Introduction Chapter 1: In Praise of Maria: a memoir


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It nonetheless happened that when a literary agent pushed her to write a book on women and spirituality, she dashed off an outline for the purpose of getting rid of the agent. The agent went to Bantam Press and got a huge advance based on the outline. Writing Dance of the Spirit was perhaps the most difficult writing project she ever undertook. The result was a beautiful work that fully satisfied the Bantam editors and the book sold well. That experience led to a second book with Bantam. When Maria first proposed a book on older women and spirituality, Bantam was skeptical but she eventually persuaded them. This time Maria negotiated her own contract. After writing the book Jubilee Time for Bantam, she had some additional material that she thought might be made into a book for a church readership. She quickly put together a small volume, Proclaim Jubilee!

This book took note of the coming year 2000 which was about five years in the future. The year 2000 was a jubilee year in which debts are to be forgiven. For the years up to the new millennium she became a strong voice in the movement to forgive the debts of poor nations that were burdened with impossible interest payments. The New York newspaper, Newsday, did a Sunday feature on Maria’s work in this area. She was invited to numerous parishes to speak on what individuals and parishes could do for the jubilee year. A few parishes bought copies of the book for each of its parishioners.

She had two other themes that especially interested her and drew invitations. She was invited to speak to many women’s groups and to wrestle with the issues of the feminist movement. She was especially interested in the development of young girls and often spoke to women faculty of high schools and colleges. A further issue dear to her heart was Jewish-Christian relations. She often worked with the Facing History curriculum that deals with twentieth-century genocide. She became deeply committed to the appreciation of the Jewish people and their history. We once were attending a program of Jewish music in a German church. On noticing that Maria was weeping, a Dutch colleague asked me if Maria was Jewish. She had strong emotional reactions to works of art and music.

Maria’s father had died when she was eight years old, a traumatic experience that affected her deeply. Her mother, Mary Harris, taught in the New York City school system to support Maria and her brother Tom. The family was a close knit unit. Maria got much of her winning personality and energetic drive from her mother. Mary Harris died in 1991 at the age of 93. She suffered from dementia in the last few years of her life (the majority of people over 85 years old have some degree of dementia). She was in a nursing home for about five years. I can picture Maria singing to her mother amid the cacophony in the nursing home. Her mother was seemingly at peace but not conscious of what was going on around her. But the sound of Maria’s singing would light up her face.

Maria’s brother Tom was a gentle and kind man. Maria thought the world of him and they remained close throughout their lives. Tom had been head of the pressman’s union at the New York Times. He patiently dealt with the seemingly endless difficulties that his wife had. He had just retired at age 67 to take up some serious golf when he was struck down with dementia. One Sunday morning on returning from church he could not put the car in the garage. His decline was precipitous from that moment. It involved violent behavior, something utterly out of character for him, but a phenomenon not uncommon among men with dementia.

He had to be moved four times because the hospital or the nursing home could not handle his behavior. I remember one particularly harrowing experience when visiting him at Pilgrim State Hospital. I had the impression that each place that he went tried new drugs on him to control his behavior but the drugs quickly made things worse. When I went over his autopsy with a psychologist, I said that although it lists three causes of death I think what killed him were the drugs. She said “I think you are probably right.”

At least the end was peaceful. I have a vivid memory of our visiting him in an ICU of the hospital where he died. A local priest known to both of us happened to be there at the same time. He said the Eucharist for the three of us at Tom’s bed side. It was a religious moment that Maria always cherished. After Tom’s death, Maria would say: “I don’t want to hear people saying he is better off dead. That may be true but just don’t say that to me now.” She mourned deeply this last member of her immediate family.

