Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Giant With Wings

from Jacqueline

This week’s post is on the long side – for which I make no apology, because the person I’m writing about is too important for me to stint on words. If I could, I would write a book about her. This is about Helen Maude Sterling.

There are occasions in life – not many, I grant you – when you meet a person whom you know, even in their workaday ordinariness, to be a giant among the mass of humanity. There may be nothing in their demeanor to reveal them as such, but you have a sense of them, and though you cannot put your finger on the why of it, you know that they’re special.

That’s how I felt when I first met Helen. You may remember me talking about Helen, the friend who introduced me to the concept of the AFGO when life throws you a curveball – that's Another F***ing Growth Opportunity. We’d met when we both attended an introductory session on life coaching, and began our training together because we wanted to change the world person by person. We wanted to make dreams come true. At that time we also each had our day jobs and I was trying to walk my talk in my quest to become a writer.

Helen soon became my firm friend and hiking buddy, however, at some point, following even a short time out on the trail, Helen began tripping over, and complained that it was all due to a slow-to-heal ankle sprain. I was suspicious. I’d seen such symptoms before, and I knew there was something more serious going on. But Helen had a bad history with doctors so she was hoping time would heal the ankle. Then, one evening, we had just left a restaurant when she fell over as we were about to cross the road, and despite my help could not get to her feet. So we sat together on the curb while she caught her breath, despite the looks of passersby who thought they were looking at two singletons a bit worse for wear after an evening on the razzle. “Now will you go to the doctor – please?” I pressed her yet again. And this time she went.

She was referred for a battery of tests, and – ironic as this may seem – on the day I took her in for the first of many spinal taps, we giggled all the way to the hospital because she’d told me, calm as you like, about how she’d had a mad fling with her Israeli neighbor the night before. Inside I wanted to weep. Finally the diagnosis came – Multiple Sclerosis. And because she held no faith in the medical profession, she believed she could stave off the disease with organic food and meditation, with her beliefs and her spirit. Despite misgivings, no one doubted her spirit.

As she became more infirm, Helen went through the highs and lows that accompanied realization that there was no cure. Her ache was to engage with the world in the biggest possible way, to love and be loved, despite her increasing physical limitations. “Who will ever want me?” she cried as I held her. “I want so much to be adored.”

It was about this time that she changed her name. She was previously Helen Carey-Martin, her first name followed by her maiden name and the name of her former husband. She told friends that she wanted a name of her choosing, not something she’d been landed with by default. So she became Helen Maude Sterling, and she wanted us to call her Maude. She chose Maude because she loved the film “Harold and Maude” and she wanted to be just like Maude when she grew older. She chose Sterling, because it suggests excellence, the best, something very special. Trouble was, most of her friends were like me – they just couldn’t get their heads around our vital, lovely Helen as an old lady, so we just stuck to Helen.

As a brutal honesty took the place of hope, Helen decided to see America while she could. Resigning her job and cashing in her 401K, she gave up her apartment and planned to take to the road, along with her cat, Zoey. We had a party – well, several parties, actually – to see her off, in her electric blue Rav4 with an U-Haul trailer hitched on the back, and I will never forget groveling around under the house to catch the cat so we could sedate her for the journey. Then she was off ... well, not quite. That very evening after we had all waved good-bye, my telephone rang, and it was Helen. “You don’t know where to go, do you? I said. She laughed and admitted that, among those big plans, she hadn’t really thought about the first night on the road. “Come on over,” I said, “Stay here until you’re ready.” She slept on my sofa for a couple of nights before driving off on her grand adventure.

We received emails and letters from the road, from truck stops and farm B&B’s, from hotels and the houses of friends, until finally she arrived in Virginia and decided to stay. With strength and resolve, and despite that ugly disease, she took the AFGO by the horns and created a new life working from home, and as her body broke down she accommodated it, first with a live-in helper, then with a wheelchair. Helen’s MS was not a benevolent form of the disease, with a little progression each year, but an aggressor who tramped through her body to claim every cell. Finally, Helen’s mother decided to move to Georgia from Texas to be close to Helen’s brother, and there she built a home that would accommodate a severely disabled daughter.

On Helen’s 40th birthday, October 29th, 2003, eight of us, Helen’s closest friends, came in from various points across the country to celebrate with her. We planned that each of us would have a gift for Helen, but not necessarily something wrapped in shiny paper with a ribbon. We would each plan something special for her. Shannon brought her wedding video and we all cried, another friend brought a slide show of her recent travels in south America. There was a special foot massage for Helen and someone else read a story. Me? I gave her a facial. I had no idea about giving facials, so I went to a local beauty salon, explained my dilemma and they gave me a lesson, donating a whole set of very expensive potions for Helen, along with a special herbal neck pillow and eye mask. And here’s what Helen said about her spa day at the hands of complete amateurs: “When you’re disabled, no one touches you anymore, and I so longed to be touched and held.”

