A journey continues

Last modified: 5/7/2014 9:13:35 AM
Don Burness is always looking for new places to go, interesting books to read, and exciting things to learn. When Don met his wife, Mary-Lou, nearly 50 years ago, he found someone else with equal energy, someone else who was fascinated by the world and wanted to experience what it offered.

But when Mary-Lou had the first of several strokes in 2007, things changed. The couple couldn’t go to far away places anymore. Mary-Lou didn’t have as much energy. And worst of all, Mary-Lou stopped remembering places, people and all those stories she had read. Don has continued to care for and experience life with his wife, and what’s more, he’s done whatever he can to connect to her forgotten world.

Before all that, though, their adventure began in 1963 when Don and Mary-Lou met in Connecticut. “She was magic,” Don said in an interview Tuesday. “She never cared about the things you were supposed to care about. She did a lot of interesting things.”

The couple soon married in 1965 in Strausbourg, France, and then went on to spend the next year living in a tent and traveling around Europe and North Africa at Mary-Lou’s suggestion.

“We went to art museums for a year,” Don said. “We’ve been doing interesting things ever since.”

Upon returning to the United States, the couple soon moved to Rindge. Don taught French, Spanish and English at Franklin Pierce University between 1968 and 2001, and Mary-Lou acted as the secretary to the university’s president for a number of years. According to Don, Mary-Lou’s job wasn’t all she did. “She read everything,” Don said. “She read, she painted, and she had dachshunds.”

During school vacations, the couple traveled, living by Hans Christian Anderson’s famous line, “To travel is to live.” Don recalled one Thanksgiving break when he told Mary-Lou he wanted to go to a city, and she suggested Berlin, Germany.

“So we went to Berlin,” he said.

The couple also took in all they could in nearby cities like New York and Boston. “We went to operas, we went to ballets,” said Don. “We just had fun.” Don added that the couple never tired of each other, that they spent all their time learning new things together. “We had each other,” he said. “We didn’t have a group of friends. We didn’t have church — she was my church.”

Don later added, “She gave me a course on living.”

When Don retired from teaching, the couple lived in Portugal during winters and also spent five or six weeks in France during the year. The couple continued reading, writing, painting and traveling until 2007, when Mary-Lou had her first stroke just after Christmas.

Mary-Lou had another stroke in 2009, and after breaking her hips, pelvis and having double pneumonia, doctors had pretty much given up on her. But Mary-Lou got well anyway, enough to go home. “She just bounces back, it’s amazing,” Don said. “She likes living. She’s tough.”

Mary-Lou, 87, is currently doing well and is cared for at home by Don, 72, in their Rindge home. Though Mary-Lou is better, their days are not without struggle. “Swallowing is a huge challenge,” said Don. He added that Mary-Lou also has trouble balancing when standing, and that she also experiences dementia and disorientation, forgetting where and who she is. “I’ve learned a lot about strokes,” said Don. “They affect your life.”

Don spoke about becoming his wife’s caretaker on Tuesday. “I’ve learned a lot about care-taking,” he said. “It has nothing to do with medicine, it’s loving someone.”

He later added, “My mission in life every day is to keep her out of a nursing home.”

In addition to cooking, cleaning and helping Mary-Lou each day, Don is able to go away once or twice a year to continue exploring the world. In the past few years, he’s gone to Egypt, Tunisia and the Faeroe Islands between Scotland and Iceland, and he also takes day-long excursions to Boston and New York City. “I like interesting places,” Don said. He often writes about the places he goes, in the form of poetry or articles.

Places of interest for Don can be found on other continents, or on Mary-Lou’s bookshelves. Once a month, Don takes one of Mary-Lou’s books to read. “She has excellent taste in books,” Don said. “She didn’t read like other people, as a pastime,” he said. “I think she read to understand herself and the world.”

Though Mary-Lou doesn’t seem to remember the books she once read, Don said he finds those stories important for connecting with his wife. “It’s a way to talk to her, to read her books,” he said. “It’s like a gift she gives to me. She’s opening up new worlds for me.”

Currently, Don is reading “La Batarde,” a French novel by Violette LeDuc. From the book, Don said he is finding out more about Mary-Lou’s ideas. “Mary-Lou was much more attracted to French feminists than American feminists,” he said. “These were women who determined their own lives.”

It was that sense of making one’s own destiny and nonconformity that attracted Don to Mary-Lou in the first place, and what makes it difficult for Don to see Mary-Lou now without much energy, without fire. “[That is] one of the hardest things for me,” he said. “I see this person,” he said, pointing to an older photo of Mary-Lou. When he looked at his wife sitting next to him, he said, “This is an impostor. She doesn’t remember who she was.”

Despite the change in his wife’s demeanor and life, Don continues to love and care for her, and enjoy it. During his interview, Don spoke of one of his recent travels to the Caribbean island of Curacao, where he saw a wall full of written wishes. “Most people wanted to do good things for the world,” he said. “But in our daily lives we don’t do much to make the world better.” Don then pointed to Mary-Lou, and said, “I have a chance to do good. What better thing can I do than take care of Mary-Lou?”

For Don, continuing to love his wife and doing what he can for her is how they both can continue living. “We try to live our lives, and life is love and beauty and God’s madness,” he said. “So, I married an amazing woman. Now I’m her mother and I take care of her, because she deserves it. And so our story continues.”


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