She was also concerned that Tom had died of dementia and the disease appears to be at least partially genetic. Maria read that if a sibling dies of dementia, one’s chances of having the disease increase by fifty percent. Maria was brilliant – except at math. I had to assure her that the statistic did not mean that she had a one in two chances of having the disease. I said that if five percent of people have dementia, then a fifty percent increase would mean that seven and a half percent of the population would get it. Her chances went from one in twenty to about one in fourteen. (I wasn’t sure that the statistics meant that but I was sure her anxiety was exaggerated). The more important thing, I argued, was that she was a most unlikely candidate for the disease. It would not hit an active, healthy, intelligently creative person. I was dead wrong.

Maria and I met in 1966 at Manhattan College. Our first book was written in 1967 and caused some stir. We wrote together when opportunities presented themselves. We also team taught whenever we could. Our first attempts at team teaching were fairly disastrous. We each hit the students with all that we had. Eventually we learned to adjust to the rhythm of the other; our styles became complementary rather than additive.

At first I had more invitations and she came along as the junior partner. Rather quickly, she became the famous person and she would bring me along as part of the package. I learned a lot about teaching from her and still use some of her techniques in my classes. She was also the editor for everything that I wrote. She was excellent at editing and was inevitably right when she gently criticized my harsh tone or vague abstractions.

We were professional colleagues as well as loving partners. She used to tell people that we would spend two hours talking at breakfast. And then in the evening we would have the same conversation and get paid for it. That wasn’t exactly how it worked but our last book, Reshaping Religious Education, actually did get written that way. In 1998 on the way back from teaching in Australia I suggested that we simply write down the table talk we had been having about our teaching.

In April of 2005 I was interviewed for an oral history of the 1960s catechetical movement. They wanted me to talk about Maria’s part as well as my own. Maria’s main influence had come later; mine was largely confined to the 1960's. I said in the interview that my voice in Catholic Church reform was effectively silenced by 1973 just as her voice began to be heard. I did feel that the things I cared about were not out of the picture. Maria and I collaborated on everything so that indirectly I still had some voice. She could say things in a way that did not alienate people. Even when she advocated fairly radical things, her opponents found it difficult to dislike her. Except when bans against me occasionally spilled over to her, she was always and everywhere in demand. In the 1970s she could playfully introduce herself as a priest of the diocese of Boston; no one missed the serious point she was making with a touch of humor.

She could charm most men right out of their socks. This included a fair number of bishops with whom she disagreed but who never banned her appearance in their dioceses. In her eulogy I told the story of one of the most conservative Cardinals in the U.S. church who took a shine to her. I don’t think he had a clue as to what she was talking about. He called her aside and told her she could call him Father John. She received friendly notes afterward. I would often ask her what she and Father John were up to.

I think she was at her best in giving encouragement to young women that she met in the course of her travels. She had a talent for spotting bright young women who were on the shy side and just needed a little encouraging so as to let their light shine. She did not make a project of such people; it just seemed to happen. She would become friends quickly and deeply. To this day it puzzles me how she did that. Strong bonds of friendship take time to develop and require continual cultivation. I cannot figure out how she had enough time to sustain so many lasting friendships. When she was with anyone, she conveyed a sense that he or she was the most important person in her life; and for the present they were. At the funeral, several people said to me jokingly: “And I thought I was her best friend.” I have a list of women in many U.S. states and several foreign countries who were her best friend.

The fifteen years before her illness was an idyllic time for us. We were about as happy as human beings can be. We were both doing what we loved to do and what we believed was important work. We traveled to many parts of the world and met wonderful people. When home we had the best of city life and our small piece of paradise at the ocean. I picture Maria sitting in the hot tub in Montauk on a cool, Fall evening. She has a glass of wine in her hand and is saying: “How could a couple of people like us possibly be so lucky?”

Ominous Signs (Summer, 2000 to Summer, 2001)

If dementia is in fact genetic in origin, then no doubt there are telltale signs before its onset. Usually the signs are not obvious except in retrospect. The most extensive research project on dementia is being done on a congregation of six hundred nuns who have agreed to submit to annual tests and to have autopsies. One surprising finding has been that it was possible to identify from their teenage handwriting in the novitiate which woman would later have dementia. Certainly, early onset of Alzheimer’s (people in their 40s and 50s) runs in families and is especially devastating.

