by Carl Jarvis
Mary Williams has been helping others since 1930. That was the year Mary turned 10, and her mother was killed by a runaway milk truck. With six younger brothers and sisters needing care, Mary took over as the housemother, fixing meals, washing the family laundry, making sure Sunday night baths were taken and all prayers were properly said. Back in those days she was Mary Olsen, and her father was known as Oley Olsen to his co-workers at the pulp mill, where he worked as the company blacksmith. He worked long, hard hours to support his large family. Mary stepped into her mother's shoes, and for the next 20 years her life was dedicated to caring for her family. As the younger children grew and took on a share of the chores, Mary found time to fulfill a secret dream. Mary wanted more than anything else in the world to complete her schooling. And so it was that when the 1950 Lincoln High School seniors received their graduation diplomas, 30-year-old Mary Olsen marched proudly across the platform with them.
Her new dream was to become an English teacher. But she took a year off to become Mrs. Robert Williams and bring Robert Williams Jr. into the world. In 1951 she entered the University of Washington. Her years of doing for others held her in good stead. She cared for her husband and her baby son and after four years graduated 10th in her class. Her dream of teaching came true when she was offered a position with Bremerton High School as an English teacher. Her husband Bob had been working as a machinist at Boeing and he had no problem catching on with the Navy Ship Yard. This was 1955. The couple had just the one son, although both had believed they'd have a dozen. It didn't stop them. They took in foster children and Bob became a scoutmaster while Mary taught Sunday school. Children were the center of their lives.
Life was busy and sweet for many years, filled with noisy, giggly children of all ages. Then in 1969, Bob Jr. joined the Marines and was quickly shipped out to Vietnam. He was a lance corporal.
"It was November 2," Mary recalled. "The darkest, longest day of my life." They told Mary and Bob that Bob Jr. had been a real hero, saving several other young men by throwing himself on the explosive device. Mary said that Bob was never the same after that. He dropped all of his youth activities. His first heart attack came one year almost to the day that Bob Jr. had been killed. Mary's father had died several years earlier but Bob's folks were both living and in very poor health. They moved his parents into Bob Junior's old room and once again Mary became the housemother, caring for Bob and his parents while continuing to teach. Bob never worked again. After his second heart attack he was bedridden, barely able to care for his most basic needs.
Bob and his parents died within a year of each other. By 1975 Mary was alone for the first time in her life. "My work kept my head together," she told us. As time passed, Mary became active again in her church, but not with the children. Mary continued doing what she did best. She looked in on the lonely shut-ins, bringing a pot pie or a big cauldron of soup or some tasty cookies. She would sit and read folks' mail to them, read stories, gossip about things going on at church, and just shed a bit of joy and sunshine as she came and went.
Mary retired from teaching in 1985, but she continued her visitations for some years, and would have continued, except she developed macular degeneration; by 75 she could no longer drive. But Mary never thought of herself as blind or in need of help. For 15 years she continued on, keeping her home and yard neat and cheery. Her life centered on her church, which she could walk to. Gathering a few older ladies together, Mary began holding mid-week Bible studies in her home. She always had a fresh pot of coffee, another of tea and a pile of warm, freshly baked cookies on hand. Most likely Mary would still be throwing her door open to her lady friends. But on her 90th birthday, she fell and broke her hip. "I thought I'd just heal up and get right back to my regular routine," she told us. But the weeks dragged into months, and the pesky hip did not want to heal properly. Even then we would have never met Mary. She had never thought of herself needing help because of her blindness. "I can still see," she told us after her home nurse had called us in. "I just can't tell who you are. Your face is a blur."
It became quickly apparent that Mary had no adjustment issues to deal with, not so far as her vision loss was concerned. "What's getting me down is not being able to get up," she said with a soft laugh. "I have my talking books and now my lady friends bring me the containers of soup and cookies." Her eyes went sad and her voice softened to a whisper. "You know, it's so very hard having to accept help from others when you've been the helper all your life."
We reached out and held both of Mary's hands. "You have just put your finger on the greatest challenge confronting older people," we said. "But perhaps it would help to look at it from a different angle. Rather than thinking of yourself as needing help, think of yourself as a partner with your caregivers. You have needs to be met. Work together to find solutions. Don't become passive and allow others to tell you what they will do for you. You are your own boss until your last breath. Because your health has failed, others will think of you as needy and helpless. You must not allow them to think that. Tell them you are a team, and if they don't want to be a team player, they can go somewhere else."
Mary was quiet for a long time. Finally she smiled and looked up. "I gotcha. I am my own boss."
When we came to see Mary again we found her sitting in a wheelchair. "We figured out how I can get myself into this chair and now I can once again wander about my house," she beamed, happily clapping her hands. "We are a team."
And her caregiver nodded. "And you are the play maker, Mary," she said, smiling.
We never saw Mary again. Just one month after her 91st birthday, we received a call from her caregiver. "I thought you would want to know," she said, and we could feel it coming, "Mary had a massive stroke and died yesterday." We whispered, "Thank you for thinking of us," and sat a long time with tears on our cheeks and that choked-up feeling in our throats. It is so very hard, losing friends. But then Mary's laughing voice rang out loud and clear, "I really am my own boss again!"