Verna’s story

Verna Dowe has spent a lot of her life planning funerals. And much of the rest caring for her dying children. One. After one. After one. Today, their images cover her nursing home nightstand or rest in the shadows of old albums. Blond-haired babies in black and white. Freewheeling teenagers in hip-hugging jeans. Unrecognizable young adults in nursing home beds —bodies wasting away to a devastating disease.

The 81-year-old Amherst woman has written all of their names and all of their birth weights and all of their death dates on sheets of lined paper, a sterile ink blotter that belies her pain.

Vaughn, her first-born, six pounds, four ounces —the “spoiled“ baby boy with the blond curls, who got sick with Huntington’s disease at 17 and “passed away age 29.”

Debra, her “withdrawn” second child, a five-pound baby who took sick “very young” and “passed away age 22.”

Brenda her “beautiful” golden-haired girl — holding a doll, wearing a homemade coat — who “passed away age 30.”

Brian, a handsome “sweetheart” who loved dirt bikes and his mother, and “passed away age 45.”

Sharon, who looked like “a movie-star” but ended up with a feeding tube and “passed away age 44.”

Wendy, the teenage “beauty queen”— in her long floral gown and her sash and her crown— who “passed away age 40.”

And other losses before and since for this baby-of-an-orphanage, child-of-a-foster home, woman-of-endurance who’s been struggling since the day she was born.

“I ask the Lord every night— why Lord did they have to go and leave me behind?,” says the twice-widowed octogenarian, looking over framed pictures of her six deceased children and others who’ve slipped away.

“And what’s the answer, I don’t know.”

People who know Verna Dowe don’t know how she’s managed to cope with it all, often while scrubbing other people’s floors for two dollars a day to feed her kids. Or volunteering at her local food bank and “crying” over the suffering of others. Or serving, for about a decade, as president of the Cumberland County chapter of the Huntington society.

And other struggles even earlier, when she had to wash her elementary school to earn money for shoes and supplies. Or cook and clean for her widowed foster father and three much-older foster brothers — who were his biological children.

Or endure separation from the biological brother she loved, even before she knew they were blood. “Oh,” she says, “I had a lot of hard times.” Hard times that make even the local funeral director shake his head and tell her he “didn’t know how I kept going.”
And others raise their heads in admiration of her “strength” and kindness and ability to carry on.

“I think it’s quite remarkable really…” says Jean Fawthrop, administrator of Centennial Villa, where Verna now lives and where her daughter Sharon used to live before she could no longer walk or talk or swallow. Before she had to move to a more intensive care facility that could handle the symptoms of the genetic brain disorder — the “bad gene” that also killed Verna’s first husband Roy Tower and made him strange and violent and appear drunk to others long before anyone knew what was really wrong. She’s endured “beyond what most anybody I could think of could manage…” says Fawthrop. “I just find it amazing that she managed to keep herself together through all of what she’s had to deal with. What a strong person she really has to be.”

Verna hasn’t always felt strong. Today she has diabetes and a bad knee. She’s had three mini-strokes and suffers from anxiety, bad “nerves” that sent her to hospital once when her children were little and again about four years ago.

“But I got over it,” she says, hands tracing old photographs and a “Braveheart” award she received three years ago from Family SOS, a support organization for vulnerable children and adults. “Verna has endured more suffering than anyone should ever have to,” the organization says on its website citation. “Yet she found the resilience and motivation to give back to her community in Amherst.” “A lot of people look at me… and they don’t know how I keep going,” says the humble recipient, who was touched to receive the award but was too sick at the time to go to the ceremony and accept it. “I don’t know. I’m trying to make the best of everything and trying to keep going. That’s about all I can do.”

That’s about all she’s been doing for as long as she can remember, growing up in East Amherst with her foster mother, who died of cancer when Verna was 11 and her foster father, who treated her more like a “worker” than a daughter. And not knowing they weren’t her biological parents until a neighbour told her when she was a teenager and she was “heartbroken.” These were the beginnings of her hard times, living in a house with no indoor plumbing or electricity or money. “When I was six years old I was putting wood in the cellar,” says the mother of two still-living children, sons she had with her second husband, “a very good person” who died of cancer. “I mean I knew what work was from the day I was born.”

And all the days that followed. “My foster father didn’t provide me with money or anything and I used to do all the work…prepare meals and so forth… “And I had to carry water in the winter time from across the road because it would freeze up. Anyway, it was a nightmare to me, now when I think about it.” And when she thinks about it, other, deeper hurts arise — memories of a little boy, a new “foster brother” who appeared in her home one day when she was five or six.

She was sitting by the living room wood stove in a rocking chair when a man from the orphanage and her mother “brought this little guy in with blond hair… and put him on my lap.”