I think Maria began to have problems in the middle of the year 2000 but at the time I thought any problem was minor and passing. Maria was amazingly free of health problems. I used to fill out for her those omnipresent forms on clip boards that every physician’s office gives you. The form asks you for a complete medical history. I don’t think they believed me when I would turn in the form with nothing checked. She had suffered no serious illnesses or surgery, with the exception of carpel tunnel syndrome acquired from typing at the computer.

The first noticeable problem came on a trip to Israel in July 2000. We were going to a meeting of an organization called ISREV (International Seminar on Religious Education and Values). Both of us had been members since 1980. Among the hundred or so members from about thirty countries, Maria was a bright light, livening up both the academic and social aspects of the meeting. Maria leading the group in singing on the last night of the conference was always a high point.

We had made our tickets through London because we planned to stop in London for a few days on our return. London was one of the places Maria most loved and we usually managed to get there once a year and spend a lot of time in museums. I knew the Tate Gallery better than any New York museum. The trip started badly; British Airways had problems with two toilets on the plane which delayed the flight four hours. We knew as we took off from Newark that we had missed the connecting flight to Tel Aviv. British Airways did have the decency to put us up in the Heathrow Hilton for a day and we watched the last day of the British Open as Tiger Woods wiped out the field.

I also spent that Sunday afternoon frantically trying to get through to the meeting’s organizers in Jerusalem. Both Maria and I had duties on the first day of the conference and I had to inform them we were not going to be there. We finally did get there embarrassed to be twenty-four hours late. Maria seemed tired which was natural enough but it turned out she had an infection that required medical attention. At the time it just seemed a bother; she had developed a similar problem on the fifteen hour flight from Seoul a few years earlier. Maria was fascinated by the medical care she received from a Palestinian physician. Still, she was subdued for the whole conference. It proved to be the last conference she was able to attend.

When we got back to New York, she began talking about retirement. As I noted earlier, the year 2000 was her busiest time ever with invitations to speak on jubilee. I encouraged her to cut back on work, that we did not need the money, and that she was really free to do whatever she felt like doing. I did not think she would be happy if she just stopped. I tried to think along with her how she might take work close to home that did not require a plane ride and a motel stay. She did retreat work in two places that are an easy drive from Montauk. And there were plenty of places within a convenient train ride from New York. She had commitments until the end of the year but she stopped taking invitations beyond that.

She had some uneasy moments at presentations that Fall but I still thought it was just overwork and that she needed only rest. But she had an experience in Erie, Pennsylvania, in the late Fall that shocked her. She was doing a weekend workshop and on the Saturday afternoon her mind went completely blank. She was terribly embarrassed at having to cancel the remainder of the program, even though her hosts were only concerned for her health. This incident was indeed worrisome but one could still hope that the problem was a passing blip. For her that was the end of what she had been doing so well for twenty-five years. She feared having a repeat of the forgetting.

I tried to coax her into taking on a non-threatening situation. I said that the women at Cor Maria retreat center in Sag Harbor where she had a remaining commitment would understand if a problem developed. The director, Ann Marino, was a close friend and many of the women who attended were friends of Maria from Montauk. I quoted Rilke: “If tigers come into the temple, make that part of the ritual.” But a shift of personality had begun. She had always been self-confident, assertive, and direct. Talking in public had never been fear-inducing. Over the next few years we had to have a near reversal of personalities. I had to take the lead in situations where she had always covered for my social ineptitude. She became dependent in ways that she had always avoided.

