Every once in awhile, God gives me a little nudge in one direction or another. It started this time with an email from Betsy Burmeister, the recreation director at Windemere. She wrote to tell me that one of the residents had finished writing a memoir and there would be a small reception for her; would I want to cover it? Betsy has never steered me wrong when it comes to a story idea, so I agreed. I thought maybe it’d make a nice piece for the Community section.
It was funny too, because the reception was last Tuesday afternoon, and that timeframe around the newspaper office is hectic, to say the least. It’s not often that I’d leave the office for any reason on a Tuesday afternoon. But I knew there would be a story in there someplace.
The author of the memoir, Deborah Clements Sunseson, was already there when I arrived, sitting at one of the decorated round tables in the upstairs parlor. She had a copy of her memoir with her, and once everyone else got there, she read some excerpts to us. There were nurses and support staff gathered around, along with Debbie’s friends and some of her family. Moira Silva, who had come to Windemere previously to facilitate some memoir-writing sessions with the residents, was also at the reception; she was the one who helped Debbie put her story together. Moira brought her a bouquet of flowers.
The first thing that Debbie explained was that she is the oldest of 10 children, and was born in 1951 at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. “Hanging out with six brothers was a little rowdy, but it made me good at sports,” Debbie said.
“My mother did seven or eight loads of laundry every day,” her brother Albert, who’d come to the reception, chimed in.
They both said that their mother was pregnant for so many years when they were growing up that they thought she was just overweight.
Debbie’s memoir moves along chronologically, so she went through the years of helping her mother with all the younger kids at home, and then graduating from high school after being a standout softball pitcher for the Cape and Islands League. (Two of Debbie’s sisters had disabilities, and lived at a special needs facility in Taunton; one died at age 13, and the other now lives on the Cape in a residential setting.)
“When I was a girl, I really loved sports,” Debbie told us. “I don’t mean to brag, but I pitched quite fast.”
She explained that she was all set to go to nursing school after she graduated MVRHS, and said she was a candy striper at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, and knew even then that she wanted to be a nurse. Debbie enrolled at the Cape Cod Hospital School of Practical Nursing in Hyannis, and left the Island to live in the residence at the school, which was right next to the hospital.
Then in a terrible turn of events, a week before Debbie was to graduate from the program, she went to a party with friends.
“When the party was over and we were about to leave, we had trouble fitting in one car. My very good friend Patty had a broken leg. There was no room for her if I went in the car. So she asked me if I would get on a friend’s motorcycle,” Debbie wrote in her book. “Of course, I didn’t want to, as my parents had told me, ‘Never get on a motorcycle!’ (I can still hear them saying this in my mind.) As I said, I did not want to, but unfortunately, I did …”
Debbie doesn’t remember exactly what happened, but the motorcycle was hit by a police car just as it was making a turn close to the nursing students’ residence. She was wearing a helmet, but suffered a serious head injury, and was in a coma at a Boston hospital for a month.
Now, if that was me, I’m not sure what I would have done. But Debbie’s father was a physical therapist, and she said all those years of playing sports and helping her mother had made her strong. She came home to Martha’s Vineyard, and worked on healing. Eventually, Debbie moved out to Arizona with a friend, and went back to school and was studying alcohol and drug abuse counseling, but had to return to the Island because her parents could no longer pay for the schooling; they still had so many children coming up after her, she explained.
After coming back home, she would make trips off-Island to see her doctors with rides provided by Massachusetts Rehab, and one day her driver brought along a friend, and Debbie and he hit it off, and they kept a long-distance romance going. Debbie ended up moving to Fall River, where his parents lived. After some years of dating, they decided to get married. They had planned a typical honeymoon until friends from their charismatic prayer group surprised them with a trip to Medjugorje, a town in Bosnia, then Yugoslavia. It’s also the place where six children were said to have seen apparitions of the Virgin Mary.
Debbie’s walking wasn’t great then, she said, and so she sat out the long climb up the apparition hill where the Virgin Mary first appeared. She stayed at the bottom and sat on a bench. One of the children to whom Mary appeared was there, but as luck would have it, she wasn’t feeling well that day, and stayed behind as Debbie had. They went inside a church there to pray the rosary with some others, and then Mary again appeared to the girl, who asked Debbie if she had anything to ask of the Virgin Mary or of Jesus. Debbie right away said that she wanted to have a child. She had been told after her accident that she’d never be a mother. Well, three years later her daughter Lindsey was born. Debbie attributes that miracle to the Blessed Mother.
Raising a daughter proved daunting for Debbie, and she did the best she could with her limitations. After around five years of marriage, her husband decided he wanted a divorce. They shared custody of Lindsay, but her husband eventually gained full custody of their daughter. She would still visit Debbie, but eventually the visits dropped altogether. She was living with her brother in the house she had shared with her husband, but after hip surgery, Debbie moved to an apartment at Hillside Village. After falling a few times, she moved into Windemere around five years ago. Debbie said she enjoys all there is to do there — crafts, games, weekly outings, and more.
She had a terrible life-altering accident, followed by the breakup of her marriage and then the deep loss she experienced when her daughter exited her life. After all this, Debbie has more to say about a strong faith than you might hear in a church on Sunday. “I still miss my daughter very much. I haven’t seen her in many, many years,” Debbie writes. “My friend saw on Facebook that Lindsay has become engaged. It hurts, but what helps is my religion.”
Debbie reads scripture every day, attends a rosary group, receives weekly Communion at Windemere, and attends Mass every Sunday. She’s going to a book club to study “Fearless and Free: Experiencing Healing and Wholeness in Christ.” And she started a spiritual group at Windemere.
“I give my struggles to Our Lady and Our Lord,” Debbie writes in her book. “This is the way it goes. My faith is what has helped me with the challenges in my life and allowed me to find a sense of peace. I pray for Lindsey to be well and to see me, to wake up to God, to me being her mom. I pray for everyone.”
Debbie told me she had been wanting to write her book for years, but never got around to completing it. Moira Silva said it was great that Windemere offered the writing sessions to the residents. “Deb and I got together about six times or so,” Moira said. “She had a good draft started. I went in and tried to bring some things to life a little more. We got together first in October, and we were done by the new year.”
So I sat there listening to Debbie’s story, which she read very calmly, and wondered how the heck anyone could deal with all of that and still have faith. The last thing in her book is an illustration of a smiling green frog: “F.R.O.G.,” it says, and underneath those letters, “Fully Rely On God.” I think I learned something at that reception — resilience can be extraordinary, and so can one’s faith.
The Neighborhood Convention for February will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 4, at 11 am at the First Congregational Church in West Tisbury. The program is Focus on Youth and Faith, led by Stoddard Lane-Reticker. Bring a brown bag lunch. Beverages and dessert are provided by the host church. Everyone is welcome to come.