“She said “This is going to be your little brother, we’re going to look after him”… and I never knew the difference” — that he was her real brother, that they’d both been left at the orphanage by their separated parents under circumstances that are still unclear, even though Verna tracked them both down years later. Her brother was closer to her age, just two years younger, than the boys in her foster family. So they used to play together and “do numbers or colouring.”

Then one day, about five years later, after her foster mother had died, he vanished as suddenly as he’d appeared. “My foster father said for me to “give him a bath and get him dressed up”…I thought…he was just taking him to town for the afternoon so when he came back he didn’t bring him back…so then I cried and cried.” She learned a few days later he’d been taken back to the Lay home, the same Amherst orphanage she came from too. “So I walked into town and I went down LaPlanche Street and I didn’t go into the building but I could see him up in the window…I could see him up in the window crying.”
During those days and many others, when she’d be up until midnight cleaning equipment at the golf club where her foster father worked as caretaker, or hand-scrubbing clothes for him and other men he logged with in winter, she’d wonder: “what’s going to become of me?”, “What am I going to do?”, “This is not the life for me.”
She eventually left home at 16, looking for a different life in Amherst, where she got a job making button holes in a pants factory and later met Roy Tower and married him at 18 and eventually watched her life get “worse and worse and worse.”

“He was very nice,” she says. “But he was kind of like everything he wanted it his way and I thought well “this is a better life than what I’m having”…and that’s why I just snatched onto it I guess.” For awhile it was a better life, after she had her first baby at 19 and the others followed, before her husband got sick and the children followed. Roy started walking erratically, exhibiting slurred speech, both signs of the disease that Debra would later be teased about at school. People mistook him as a drunk and she told them “no he’s sick” even when she didn’t know what from. As time went on, he started lashing out violently, hitting her and trying to hit the kids, throwing over tables, trying to burn down the house. It got so bad that on Sundays, after she’d dressed them all up and taken them to Sunday school, they’d go up to the old Amherst airport and hide for the rest of the day. She made cots for herself and the children downstairs at night so they wouldn’t have to be around him when he roamed and ranted incoherently.

Police took Roy away again and again and Verna sent him to various doctors, who for years couldn’t give his illness a name. And, she says, they always sent him back. Until one day, “this certain Sunday.” “I don’t know what date it was, it was a nice day and I had the children outside, all but one and that was Brian and he was just little and I had …cots and stuff downstairs and I was making them up and I was in the dining room and …I sensed something was behind me and he was behind me with a chair and hit me over the head so I ran and Brian happened to be in a space where I could grab him and run out the door and the other kids were out and I called to them and I said “Follow me, don’t go in the house, follow me!” “So I ran to the neighbours to a phone and I called the police and they came and they got him and they took him and he never came back.” She thinks that was sometime in the 1960s. Roy died in a nursing home in 1970.

And then each child succumbed to the disease that according to Huntington Society of Canada literature often includes emotional symptoms (depression, irritability, obsessive behaviour,) cognitive loss (confusion, impaired memory) and physical deterioration (involuntary movements and inability to walk, talk or swallow). There is no cure and patients eventually become incapacitated and die, usually of complications connected to the disease.

Verna bathed and fed, dressed and soothed many of her sick children at home for years until it became impossible to continue. Then she visited them in the rehab centres or nursing homes in Cole Harbour, Truro, Amherst and Halifax as they faded away.
Fawthrop remembers her visiting Sharon faithfully, at least twice a week, and taking her for walks and making sure staff had all the right information about the disease.

The same kind of “selfless” acts she witnesses today in the same place, by the same woman who’s been taking care of others all of her life.

“People who have confusion or anxiety, she’s very good to sit and talk to them and calm them down and redirect them to something because she’s been used to doing that with her own family. Particularly people with an Alzheimer’s kind of dementia she’s just extremely…good with them.” “If I can help somebody, I’ll do it,” Verna says simply.

But as she helps dementia patients with their food or makes sure strangers have their walkers or travels the halls of the home with her own, sadness always follows.

For the little brother who went from foster home to foster home and now lives in a nursing home in Truro. For the two granddaughters who’ve been diagnosed with the disease. And for the six children who are always on her mind.

“Everybody used to say about how good of a family I had and how they looked so good, they were all so pretty,” she says as their faces lay frozen by Christmas trees or sitting on the beach or standing by cars in the dresses and coats she made for them.
But she is still a woman of faith, a regular churchgoer who prays nightly for the health and happiness of her two grown sons, for a cure for Huntington’s, and that she’ll be reunited with all of her sons and daughters someday. “Yes, yes. I feel that way,” she says holding their names in her hands.

And her gold ring spells out “Mom.”

See original article.