Kathryn

While 86-year-old Kathryn was born in the Bronx, she has spent the last six decades living in Harlem. She’s seen the neighborhood neglected and decaying then revived, gleaming with new shops and restaurants. Through it all, she’s never thought about leaving. For Kathryn, her home in Harlem is part of her identity.

The reality is Kathryn lives alone now, barely getting by. Her dwindling savings is spent on a nursing home for her husband Bob, who has Alzheimer’s disease. Accepting that she needed professional help with him was the most painful decision of her life.

Sadly, with Bob’s care came another impossible choice for Kathryn: to spend what little money she has on vital medicine or groceries.

Long before she cared for Bob, Kathryn nurtured hundreds of students over her 40-year career as a teacher — shepherding them through the sometimes scary process of growing up.

Her own teachers had made a lasting impression. From the kind Sister Regina in elementary school to the thought-provoking Ms. Lawrence in high school, Kathryn hoped to inspire her own students in the same way.  

In 1958, Kathryn took her first teaching assignment in an East Harlem elementary school. She still remembers that first day, jittery and palms slick with sweat. Kathryn was a natural though, quick to form lasting bonds with each of her students.

She was especially fond of the fifth grade boy who trembled to read a sentence aloud. With Kathryn’s loving guidance, he was able to speak clearly by the end of the year. His joyous smile upon finishing a book was nearly as big as Kathryn’s.

Almost instantly, Kathryn realized her job was more than math and spelling. With the neighborhood marked by crime and immense poverty, Kathryn was also a social worker, counselor, parent and friend to hundreds of students every day. And parent-teacher conferences sometimes required trips to Riker’s Island where Kathryn would update a father on his daughter’s grades.  

At night, Kathryn often heard gunshots and wondered if her students were safe. She realized if there was violence in the neighborhood the night before, she couldn’t just start teaching the next day. I dealt with the trauma first, and then I taught reading, she explains

Although Kathryn was totally absorbed by teaching, she also enjoyed attending church on Sundays. It was there she caught the eye of a tall young man who had just moved to Manhattan. Kathryn convinced herself she was just being polite by introducing Bob to the neighborhood, but the pair quickly fell in love.

Together, the couple decided to adopt. Warm and affectionate, Bob and Kathryn were perfectly suited to adopt Eli, a sullen, sometimes angry boy from a broken home. Over the years, they watched as Eli grew into a happy, loving adult transformed by the warmth of his parents’ love.

Sadly, in the earliest days of the AIDS epidemic, Eli contracted the virus. He became gravely ill within weeks, concealing his deteriorating health. Kathryn still remembers the phone call from the hospital… she never had a chance to say goodbye to her adored son.

Devastated, Kathryn and Bob carried on as best as they could, often throwing themselves into work. Even after retiring, Kathryn continued to consult for the Department of Education and a few nonprofit organizations in the area.

Soon, Kathryn was faced with another loss. Bob became steadily more forgetful. Kathryn  assumed it was just the standard fogginess of age, but one afternoon Kathryn dropped a dish. Bob’s face transformed as he yelled and swore. In their four decades together, Bob had never raised his voice. Kathryn burst into tears, hurt and confused.

the man I loved is gone.

Several weeks later Bob was standing at the kitchen counter when he collapsed. Terrified, Kathryn called an ambulance. In the hospital, doctors told her Bob had dementia. Kathryn was heartbroken, knowing her best friend and loving partner would never be himself again.

Kathryn made the agonizing decision to move Bob to a nursing home, where he could have professional support. The cost of treating Bob leaves Kathryn choosing between groceries and medicine for herself.

Worst of all, Kathryn could never anticipate how lonely she would feel without Bob….   

With no other family, Kathryn admits her home feels empty. The kitchen, once lively with Bob and Kathryn’s banter, is quiet. The pots and pans sit unused since Bob left.

Severe arthritis leaves Kathryn in too much pain to cook, let alone go out and shop. Meanwhile, spinal problems have left her reliant on a walker just to navigate her own apartment.

When Kathryn manages to get out and visit Bob, she finds it hard to feel close to him. His personality no longer reflects the gentle, kind man she married. Shaking her head slowly, she confides, “the man I loved is gone.”