Larry and Noella Plourde know some people can be cruel when it comes to things they know nothing about.
Larry, 77, has cerebellar ataxia, which causes him to be clumsy, have slurred speech, poor balance and trouble swallowing.
He doesn’t look sick, and he has a wide smile and a good sense of humor, so you don’t notice right away that there’s anything wrong.
He and Noella, 74, went to a public supper once, which is something they love to do, and learned rather quickly that some people can be heartless.
“Larry went to sit in the chair and he fell and the lady across from him started laughing because he fell,” Noella recalled.
They felt terrible, especially since Larry had no control over his coordination.
They have experienced people’s thoughtlessness at other times as well, including last winter when they went to a fast-food restaurant whose entrance was not shoveled enough for Larry’s wheelchair to get inside.
“I talked to the manager and the manager said, ‘We’ll get a couple of people to lift him up and carry him inside and then carry him out when you are ready to leave,'” Noella said.
Sometimes drivers park cars and trucks in spots designated for those who are handicapped.
“There was a young couple with two little kids parked in front of the grocery store, and they were loading up their car with groceries,” Noella said. “I said, ‘Why did you park there?’ They said they were only parking there for a few minutes. They didn’t get it.”
Noella said she would appreciate it if shoppers would offer to open doors for those in wheelchairs.
“I wish people were more thoughtful. I can’t really open a door and hang on to the back of his chair; sometimes the door will hit me in the back. I can’t open it because I’m trying to put the chair through. They should have more automatic doors.”
Lest it sound as though the Plourdes are complaining about their lives, let me clarify. They are a very happy twosome, married 55 years this past June. They have two caring children, all grown; three lovely grandchildren; and a lot of friends at Meadowview Estates, a condominium complex in Winslow where they have lived 22 years. Noella is treasurer of the condo association and Larry used to be president but had to resign when his condition progressed and people couldn’t understand what he was saying when they called him on the phone.
The Plourdes love each other. That is obvious in the way they care for one other, tell jokes and laugh a lot. Larry feels fortunate he has a scooter he can ride all over the place — even to Waterville, where he patronizes Rite Aid on Main Street and Dollar Tree on The Concourse. He also travels to Mount St. Joseph Nursing Home on College Avenue to see his brother, Richard, who is a year older and also has cerebellar ataxia. While Larry hasn’t been able to go out on his scooter much these last few weeks because it has been so hot, he expects to do so soon, when the weather cools down.
“I’m looking forward to it. I love it.”
He was diagnosed with cerebellar ataxia at 40, but the symptoms started much earlier, not long after he graduated from high school.
He grew up on a farm in Winslow, where the family of seven children had cows and pigs and other animals, cut hay and lived an idyllic life. He graduated from Winslow High School in 1956 and two years later met Noella, who was a senior at Mount Merici School in Waterville. She asked him out on a date, and later he accompanied her to the prom. They married in 1960.
He was working at Flo’s Greenhouse on Grove Street in Waterville when he started having balance problems and would sometimes trip on the stairs.
He kept working, getting a job at J.C. Penney and later, Montgomery Ward in Waterville, where he was merchandise manager. He drove a retail route for Harris Baking Co. and then spent 11 years tending a machine and working as a printer operator at Keyes Fibre Co., which now is Huhtamaki. By then, it had become clear something was amiss. His coordination and fine motor skills were deteriorating.
“I was tripping a lot and falling down. I had sprained ankles; I broke a toe. They tried to give me a job as a janitor, but they said I’d be all alone if I fell and it wasn’t safe.”
So he retired on disability and in 1976 was diagnosed with cerebellar ataxia. It was a blow to hear those words.
“I felt down, real down. I thought I wanted to die, but then I realized I got a loving wife, two loving kids in high school and I got to get off my ass and do what I can.”
Noella was working at Houle’s Plumbing Heating & Air Conditioning in Waterville as assistant office manager and decided to retire to take care of her husband. She likes to say he takes care of her as much as she does him.
In June, she said, he drove his scooter to a flower shop in Waterville and couldn’t go inside because the shop doesn’t have a ramp.
“He tooted his horn, the girl came out and he ordered some flowers. He told her what color, he paid for them and I got them for our anniversary.”
Noella smiles at the memory. She has fibromyalgia, which affects the muscles and soft tissue and causes pain. She also has chronic fatigue and terrible headaches. However, she doesn’t complain, nor does Larry, who had open heart surgery in December to fix a leaky heart valve. As odd as it may seem to some, they view themselves as lucky.
“I pray to God to help me stay healthy so I can take care of him,” Noella says. “It’s working.”
And Larry contends a lot of people are much worse off than he is, so he has no reason to gripe.
“They got pain and they got this and that. I got no pain unless I fall. There’s no cure, but there’s no pain.”
He does a crossword puzzle every day, plays games on the computer, reads sports magazines and attends a support group for people with cerebellar ataxia every two months at Casco Bay Regional YMCA in Freeport. He was chosen as guest speaker once, to help younger, newly diagnosed people cope and feel less afraid.
“I think that we’re so fortunate that God gave us so much to look forward to,” he said.
Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 27 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected].
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