That weekend was so rich for each of us. Physically, Helen had changed dramatically and the drugs she was now taking – one cocktail administered by a pump embedded inside her body – had wrought havoc on her physical self. But here’s what I saw, and what I hold close: We were all talking in the kitchen one morning, sitting around eating pancakes, drinking coffee and yakking about this and that, when I looked across at Helen and felt, physically, spiritually and in the very core of my being, the power and grandeur of her spirit. It was as if, as her body failed her, her very soul was expanding, growing to fill the whole room, so that we were all enveloped by her grace, as if the arms she could no longer lift had gathered us all to her and we were very tightly held.

In time, Helen took to her bed. Her mother had found it increasingly hard to manage her care, even with a hydraulic lift to take her from bed to chair, so Helen’s world became the four walls of her room. Her love of music inspired her to make special compilation CD’s for her friends, and she wrote to us with that brutal honesty and enduring compassion. I last spoke to Helen just before Christmas, and we talked for a long time, until I could hear her energy waning. She spoke of her involvement in the work of the Monroe Institute, an organization (originated by the CIA) set up to develop the capability of remote viewing in individuals. “I may be paralyzed in my body, but my mind can’t be shackled,” said Helen. I said I would sign up for a workshop as soon as my book tour was over, then we could meet up in the ether and see the world. But I also knew she was ready to go to that other world alone, and told her that I would see her soon, when my book tour took me to Atlanta.

On Sunday evening the telephone rang and I remember a sense of overwhelming sadness touching my heart as I reached for the receiver. For some reason I’d been a bit weepy all day, and put it down to the fatigue of flying. The caller was Sherri, one of Helen’s friends in Atlanta. Helen had given her a list of the people to call in the event of her passing. Sherri told me that Helen had caught a flu bug the previous week and been taken into hospital to get some fluids into her system, but she went downhill quickly, and had died two hours earlier. I sat alone in the dark for a long time, remembering Helen, remembering her sense of celebration, of joy, her generosity and her belief that every small good thing that happened in life was an excuse for a party, even a party of two.

There’s much more I could tell you about Helen – like the way in which she addressed the state senate in Georgia when she discovered that she could not have a helper monkey because Georgia did not allow exotic animals to be kept in a domestic situation. She wrote her speech and despite her fragile physical state and the sheer resolve it took to go to the hearing, she put her case to the senate, and won - but I will have to end this post here.

I once met a woman who told me she could see angels, and that they were actually giants, statuesque beings with huge feet and hands and really, really big wings. So if that’s right, then I know in my heart that there is now a giant even among angels and her name is Helen Maude Sterling. She is an ambassador for everything to be celebrated in life, and I bet that, now she’s shed that broken body, she is whizzing around the world, her curiosity knowing no bounds. Either that, or there's one heck of a party going on behind the pearly gates.

God bless her. Bless her.

NB: Sherri is walking in Helen’s name for the MS cure on April 12th, and I am here and now shamelessly including the URL for her donation page. At first she set her goal at $250, but I dared her to add a zero. If you think you can help her attain that goal, please go to (and I know it’s long, but if I try to embed this, I’ll definitely break the blog):

(Note: For easier reading, Patty embedded the link for Our J)

Let me know if you have a problem and I’ll find another way for you to contact Sherri and be parted from your money for this cause.


  1. Beautiful post. The part where she's confined to her room, but makes CD's for her friends....that one really hit me. Normally, you'd think it would be her friends making mixes for her to keep her spirits up.

    One tough lady, that Maude. May her story live on forever.

  2. from Jacqueline

    Thank you, JD, from me and all those who knew Helen. She was amazing - and I forgot to mention the signature line on her emails:

    "Life is either a daring adventure, or it is nothing." (Helen Keller)

  3. Thank you so much for sharing Helen's story. I hope that when my time comes, I can behave with a fraction of her dignity and grace and fire.

    Going to the link now.....

  4. She sounds as if she was an exceptional person. Through your telling of her story, she contines to have an impact on others. What a wonderful legacy you are giving her.

    Any disease that causes a person to be less than they are meant to be is devastating.It is heart breaking to watch someone deteriorate either physically, mentally,or both.

  5. Beautiful prose. You made me weepy...again. So sorry for your loss.

  6. A lovely tribute to your friend.


  7. Oh, Our J, you had me standing in line for traffic court (day 2) with tears running down my face.

    I think angels must be awfully big and tough. We need them so much, because their work is so hard. I rather like the idea of a big righteous bruiser with big wings on, too.

    My cousin Ashley was diagnosed with MS about four years ago. Single mom. A great friend of her parents has been in a wheelchair with it for some time now. Ashley grew up knowing her, and so she knows in great detail what's coming.

    Horrible, horrible stuff, all around. And yet... the soul so often outshines its container, even when the container is broken, you know?

