by Jill Ragar Esfeld
TOPEKA — Rosemary Henson’s friends from St. Monica’s Guild at St. Matthew Parish here joke about putting a sign on the back of her wheelchair that says: “Jesus on wheels.”
Every Monday, they are amazed at the joy that fills the little room in the Healthcare Center where they meet her for a special women’s luncheon.
They see her as an example of Christ’s love and perseverance in the face of suffering.
“She’s such an inspiration to me,” said guild member Marj Kurtz. “Her courage, her strength and her faith — she inspires me to be a better person.”
But asked if she views herself as an example of Christ, Henson gives a resounding, “No!”
Then she smiles impishly and adds, “But it’s nice to hear.”
A difficult journey
Thirty-two years ago, Henson’s life changed dramatically when she was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis.
“It was very devastating,” she said. “I wanted to jump off a cliff.”
Having watched her mother and sister lose their battles with this most dreaded form of MS, Henson knew what lay ahead for her.
A talented artist, she loved doing needlework and tole painting, often selling her work at craft shows and festivals.
She did everything she could to slow the progression of her disease.
But four years ago, Henson was confined to a wheelchair.
And a year ago, she lost her husband and caregiver Duane — an event made more tragic because it forced her to leave her home and move into the health care facility.
Now the memories of her past survive in the detailed needlework and beautiful paintings that decorate the walls of her room.
Henson no longer has the use of her arms or legs, and can barely raise her head. But all of her senses are intact and her mind is sharp.
She’s trapped in her body is what it amounts to,” said her friend and fellow guild member Katy Field. “And being as young as she is, that’s difficult.”
Henson’s battle with MS has been a heartbreaking journey. And when it became debilitating, she withdrew from society, relying on only her immediate family and faith to sustain her.
That is, until her old friends from St. Monica’s Guild insisted on accompanying her — pushing their way back into her life with promises of conversation, home-cooked meals and Henson’s favorite gooseberry pie.
Sisters in Christ
St. Monica’s Guild was formed about 30 years ago as a social and service organization by a group of women who were raising their families.
“I met Rosie through this guild,” said Field. “Everybody in our group is about the same age and has been together for a long time.
“Most of us had children the same age and in the same classes as [Henson’s children] Detria and Darren.”
The guild members have always known Henson had MS, and were amazed at her faith and fortitude as she battled the disease.
“I feel like I’m a silent sufferer,” Henson said. “I try not to complain.”
“I think she just accepted this as part of her life journey,” said Kurtz.
But when the disease robbed Henson of her ability to care for herself, she withdrew from the community.
“I didn’t want them to see me like I am,” she said.
“Rosie’s a very proud woman,” said Field. “And she didn’t want anyone to see her in the condition she was in — even those of us who were her best friends.”
Field and Henson continued to talk on the phone, and when Field asked if there was anything she could do for her friend, Henson asked for a home-cooked meal.
“And so whenever I would make a big casserole,” recalled Field, “I would divide it in half, and I’d call her and she would say, ‘Just come over, ring the bell and put it on the porch.’
“She wouldn’t even see me to receive the food.”
Table for two
When Duane died a year ago, Henson encountered her friends at his funeral.
“I sat down with her at the lunch,” recalled Field. “And I said, ‘All right, I’ve seen you. So now will you let me visit?’
“And she said, ‘OK.’”
Members of St. Monica’s Guild wanted to do something for Henson, so Field suggested they set up a schedule and bring her meals.
“And so one of the gals in charge of our caring committee sent out an email,” she said. “And on July 25 last year, I took our first meal to Rosie.”
Field brought lunch to Henson’s house, but wasn’t sure if she would be staying to eat with her friend or just dropping the food off.
“But when I came in,” Field said, “the table was set for two. She had makeup on and her hair done.
“And I knew then what it meant to her.”
After a month of reuniting with her friends, Henson was moved to the nursing facility and feared the Monday lunches would come to an end.
“Then she called me,” said Field. “And she said, ‘Well, I’m here, but I talked to them and they have a room, and we could continue our little lunches!’”
And so it continues — guild members sign up on a monthly basis, prepare meals and go in pairs to have lunch with Rosie.
“So they come every Monday,” said Henson. “And I look very forward to it. It’s good-old home cooking.
“And they’re always full of laughter.”
Visitors are always full of laughter because MS has not robbed Henson of her personality.
“She has the most amazing sense of humor,” said Field. “Her mind is so sharp.”
“Rosie’s always got the corniest jokes to tell us,” added Kurtz.
Witness to her faith
Although guild members initially decided to do Monday lunches for Henson’s benefit, they’ve found that they enjoy the experience as much as she does.
“You just feel good when you leave because she’s fun,” said Field. “It’s a fun visit.
“And we’re so grateful that she allows us to visit her and eat with her and walk the walk with her.”
Still strong in her Catholic faith, Henson attributes her joyful attitude to her daily rosary, her devotion to St. Monica and the faith books she is able to read on her tablet.
“And these people help make me a stronger person,” she said of her visitors.
“The way she handles herself with grace has been a witness to me in my faith,” said Field. “It has also made me thank God for my blessings and put things in perspective.
“And so, I just enjoy my visits with her so much. She is such a great friend.”
At the beginning of this month, when Field gave Henson the list of who was brining her lunch, Henson asked “How long are you going to do this?”
“I said, ‘I don’t know. Do you want us to stop?’” said Field. “She gave me that crazy grin and said, ‘You know I don’t.’
“So I said, ‘As long as they sign up, we’ll keep bringing it.’”
That will probably be for a very long time.
“Everybody says it’s a blessing,” said Field. “She thinks she’s being blessed.
“We think we are.”