ROMNEY, W.Va. – It’s August. It’s almost time.
Jimmie Joe Hartman knows that as he grins up at Julia Barry from the wheelchair he’s used since his stroke. She’ll be leaving for Morgantown soon, to begin her freshman year at West Virginia University. Her weekly visits to the nursing home where he lives, and her gifts of fresh-baked zucchini bread and chocolate chip cookies, will end. Her photograph and details of her high school accomplishments will quit appearing in Romney’s local paper, the Hampshire Review.
Jimmie Joe uses the balls of his feet to rock his wheelchair back and forth, searching for the words.
“Stop every once in a while,” he finally tells her.
“I’ll try, but I don’t have a car,” she says.
“Well, maybe your mom will get you one,” he suggests.
Julia grins. “Maybe.”
Jimmie Joe tries not to show his disappointment, but it’s difficult. Julia reminds him of his daughter. Most days, she’s the youngest, brightest thing in this nursing home.
“She’s a super person,” he says, shaking his head. “I hate for her to leave. I wish they was all like her. She’s at the top of any category you want to talk about. We’re gonna miss her.”
What Jimmie Joe doesn’t realize is that, when Julia leaves for Morgantown, she will carry a piece of him with her.
“Living with Al”
For one year, when she was in the third grade, Julia Barry was home-schooled. It would have been a mostly forgettable experience – a bump on the road to graduation – except for one thing: it was the year she realized her grandmother was sick.
When Julia sat down at her grandmother’s table and asked for help with her reading lessons, she got silence. Grandma couldn’t read. She couldn’t remember how.
Alzheimer’s disease was already snaking through her memory and stealing all it could find. By the time Julia was in high school, Grandma had also forgotten how her husband had proposed. She’d forgotten how to swallow. She’d forgotten her granddaughter’s name. But Julia faithfully visited her bedside at the Hampshire Center nursing home.
Julia’s future as an occupational therapist was born in the halls of the nursing home. She was introduced to a world where fight and friendship conquer disease.
She volunteered at the Alzheimer’s Memory Walk, sold homemade crafts to raise money for research and wrote an essay that has been reprinted and recited all over her hometown of Romney:
“We open the door to find Grandma using the furniture and walls to make her way towards us. She looks like a child learning to walk. Her body is frail and crippled, but she doesn’t remember to use her walker. ‘It’s Al’s fault,’ my mother says. This life-wrecker known as Al isn’t even a person. Al is my mother’s name for the disease that’s destroying my grandmother’s mind: Alzheimer’s disease.”
“It just really is the long good-bye,” Julia says.
For years, Julia’s mother, Debbie Barry, juggled the demands of raising children and bidding that slow farewell to the mother who, in many ways, was already gone. For her, Julia’s essay is both endlessly painful and oddly soothing, to know that her daughter was strengthened, and not scarred, by the dark mysteries of an incurable illness.
“She’s seen a lot that you wish she didn’t have to see that young,” Debbie says. “But I think it made her more mature, more compassionate. She learned a lot of life’s lessons early, but hopefully it will make her stronger.”
For certain, it has already molded her future. Many of Julia’s fellow Bucklew scholars at West Virginia University list the loftiest of goals when asked about their impending careers: doctors and professors and researchers who hope to find distinction in curing the incurable, discovering the undiscoverable. Julia’s goals are more intimate. She wants to become an occupational therapist – the caregiver who helps patients retrieve the independence disease has stolen.
She believes WVU’s occupational therapy program will allow her to achieve this, and help her bridge the gap between the child who helplessly watched a grandmother disappear and the adult who has the skills to fight back.
Moving to Morgantown
As the valedictorian of her class and as the owner of a college application filled with community service and athletic accomplishments, Julia could have gone to nearly any university in the country. But she focused on four: Oklahoma, Alabama, Florida and West Virginia.
One night just a few months ago, Julia and her father, Carson Barry, were sitting on their couch, discussing the pros and cons of each college, when her mother ran in from the kitchen with a wild look in her eyes.
“Do you know Oklahoma is tornado alley?” she asked (or, as Julia remembers it, she shrieked). “Alabama has tornadoes, too, and Florida has hurricanes. Why don’t you just stay in West Virginia where there are no natural disasters?”
In the end, that’s exactly what Julia chose to do, but not because of her mother’s fears. She chose WVU because she felt the University carved a direct path from her dreams to her reality.
The occupational therapy program, she’s learned from those who are in it, is challenging but stellar. The Bucklew scholarship she earned from the University, which is very nearly a full ride, will allow her focus entirely on her studies.
“It means a lot to me to not have to worry about the financial aspects and be able to focus on education,” Julia says.
And, though she’s looking forward to independence, it’s only two hours from home, an important consideration for both her and her mother, especially since her grandmother finally lost the fight with Alzheimer’s in January.
“You put your full weight into them for 18 years so they can go out and cut the cord,” Debbie says.
But for Julia, no matter where she goes, her roots will remain firmly planted in Romney. It’s where neighbors watch each other’s children and swap baked goods. It’s where high school guidance counselors double as 4-H leaders and drivers wave to each other as they pass on the main drag in and out of town.
It’s where Julia loved and lost her grandmother, where she turned nursing home residents into friends and where the future she hopes to write at WVU first began.
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