    Thank you so much for this moving post.

  8. jackie, i think maude is sitting on her cloud up there today, smiling down on you. everybody who read your post, i'm sure, shares your loss and mourns with you.
    what a beautiful and touching tribute! as they say, only the good die young.
    thanks for sharing.

  9. Thank you SO much, Patty - I clicked on the red "to" and it was like magic, went straight to Sherri's page. What would I do without you???

    Rae, thank you for zooming off to the link straightaway, and Gayle, thank you for your comments. I know Helen was so special to everyone who knew her, and we all have different memories of her. I just wanted to share my memories, thoughts and feelings.

    Oh, Cornelia, I am sorry about your friend. MS is one of the most dreadful diseases, along with others such as ALS and those that come under the "auto-immune system" banner. From the bottom of my heart, I hope the doctors can slow progress of the disease for her.

    And Jim and Sybille, thank you for your comments.

  10. So well put, Jackie. Your reflections brought me up to speed about Helen/Maude. I lost touch with everyone after I left the U.S. in 2001 and I'm sorry that I missed out on getting to know Helen in a deeper sense. Still, I remember her exuberance and sense of humor and fun and that crazy cat and the snake that came slithering the back of the sofa when I was flat-sitting for her and how I had to hook it over a broom handle, my heart racing, even though it was only about 8 inches lone. Helen thought that was pretty funny. You're right....bless her.

  11. Dearest Jackie -

    What a beautiful tribute you've written. How lucky she was to have you as a friend. And of course echos of our dear Nancy.
    With love - B.

  12. Kathleen, I will never forget that snake at Helen's flat - every time one of us managed to get rid of it, the cat brought it back in again. And you're right, even though the cat just about decimated the place chasing the snake, Helen took it all in her stride and thought it was just a hoot!

    Barbara - yes, I've been thinking of Nancy this week too, as the situation was so familiar: A vital woman with so much she wanted to say and do, cut down with a decimating disease. It breaks your heart.

  13. There's an author up here in Seattle, Nicola Griffith, who has MS, and she too has greatness of spirit. Maybe there's something about that awful disease that expands the soul.

    What a lovely tribute. I too have tears streaming down my face. Thank you for sharing!

  14. Okay, so I teared up big time. :-(

    Your Helen sounds like she was a wonderful person to know who left a permanent smile on your soul. See, Our J.: you had an inner light moment of your own in seeing that Helen blindingly outshone her crumbling shell. Over pancakes, even. :-D

    What a wonderful tribute to a friend gone way to soon. And why do I get a distinct feeling that your Helen is windsurfing on her cloud in Heaven, in peerless skies, with the wind blowing her hair all everywhere, and her laughing fit to bust? This is the image that your words have left me with...

    It has helped me to do deal with helping my own Helen this week, a very dear friend at home in Australia, who hit rock bottom four days ago and whom we've been helping to place her feet back on the bottom rung of life. While not inflicted with anything as bad as aggressive MS, my Helen has a fire in her soul that might be a very distant echo of your Helen.

    Thank you so much for sharing your Helen with us.


  15. For awhile I coordinated volunteers for a hospice. We used to say that every death takes a hundred tellings.

    Thanks for telling us about Maude. She reminds me of my friend Sofia. Another story to tell!

    I love the vision of Maude windsurfing in heaven! Thanks!

  16. "Every death has a hundred tellings" - Holly, that phrase will be on my mind for days to come. My memories of Helen are just that - my memories. At first I wondered whether to write this piece, because Helen had other close friends and I am sure we all have such different memories of her that we will hold close. I hope I have managed to distill, in just a few paragraphs, something of her gracious essence.

    And thank you, Marianne and Fran for your comments and your reflections about your friends who are facing similar struggles - it all speaks to the strength of the spirit.

  17. Thank you for sharing the sheer love and beauty of your Helen with us.

    AFGO, indeed. A new phrase to face my life with.

  18. Thank you so much for giving me a glimpse into the part of Helen's life that I would not have otherwise known. She has now joined the ranks of my Angels, but I think that was the case all along. In the relatively short time that I knew her I always admired her ingenuity and passion. She never missed an opportunity to express herself, regardless of her physical limitations. Her Mother's devotion to her is also a permanent inspiration to me. I was googling her obituary and found your blog instead. I can't imagine a better eulogy. Thank you, and yes, God Bless Helen.

  19. Ms. Winspear, Several weeks ago I ran across this blog and I'm not sure how. But, as the fifth anniversary of her death was approaching Helen was on my mind. I can't remember what I had been searching for on Google, but there on the middle of the page was Helen's name so I selected the item and it brought me to your blog. With tears in my eyes I have read each word over and over again. Circumstances combined with immaturity dictated that Helen and I live separate lives, but my love for her will never die. I am Helen's ex-husband and thank you for being her friend when I failed.