Dear President Carter…

Written By: Mary L. Kenny

Several years ago, I wrote to you. You were kind enough to reply. I was on my way with Susan, my traveling companion, to India. I had previously enjoyed your mother’s book about her journey to that country. I admired her verve and would love to have had her in my circle of friends. I collect interesting, curious women. She seemed to be so upbeat, smart , honest and very funny. Her volunteer nursing serviced the impoverished people who came for treatment. Perhaps I share some of her vices and her virtues.

We were both Registered Nurses, had raised a family, worked in our respective fields, were thirsty to travel and we were both young widows. We yearned to give definition to our lives as we explored unfamiliar paths.

My “Annus Horribilis” began in January 1988. Tom, my strong, handsome Irish-American husband was dying of pancreatic cancer. Perhaps you know about that illness. Hadn’t it also affected your family?

My mother, the Rock to my childhood Gibraltar , had relocated to our Long Island home from Florida. She was wandering through the unfamiliar canyons of Alzheimer’s disease. Our first born daughter, Karen, was planning a July wedding. She wanted “daddy” to be there as the father of the bride.

They say ”when it rains, it pours” This was a tsunami. One morning , unable to sleep, I called out to God “ You think that you’re so great. Well then I’d like a miracle. I’m weary.” Then more humbly I stated…”Please God, I’d really appreciate a miracle”. The phone rang. “This is Priscilla from the Visiting Nurse Service. I have a referral to assist your family. May I visit you today.” Within an hour I ran down the driveway to greet this Hospice Nurse stranger. Tearfully, I threw my arms around her and whispered “I prayed for you this morning. I think that you’re my miracle”.

The cold Winter started to loosen its grip. I anticipated a reprieve from its desolation with the advent of a glorious Spring. Surely then everything would be better. It did not happen. July when it arrived was a bouquet of roses amidst their thorns.

Mother was placed in a Nursing Facility. Our beautiful daughter stood under an arch of flowers in the garden of Stony Brook’s Three Village Inn and gently said “I do”. Though now in a wheelchair, Tom became the Father of the Bride as the melodious sound of Mendelssohn floated from the strings of a violin accompanied by a flute.

Tom died five days later despite his brave heart and willingness to “soldier on”. Some-
times cancer makes you fall on its sword. A few days after his funeral, I turned on the ignition of his shiny orange Toyota Celica. God! he loved that little car. He was Mario Andretti when he was at its wheel. Suddenly, I became aware of the radio as it played the Merle Haggard song “What am I Gonna Do with the Rest of My Life ?” In stunned silence I gulped down my fears and washed them away with tears. I was broken… simply broken.

But hey, stay with me. This story has a happy ending. I promise. In the fall of that year I returned to Stony Brook University to complete the last six months towards earning a Master of Science Degree. Stony Brook is the next town over from my home. It is a typical college town filled with book shops, restaurants, bars ,a quaint train station and the University. It is proximal to the Long Island Sound and its bucolic beaches.

At school I was worried about financing my final term. That concern soon became unraveled by the difficulty that I was experiencing in focus and recall. I had to read the same page over and over again. Previously I had read Elizabeth -Kubler Ross and I realized that I was experiencing the markers of grief.

Remember, I’m a nurse. I asked myself what could be the elixir to free me from emotional bondage. “Volunteer” was the echo in my mind. Refocus. Help someone else. I joined a group at the University that was producing a newsletter about women in midlife. It was aptly named “Hot Flash”! An educator at the University, Dr. Jane Porcino was the Editor and Chief of this little gem. In time it achieved international recognition.

Back to my formulary, I became a volunteer at the legendary playhouse “Theater Three” in the seaside town of Port Jefferson. I could now get dressed up on the weekend, usher in hundreds of patrons, sit down and enjoy the show. I still was alone but felt yet less lonely.

Now, here’s the part where I believe you come in President Carter (I would never just call you Jimmy). Habitat for Humanity was building on a site in the Riverhead area. I volunteered to become a “go fer” as in bring the nails over there, pick up that hammer, give it to Jim etc. You know that job description I’m sure.

Perhaps, my intentions were not altruistic as I mused “maybe someday I’ll have to do a home repair. I can learn something here”. Once again, I chose the right elixir to move myself forward into a new but solo life. The dense fog lifted. The sun came out and shone on my future.

In June 1989 I graduated with a Master of Science Degree from Stony Brook. I took the degree that reaffirms “she knows something “, bundled it with my 20 years of healthcare experience and went job hunting. I became a bona fide Consultant in Long Term Care and a Licensed Nursing Home Administrator as a member of a team of outstanding professionals. We opened a 320 bed facility in Briarwood, Queens. We had to plan ,design, organize and meet the facility’s opening date. Silvercrest Center is now owned and operated by the renowned New York-Columbia Presbyterian HealthCare Network .

I am both humbled and proud to have served at this state of the art facility where we provided care for patients who were ventilator dependent and/or had traumatic brain injuries or required wound or dementia care. Yes even my mother was transferred to this renowned place and lived there peacefully until her death. Within its cornerstone, the walls and the hearts of staff who serve there remain the original ingredients of competence, caring and kindness.

In January 2001, “far away places with strange sounding names” called to me. Unfortunately, cancer was also calling once again. Due to breast cancer, I passed the gauntlet to another and left a job that I loved. What now life?

Within a few years, I secured a part time job within the Healthcare sector of an International Education Company. Their mission was to test qualified candidates who were endeavoring to obtain industry licenses or certification.

One night after I had finished my testing assignment at a Riverhead vocational school, I was unable to lock the classroom door. It appeared that no one else was around the dimly lit hallways . Suddenly I heard what sounded like the wheels of a cart and the clanking of a set of keys. I was relieved. I didn’t want to leave the classroom and its equipment unsecured. “Hello” I said to the woman in a Housekeeping Department uniform . “I need some help locking the classroom door. “Why sure“. she replied. I was about to ask her name when I noticed her ID and became both stunned and curious. “Do you live here in Riverhead”? She replied “yes, why do you ask “? “Do you own a Habitat House ?” “Well yes, but how would you know that ?” I sighed as I replied “Queenie, I’m one of many people who helped to build your home back in 1988 . My young husband had just died. I was struggling with grief and decided to help someone else in order to find my way back to a normal life”.

On the spot we hugged and did the Happy Dance. As she locked the classroom door while at the same time she regaled me with the stories of the many positive ways in which the house had changed her life.

On the way home, I pondered this “chance meeting” after 20 years and asked myself philosophically:

“Is it the Doors that open to opportunity.
Is it the Locks that keep us safe.
Or is it simply having or finding the right Keys that makes a difference in life?”

Mr. President, you are now 92 years old. Recently you became dehydrated and had to overnight in a hospital. The next day with your wife, Rosalynn, you were back banging the nails on another home for someone in need. You have exemplified what “growing old gratefully” looks like. Your mother would be pleased.