When Cameron Tease talks about his life, all roads lead to his late son, Sean.
Sitting at the sunny library of the Keene Senior Center on a recent afternoon, the 70-year-old executive director queues up memory after memory. You can almost hear the inner machinations of a mental slide projector.
Fixing his gaze on an unknown horizon, Tease examines these mental images carefully. He lingers on the happy moments.
There is Sean at 17. A Keene High School student. A basketball player with a sense of humor and a big heart. Tease always thought his son would grow up to be a teacher, but Sean wasn’t so sure.
Then there are other, darker memories.
1989. Sean’s accident in Westmoreland. Tease was on a business trip somewhere in Virginia when he got the call. There was a car crash. Sean, 17, was badly hurt. The doctors called it traumatic brain injury.
Sean would never walk or speak again. But he was alive — you could hold his hand and talk to him. He smiled. He could give you a thumbs up.
The crash thrust Tease and his family into a new reality. In those first few days, Tease said, they couldn’t help but think things would get better. That one day, Sean would be Sean again.
“We didn’t really understand the full nature of a brain injury,” Tease, who now lives in Keene, said.
But when it became clear Sean was going to need round-the-clock care for the rest of his life, Tease and his family members began exploring their options. At the time, there were no suitable facilities for Sean in the Monadnock Region, according to Tease. He and his ex-wife, Marie Magee, looked everywhere: Cedarcrest, Crotched Mountain, Maplewood Nursing Home.
Nothing seemed to fit. It took them five years, but they landed on another option.
A homespun solution
It started long before Sean’s accident. Tease developed a habit of volunteering after he and Magee moved to the Monadnock Region in the early 1980s. The firm he worked for, Peerless Insurance in Keene, encouraged community involvement, and Tease obliged. First, he ran for the school board in Westmoreland. Later, he got involved with the Monadnock United Way.
He said the area afforded him more opportunities to make a difference than did his native Media, Pa. Soon, he grew to love the region.
Through the years, he’d switch jobs, moving from firm to firm, until he landed at what is now called Markem-Imaje in the 1990s. He continued to volunteer throughout his tenure with the company.
“The United Way kind of exposed me to realize what great work nonprofits do,” he said. “And over the course of those years, I was on the board of Monadnock Family Services and of Monandock Developmental Services and of Cedarcrest,” he said.
It wasn’t immediately apparent, but knowing the roles of the various local nonprofit organizations and being familiar with key people there would come in handy.
When Sean left the hospital in Hanover, his doctors suggested he go to a rehab center in Massachusetts.
Tease remembers how vague they’d been.
“We were expecting that when Sean was ready to leave Mary Hitchcock after six weeks that they would say, ‘OK, here’s where you go next, and here’s what you can expect,’ ” he recalled.
“But no, it was like, ‘Well, we understand there’s a place down in Massachusetts that specializes in head injuries. We know some people that have gone there, but we don’t really know what happened to them.’ ”
Sean fared OK there, Tease said, but he didn’t get the attention he needed. Tease would visit him on weekends, and he noticed his son developed bed sores from not being moved enough. It took almost a year of searching, but the parents devised a plan they thought would work better: They’d buy a home in Keene and create a community of caregivers around him.
The concept drew heavily from Tease’s knowledge of providers in the region. With the help of Monadnock Family Services and Home Healthcare, they lined up 24/7 care in a home they bought on Grant Street.
Tease smiles when he remembers the day Sean returned to the Monadnock Region, about five years after the crash. Workers from Massachusetts drove him up to Keene, to the house his parents bought and customized for him, and wheeled him through the door.
“We had the ramp made, and we had the doors widened, and we had the lifts in the ceiling,” Tease recalled. “And I remember these two aides going, ‘Wow, Sean, you’re home.’ ”
‘A happy place’
They created a tight-knit community of helpers — college students, health professionals and family members — who took turns caring for Sean.
“You walked into that house with this kid who, really, you didn’t know if he was even aware that people were there,” said Sean’s older sister, Kellie Irish, of San Francisco. “That could make you feel really bad, but it was just such a loving home environment that it made you feel good. The caregivers felt good; they felt connection with my brother. It felt lovely. It was my happy place to hang out with my parents at my brother’s house.”
Sean lived for 17 years after his accident, and Tease continued to rely on others to help with his son’s care. Like the day Sean’s chairlift broke, and he got stuck in the tub. Tease recalled borrowing a chairlift from Cedarcrest.
Or the almost yearly outings to the beach — each trip was a major accomplishment, involving caregivers carrying Sean to and from the van and bringing him to the water.
“If I had not been in this kind of community and known people, I don’t think that program would have ever come together,” Tease said.
Sean left a lasting impact, and it lingered long after he died of an infection in 2007. It was through Sean that Tease met his future wife, Dixie Gurian, who also cared for a loved one with traumatic brain injury. But these 17 years changed Tease’s outlook on life.
Following Sean’s example
Last year, around the time Tease interviewed for his position as executive director of the Keene Senior Center, he landed in the hospital. It had been a year of many illnesses, he recalled. Tease appeared to always be sick — there were seemingly endless bouts of colds and pneumonia.
But aging, Tease knew, can be rife with declining health. Soon, Tease had his answer: What he was feeling wasn’t part of normal aging. He had multiple myeloma, cancer of the white blood cells.
Tease thought of his son.
“We’d go to an appointment with Sean, and we’d see what he endured, his pain, but he would still smile; he would still make a difference to people,” he said. “And I said, ‘If I ever had this serious situation like Sean does, he’s going to be my example for his strength.’ ”
So he made up his mind: He would try to focus on the things he can control, the things he finds important. He accepted the job at the senior center, ending a three-year stretch as resource development director at the Monadnock United Way.
In February, Tease underwent an aggressive course of chemotherapy, followed by a stem cell implant that’s supposed to help keep his cancer at bay, at least for a while. But the doctors told him multiple myeloma isn’t curable.
In the meantime, Tease wants to continue to do the things that matter to him for as long as he possibly can.
“People say to me, ‘Do you have a bucket list and, you know, things you want to do?,’ ” he said. “(And I say) no. I just like a beautiful day like this. I love this region — you know, being close to friends, being part of something that I feel is meaningful, like the senior center.”