My sister Nancy who died on Oct. 10 at St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford had been cared for by the state of Massachusetts most of her 77 years.
In early 1944 when I visited my family — we lived on the Vineyard — before going overseas with my fellow paratroopers in time to make the jump into Normandy in World War II, I spent my last hour with Nancy, who sat on the floor beside me, rocking back and forth and smiling. She couldn’t talk but she was communicating as best she could.
None of the letters mother wrote me while I was overseas mentioned Nancy and when I returned home a few months after the war’s end, my mother and father and my 11-year-old brother Danny, now deceased, met me at the steamship dock in Vineyard Haven. It was then I learned that my sister — who was mentally retarded — had become a ward of the state.
On Oct. 25 of this month I went to a funeral service for Nancy in Wareham and was accompanied by my longtime companion Ruth Kirchmeier, my son Jeffrey and my grandson Sam.
The service was in a private dwelling on 3 Sarah Beth Lane. Run by the Seven Hills Foundation, it was where Nancy spent the last years of her life with other handicapped people and a devoted caretaking staff.
It is a place where those such as my sister are watched over and encouraged to lead lives that embrace typical activities, whether with friends and mentors and guardians, going downtown for a haircut or paying a visit to a coffee shop after making a small boat tour of a nearby river.
Most of those at Nancy’s service were her caretakers both past and present. Two of her fellow residents at Sarah Beth also attended.
At one point there was a slide show of Nancy engaged in some project or wearing various unusual garments that pleased her. That presentation lasted the better part of an hour because virtually every slide produced bursts of laughter or detailed and fervent explanations of what recollections that image had triggered.
A sister I never knew emerged in that hour, a smiling, friendly, forthright woman who knew what she wanted and despite her limited vocabulary could make those wishes known.
Many of the staff were weeping as was one of Nancy’s fellow residents. The room was awash in nostalgia, emotion and anecdotes, and it slowly dawned on me that those who had cared for my sister over the decades were her true family.
As Ruth and I and my son and grandson were leaving, a staff member told us that he had just planted a flowering dogwood tree in the yard in Nancy’s memory and suggested that we might wish to add a bit of earth to his planting. We did.
Nelson Bryant lives in West Tisbury.