Debbie Stewart pictured above right, with friend and caretaker Pat Pennant
She is one of God's Children...how else can you describe 47-year-old Debbie Stewart?
At once childlike in her wonderment and excitement to daily experiences, seemingly naïve to life's misfortunes, and yet clever and mischievous in the way she handles herself with her peers, Debbie Stewart is a beloved and cherished woman.
She would waltz through the corridors of the Y, flinging her long dark dreads about her face, engaging members and staff with her upbeat morale and enthusiasm; stopping numerous times to visit Janet at the Simply Delicious café, going in and out of James' Zumba class, Judy's Body Conditioning class, and Denise's Cycling. Debbie follows her own drummer, one that is just a bit off from the rest, but entirely her own...and it defines her.
Very few people know Debbie's 'story' - where she came from, family, background. She seemingly just arrived at the Y's doorstep with her caretaker, Pat Pennant...and never left.
In truth, she was born in Kingston, Jamaica, West Indies. Her mother died from breast cancer when Debbie was six years old and her father left Debbie and her three siblings at a very young age. She completed high school in Jamaica and migrated to the U.S., living with family members in Florida and taking courses to become a certified nursing assistant. Initially, Debbie worked for a family in Brooklyn, NY and then moved to Connecticut where she worked for three families. But, meeting Westport's prominent attorney/philanthropist Leo Nevas and his lovely wife, Libby, would mark a turning point in Debbie's life. She was hired as caregiver to Libby and within a few short weeks, literally became a member of their family. Debbie never left Libby's side, they were inseparable; talking, laughing, enjoying each other's company until the day Libby Nevas died , while Debbie, her 'angel,' held her hand.
Debbie's plans to go to New York after Mrs. Nevas' death were changed dramatically when Mr. Nevas made it very clear that she had become such an adored member of the family and that her devotion and tender, loving care of his wife would not go unappreciated. Although Leo, himself, was strong, healthy and exceedingly independent, he wanted Debbie to be his constant companion. And she was...enjoying an unimaginably rich and rewarding lifestyle accompanying Leo to Galas in New York and meetings in California; Broadway plays, concerts...and charming everyone including statesmen, ambassadors, authors, with her easy banter and well informed opinions...until a devastating diagnosis changed the quality and course of her life forever.
Debbie was studying to become a dental assistant in 2003 while she was working for a dentist in Fairfield. She was sent home one day because of a severe headache and Leo insisted she go to the doctor immediately. Within hours, Debbie was taken by ambulance to Norwalk Hospital where she underwent emergency surgery to remove a large brain tumor. This would be the first of three surgeries. Debbie's tumor continued to grow and she was sent to Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston for her second surgery by Dr. Peter Black, one of the most re-known neuro-surgeons in the country, using an MRI to pinpoint exact area of the mass. The tumor continued to grow and Debbie underwent her third and final surgery in 2009 at the University of Arkansas which resulted in a number of debilitating side effects. She was left with short term memory deficit and a condition called 'left neglect' where her brain is not aware of the entire left side of her body or surroundings. Throughout all the travel back and forth to Boston and Arkansas and the tremendous physical and emotional turmoil, the Nevas family was by her side.
Patricia (Pat) Pennant met Debbie for the first time in May of 2009 when she was hired as Mr. Nevas' housekeeper. At this time, Debbie was severely handicapped after her final surgery and had round-the-clock nursing care. A few short months later, Leo Nevas passed away and his daughter, Jo-Ann Price, promised Pat that once Debbie was out of crisis and would need a companion/caretaker as opposed to 24-hour medical care, she would call her...and, three years later when the call came, Pat was ready.
Many might say that from that time till now, Debbie has lived a compromised and limited life... but, if you had the pleasure and honor of really knowing Debbie, you would think otherwise. Her enthusiasm and joi du vivre follow her everywhere from her three days-a-week volunteering at the Notre Dame Convalescent Home in Norwalk to her daily morning exercise classes here at the Y. She loves Compo Beach, the Levitt Pavilion, summers of outdoor concerts, dining out with friends, going to museums, dancing, trips to New York City and Debbie finds it difficult to pass Marshalls, TJ Maxx or Home Goods without having to stop in. And, up until a few short weeks ago, Debbie lived a beautiful and active lifestyle until her brain tumor which is inoperable now, grew, inhibiting her and leaving her virtually immobile.
I visited Debbie at her home here in Westport. It was a cold and frosty night outside but warm and cozy inside. Debbie lay in her bed, needing to be propped up by Pat and a visiting friend...and I marveled at how lovely she looked and how wide her welcoming smile was. She inquired about all her friends at the Y, many who come to see her every day, and, in typical 'Debbie-fashion,' did not allude to her affliction, discomfort or prognosis and made it very clear that she is determined to 'come back.'
I'm going to miss Debbie's shimmying down the hall, asking me five times in a row 'when is the bus coming;' I'm going to miss her telling everyone it's her birthday today; I'm going to miss her irrepressible energy...but most of all I am going to miss her in dominatable spirit that stares both life and death with a smile.
Debbie and Pat enjoying the holidays together in 2013