost like you’re on a train or roller coaster and you can’t get off, it just goes around in circles and spins and spins and you’re trying to do everything humanly possible.”

Rodriguez credits her family, including her children and step children, with providing crucial support over the last six years.

“Everybody loved George, he didn’t have an enemy. My mother used to joke, I’d ask her if she had to make a choice between me and George who would she take? ‘Well, George of course,’ she’d say. He was just that kind of person.”

Despite her husband’s disease, that essential goodness that drew her to him 25 years ago has remained, says Rodriguez. But the man who once obsessed over wires and motors, who “raised my two children as his own,” is gone she admits.

“He’ll fixate on something on the wall, a speck of dirt or bug. He gets up out of his chair to investigate and falls down; he forgets that he can’t walk. And he’ll sit there like a little child, like ‘I’m sad I can’t get that off the floor.’ He’s very childlike now, very childlike.”

“It’s too much, really”

For each of the women in this story, coming to terms with the loss of their husbands, both physically and mentally, has been a slow, often painful process. What they’ve learned along the way is that love offers little defense against the battering ram of life’s cruelest moments. And that the world, however improbably, goes on.

“It doesn’t have to be the end of your life, it’s just part of the journey,” says Brinson. “If you love someone enough and you believe in your marriage vows then this is just something that you have to accept and deal with.

“You have to learn to go with the flow, and that’s so trite, but that’s the way it is. Don’t panic, just take it as it comes.”

Maisack urges caregivers to look after their own health as well.

“There is a safety factor for the caregiver that has to be considered,” she stresses. “The person who has Alzheimer’s is going to die; there’s nothing really that’s going to help them, really. They’re going downhill all the time. The caregiver is very important, but for the average person it’s a lot, it’s too much really.”

Rodriguez says she has struggled with well meaning but misguided friends who simply have no way of understanding what she’s been through.

“Don’t listen to everyone else’s story because there are no two situations alike,” she says. “Just like everybody is different, everybody’s brain is different. When they say ‘My uncle Jack had it and aunt Susie had to do this, that and the other thing,’ it is not comforting, because it is not your situation. In fact it’s irritating. Unless you live it you have no idea.”

For Rodriguez, a measure of peace has come through surrounding herself with others who have lost their loved ones to Alzheimer’s disease.

“Learn as much as you can about the disease,” she offers. “And say a lot of prayers.”