Martha: Full of life, even with her own struggles

Editor’s note: Rockdale native Ken Esten Cooke is publisher of The Fredericksburg Standard and was previously a longtime employee of The Reporter. This column is running simultaneously this week in The Reporter and The Standard. M y mom lost her best friend this week. After more than 30 years of seeing her pretty, active, vivacious and funny friend depleted by Multiple Sclerosis, mom’s friend Martha gave up the ghost on Monday.

The two were like peas in a pod as they raised children. They played tennis, they played bridge, they went out together. They watched each other’s children and compared notes on childrearing.

There wasn’t much “life” in the final five years of Martha’s life. She was mostly bedridden and mom would walk the short distance to her house to sit with her and talk. Even when the disease made her a shell of her former self, she wanted mom to sit and talk to her.

M.S. is prevalent in young adults, affecting the ability of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord to communicate with each other. Martha had the progressive form of the disease, marked by a long, slow debilitation.

It begins with changes in sensation such as tingling or numbness, moving on to muscle weakness and balance problems, then slowly atrophying the body’s muscles until the person can’t sit up or function at all. Its cause is unknown still and there is no known cure.

In 1984, my parents were marking their 25th wedding anniversary and Martha and husband Harold their 20th. They all went to Cancun together to celebrate and blow off some steam.

Martha had just been diagnosed and began having trouble negotiating a dozen steps down to the beach from their hotel, and had to hold the railing for balance. She complained of her feet hurting on the stairs, though when she got to the firm, flat ground, she was fine. That diagnosis was not anything you would wish on your worst enemy.

Slowly this disease affected her movement, and soon Martha retired her tennis dresses and her Head racquet for less taxing activities. Mom pretty much quit playing as well.

She always said Mar tha was the one who really enjoyed the sport and was good at it with her long limbs and athletic skills. My mom played just to spend time with “Mar,” which is what we called her.

Mar’s husband Harold is one of the smartest people in our hometown and an eccentric entrepreneur. He can wax on about economics or English literature with enthusiasm and a teacher’s desire to share his knowledge.

Together the couple worked as teachers, ran a drive-in theater, and several eating establishments. The theater was not an easy thing in our tiny town because when a movie was shown that upset prim and proper, Harold and Martha’s home phone number was in the book.

We children spent many hours in Mar and Harold’s backyard pool, visiting with Mar, who maintained her bone dry sense of humor as well as her East Texas beauty queen looks through the early stages of her private battle. Mar encouraged our swimming and our tennis playing. She and mom paired up to run the youth tennis tournament for decades, encouraging young players year after year.

The time came when Mar needed a scooter to get around. She would offer rides to small children, no small joy to our sons when they were tots. She rode it about eight blocks from her home to church, where she and mom taught a special needs class—the All Stars.

Each Sunday, they taught lessons meant for kindergartners to mentallychallenged adults. They cut out a portion of the pew so she could sit in church. Maybe she needed the lessons and the messages from the pulpit for strength, or maybe it just took her mind off her own problems for a while.

Lest you think her story sounds like an after-school special, it was not. Knowing that you are slowly dying means entertaining, or even rationalizing, all scenarios regarding your life and death.

She confided in our pastor that she wished her journey could be done. This was when she became bedridden. No one who is healthy should be judgmental and cast aspersions.

None of us who live with good health honestly has any idea what living with a slowly numbing disease is like. Our pastor said Mar taught him about courage, dedication and love.

Even while dealing with all her problems, Mar was a blue-ribbon grandmother to six, and a kind of neighborhood mom to many more who saw her at the restaurant, at their swimming pool, or on her scooter.

Mom said Mar was on hospice for more than a year, aided by nurses and aides from that organization that can provide comfort to the living when there is little left to provide for the dying.

Still, the disease took its toll on Harold, too, as it would on anyone. The man earned some serious karma stripes dealing with his spouse’s illness over three decades. The subject line of his email on Monday was simply “I lost my love.”

Though I caused her plenty of aggravation during my adolescent years and beyond, I always hate seeing my mom upset. But when your best friend is gone after such a long battle, mom’s tears were ones of relief.

“I’m not sad for her, I’m glad her battle is done,” mom said. “I’m just sad for me.”

We’re all sad for mom and for Mar’s family, but happy for Martha. And we’re glad she stepped through our lives and showed us a good way to live, even while you know you are dying.

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