Monday, July 6, 2009

A higher woodpile: Jack and Mary Collins' life of love

For the full story and pictures, see the latest issue of Thomasville Magazine

Drs. Jack and Mary Collins have always felt they should leave the woodpile a little higher than they found it.

Wood is stacked all around their cabin off Monticello Road. Jack Collins’ mom designed the unpainted heart pine home around two fireplaces. Though both Jack and Mary have enjoyed careers at the Harvard Medical Complex, several months of the year are spent here at Collinswood where they can look out the bay window in the living room and name the fox squirrels after Greek gods or marvel at the hummingbirds or listen to the symphony of rain on their tin roof.

Their careers alone would have left the woodpile stacked much higher. Jack, a premier heart surgeon, performed the first heart transplant in New England. At a time when China was largely isolationist, the country opened its doors to Jack so he could train their surgeons. Mary, a psychiatrist, works with researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in combating depression during pregnancy in bipolar women and researches stress, anxiety and depression at McLean, the private psychiatric unit of Harvard Hospital.

“But the most important thing is him now,” Mary says, looking at her husband of 42 years. He looks different than he did on that first date when he asked Mary to marry him. He’s in a wheel chair now, his mouth slightly ajar. Advanced Parkinson’s disease has eroded his ability to move and left him unable to verbally communicate.

But you can see the dignity of a man who was a Reagan confidant, who golfed with Bobby Jones and Jack Nicklaus, who was always at the top of his class.

“I tell the children that his greatest accomplishment is in his illness,” Mary said, holding her husband’s hand. “It’s easy to be kind when you are young and successful. When you’re dealing with illness and you are still kind, that is extraordinary. Jack is always kind.”

Mary understands Jack. Though there are no words and he’s mostly paralyzed, she can read him through a blink or a hand squeeze or a mutter lost on other ears. Theirs is a romance that spans four decades and has produced four children- a lawyer, a doctor, a curator and a hedge-fund manager. And even between their careers and their children, “It was always like playing house. We had such a good time,” Mary said.

“The secret to our happiness was every night Jack came home for supper. There was never unpleasantness in the bedroom. There was never unpleasantness in the kitchen.”

Jack had plans to sail around the world when he retired. He would salmon fish, Mary would write a book. The title was to be Wildflowers in the Beautiful Places that Salmon Swim. Their plans were averted in 2001 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. But the disease has not interfered with life.

“You can be happy and have a life of meaning and value with an illness,” Mary said.

Life is all around Collinswood. It’s in the heart-shaped clovers that Mary picks for Valentine’s Day in honor of Jack. “Please, let me show you all the tadpoles,” Mary says excitedly as she shows off the millions of tadpoles swimming in the pond. It’s the life that brings them and their kids, and now their grandkids, down to Thomasville every year.

But it’s also the history.

Jack grew up in a house called Recreation, now Allen and Allen Funeral Home. His dad started the radiology department at Archbold Hospital. Like so many Thomasville natives of his generation, he remembers Ms. Daisy Neel’s first grade class in what is now the Cultural Center. He treasures his trips to Al Dixon’s Menswear where his father was outfitted before him.

And it’s the future.

The grandkids were here for Easter. They are the fifth generation of Collins’ to retreat to the cabin amongst the longleaf pines. It’s just a small plot of land, 244 acres, a postage stamp amongst these large envelopes, Mary says. But the grandkids, “They will remember it as the best time of their life.”

As you leave Collinswood, Mary says, you will come to a fork in the road. “You’ll want to take the one less traveled.” She laughs as she quotes Robert Frost, “And that will make all the difference.”

But just before you leave, don’t miss the lean-to; it’s stacked to the brim with wood, piles and piles of wood.

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