In the months that followed she became very jumpy. She used to refer to having the heeby-jeebys. Her primary care physician, who was a heart specialist, could not find anything wrong. She sent Maria to a psychiatrist. His first approach was to get Maria to draw on spiritual resources. He was taken by her background and personality. When meditation did not work he switched to medication. He tried a series of drugs, each of which produced a bad reaction. I think each of them was an anti-depressant but depression was not her problem. On one occasion in the Spring of 2001 I was in New York for my teaching duties and she was in Montauk. I got a frantic phone call at 4 AM. She was almost incoherent but said that she was calling the ambulance service to take her to Southampton Hospital. I did not know what to do. But she called back at 7 AM to say she was better. When the volunteer EMS team arrived she was embarrassed to tell them it was a false alarm. They assured her it was not a problem for them; they were glad for her that the ambulance was not needed.

The main problem at this point seemed to be the psychiatrist whose trial and error approach to drugs was not working. She left him but we did not have a ready replacement. We were hoping that with rest and without drugs she would regain her zip (her hairdresser in East Hampton insisted that was the remedy and Maria seemed to believe in her hairdresser’s wisdom). When we visited my family in April, they noticed that Maria seemed tired and somewhat withdrawn, not the way she usually was at family gatherings. In April she also came to my class on Twentieth Century Philosophy. She was always a burst of energy when she came to my classes as a guest speaker. On this occasion she gave it her best but it was the first time ever that she did not make a strong impression.

In July, 2001, I went to teach in Brisbane, Australia. We had previously taught at the Catholic University of Australia and they had invited us back. They were more interested in her but I offered to do it alone and they agreed. As the time approached, I did not want to break the long standing commitment. But I should not have gone because I was a physical wreck. I had been suffering all year from undiagnosed lime disease. In March the lime disease brought on tinnitus (loud noise in the head that made hearing difficult) and led to unnecessary knee surgery in May. The lime disease was finally diagnosed the week when I was to travel but that meant starting on a regimen of strong antibiotics.

Because I did not want to leave Maria alone for a long period, I went to Brisbane and returned within a week, teaching a thirty hour graduate course while I was there. I can still picture Maria as I was leaving her at JFK; she looked confused and frightened. She who had been breezing through airports every week for many years was concerned about finding her way out to the street. I repeatedly explained where to go to get a taxi that would take her home. I called each night from the motel in Brisbane where I stayed. We talked at great length (the motel keeper thought there must have been a mistake on the phone bill until I told him that I had in fact made those calls). She seemed calm but very lonely.

For her birthday in August I gave her what would seem to an outsider a strange gift. I told her that I would renew my driver’s license (after a 45 year hiatus). I would then be able to take over some of the driving if she wished me to do so. I was not sure how she would take the offer. Giving up the car keys is often one of the most difficult steps for someone in an early stage of dementia. Maria liked to drive. It was for her, as for many people, a chief sign of her independence. Since I have had a lifelong hatred of the automobile, I was happy to reverse the usual roles in which the man is assumed to be number one driver.

I was relieved that Maria accepted my offer enthusiastically. She did not sense any plot to take away her keys nor at that moment did I have any plan to do that. But I sensed that it might become necessary in the not too distant future so I had better start preparing the way. She did not seem to be having problems and she continued to do some of the driving. At the end there might have been some danger but fortunately she never had an accident. The last time I remember her driving was at the end of November when I had to go into Southampton Hospital for my lime disease. I was still uneasy driving through the Hamptons and I asked her to drive part of the way. She never lost her confidence driving but she later enjoyed being in the passenger seat.

In August, Maria’s friend, Rosemary Crumlin from Melbourne, visited with us in Montauk. Rosemary always seemed to find a way to go through New York on the way to anywhere else. Maria had a great fondness for Rosemary. They had met in 1985 when Maria spent six weeks teaching at the National Pastoral Institute in Melbourne, where Rosemary was the director. Through phone calls and periodic visits they managed to keep in touch. I often said you know someone is a good friend if she travels 12,000 miles to visit you.

