PORTSMOUTH — Afterwards, Maura Hegarty admitted she had been nervous about asking such a sensitive question.
Sitting in a wheelchair in front of her was Natalie Baron Swift, who in July 2011 was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurodegenerative disease. Maura, an eighth-grader at St. Philomena School, worked up her nerve and stood up.
“Do you ever think about dying?” she asked.
Mrs. Swift, a Warren resident who graduated from St. Philomena in 1982, didn’t flinch.
“I do,” said Mrs. Swift. “With ALS, it’s inevitable. But I’m at peace with it. It’s just a phase of life.”
Mrs. Swift was invited to speak Friday by her friend, literature teacher Pam Principe, whose eighth-grade students had just finished reading “Tuesdays With Morrie.” In the bestselling book, sports columnist Mitch Albom recounts his visits with Brandies University professor Morrie Schwartz, who was dying from ALS.
And now students, nervously holding pieces of paper with questions they had prepared, had a real-life ALS patient in front of them.
Mrs. Swift, however, put them at ease right away. In the course of about 40 minutes, she took every question, answering in a straightforward manner without a trace of self-pity or tears.
“You can ask me anything. You don’t have to worry about making me sad,” said Mrs. Swift, who didn’t touch the box of tissues in her lap.
The only time she started to get emotional was when a student asked her how ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, had changed her outlook on life.
“You see the beauty in simple things — just looking out the window and seeing a beautiful day. Seeing my kids get home from school … a smile,” she said. “I’ve gained joy, peace, friendships. I don’t dwell on anything negative; I try to stay positive. I feel kindness; people stop and smile. When I didn’t have ALS, I didn’t find that as much. Having a terminal illness is almost a blessing.”
Being prepared for death is easier when you have a strong family, said Mrs. Swift, a mother of six.
“I’m not sad for myself. I’m sad for my husband and kids,” she said, adding that her family has always been her main support system. “My parents have always been there for me. My husband is a wonderful man and I’ve been so blessed. He works hard and always comes home with a smile on his face.”
Despite her illness, she’s still a mom. “They don’t see me as sick, and I still yell at them. I can’t grab them whenever I want and that serves them well,” she joked.
Not everyone can deal with death, she acknowledged. “I feel like I have to be strong for others. I’ve had friends who haven’t contacted me, and I thought they might have,” said Mrs. Swift.
But plenty of others have rallied around her since she was first diagnosed. When a student asked her if she has a regular visitor like the one in “Tuesdays with Morrie,” she said, “I have Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. I have someone who visits every day.”
She also touched briefly on her day-to-day struggles living with ALS, a terminal disease which affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.
“Getting myself dressed — just daily living,” she said when a student asked about her struggled. “It’s feeding myself. My hands are getting weaker and weaker; I need my food cut up for me. Basically everything we take for granted.”
Faith keeps her going
Mrs. Swift said her faith has not only guided her through ALS, it’s grown since her diagnosis.
“When I was diagnosed, I called my sister; I was very upset. She said to me, ‘Just remember when Peter was with Jesus when he was walking on water.’ From that moment on, there was just this peace that came over me. I can tell that people are praying for me constantly,” she said.
She displayed her Scapular — a Roman Catholic sacramental pendant — that she always wears around her neck. “I don’t go anywhere without it,” Mrs. Swift said. “You just wear it and Mary does the rest.”
Some of Mrs. Swift’s former teachers were at the presentation including Paula Baker, who still teaches first grade at the school, and Sister Imelda Toomey, who came by to visit. “I’m really touched by your tremendous courage and your honesty,” said Sister Toomey. “I have fond memories of you.”
Donna Bettencourt-Glavin, the school’s principal, assured Mrs. Swift that everyone in the room will be praying for her.
“That’s what keeps me going,” Mrs. Swift replied.
To learn about the Natalie Swift Foundation, click here.