Rosemary was struck by Maria’s change of appearance from the previous year. She was concerned about several things that Maria was doing, including driving. On two evenings, Maria had what later I came to call hallucinations. When we were sitting and talking in our apartment, Maria began to see a different person than Rosemary. Later, she dismissed the moment as a curious mistake. But on another evening she had a kind of vision. Rosemary awoke to find Maria standing over her and asking: “Are you an angel?” That was a more shocking experience, not unpleasant but definitely not a run of the mill event.

Rosemary is an unusually insightful, honest, and direct person. She took me aside and asked: “Has Maria been diagnosed yet?” I was taken aback by the question because I was still denying what was becoming obvious. I reluctantly had to admit that Rosemary was seeing the situation more clearly than I was. I appreciated her candor and concern.

The incident that pushed my thinking over the edge happened in New Hampshire later that month. We were visiting with my three sisters and my brother. Maria had the greatest affection for my siblings (and they, her). She had only her brother for family and now he was gone. My family had become her family. On Saturday evening the family sat around the dinner table, talking for hours as is our wont. Maria, however, was not in the conversation at all. I finally excused us and I went upstairs to the bedroom with her.

While we were getting ready for bed she suddenly asked: “Who was the woman in the red dress?” I was flabbergasted by the question. Maria had known my sister Louise for almost forty years. She then proceeded to ask about each of the people at the table, every one of whom she had known well for years. At that moment what crossed my mind was the thought: At some time in the future she is probably going to ask me: “And who are you?” I was right. The “some time in the future” was exactly a year later.

Diagnosis (Oct., 2001 to Nov., 2001)

At the end of the summer of 2001, it was apparent that Maria needed help but I did not know where to turn. Then, completely out of the blue, Maria received a phone call from a psychiatrist she had seen in Boston more than twenty years ago. She had not seen her since but Maria tended to leave a strong impression on the people she met. Apparently without any instigation, this woman called and asked Maria how she was. Perhaps sensing a problem from something conveyed in the conversation, the woman said that if Maria ever wanted to talk to a psychiatrist she had a friend she could recommend. This psychiatrist was in the East 70s, an easy trip from where we lived on East 8th street.

Maria took up the suggestion and made an appointment. But getting there turned out to be a problem. Maria was suddenly fearful and confused about using the subway. It was a simple trip as I explained over and over. She still managed to get lost on the train and confused about getting into the woman’s building. The woman was very kind and much impressed by Maria; nonetheless, she did not seem to know where to begin. By the third visit it was clear that I would have to accompany her. And anyway the psychiatrist wanted to talk to us together. Maria did not see much point in what was going on and frankly I was frustrated, too. However, in early October the psychiatrist called me and said she was concerned that Maria had physical and mental problems which she could not treat. What she did was to get us an immediate appointment at the Neurological Institute of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.

After meeting with a neurologist at the hospital we went back for a whole day of testing. Maria was exhausted by a battery of psychological tests that lasted about five hours. What little skill she had in math was now gone so the test was endlessly frustrating. After that day she went for various physical tests, including an MRI of the brain. Finally, after a wait of six weeks we were given an appointment to get the results. We met with the neurologist that we had initially seen.

Both Maria and I expressed our fear of Alzheimer’s. The neurologist provided a relief by first saying that it was not Alzheimer’s. She said she was fairly certain of what was the matter but one symptom was missing. She asked Maria if she had ever hallucinated. Maria told her about mistaking Rosemary for an angel. The neurologist said that confirms the diagnosis. “You have Lewy Bodies,” she said. I asked her how to spell the word. I did not think I had ever encountered the term. Actually, I had seen it before on the autopsy report of Tom Harris, Maria’s brother. At that time it had not registered in my memory. My second question was: “What is it?” Her response was: “Do you have a computer?” When I said I did, she said: “Look it up on the Internet.” To put it mildly, I was surprised by her reply. I said: “Don’t you have a pamphlet or something you can tell me?” She said no, she did not. She wrote a prescription for the drug Aricept and told us to come back in six months. When we protested that was too long, she said to come back in three months.

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