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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Friends remember courageous woman

Dean Shalhoup

If any sense of regret, discomfort or guilt lingered in Concord’s historic South Congregational Church on Friday afternoon, the Rev. Jared A. Rardin banished all traces as soon as he stood to deliver his words of welcome.

“We acknowledge openly today that Judith took her own life. It is not your fault. There’s nothing you could have done. Guilt is not yours to bear.”

Rardin’s words delivered an almost palpable wave of relief – a kind of comfort, really, over the gathering of almost 200 who came with hearts at once heavy and hopeful to remember a truly courageous woman whose March 8 death, many said, wrapped her in a true sense of peace that cruelly eluded her for 43 of her 63 years.

Judith Freese Hall battled major depressive illness since her senior year at the University of New Hampshire, the same place where, three years earlier, the tall brunette with smiling brown eyes met and fell in love with a fellow freshman named Edward B. Hall.

“I know it’s times like this that you may wish you reached out one more time, made one more phone call,” Rardin said. “But all your love is what kept Judith going as long as she could.”

Edward Hall Jr., who everyone knows as Ted, and his two brothers had no real inkling growing up that their mother was fighting a tough daily battle against an illness as insidious and sneaky as it is unseen.

“We really had no idea,” said Hall, a longtime director and former president of Nashua’s Harbor Homes.

But looking back, he and brothers Sid and Andy have a pretty good idea why they were kept out of the loop.

“My mother wanted to make sure we weren’t affected by her illness,” Hall said. “So, she and my dad battled it alone.”

That Ed Hall Sr. was pursuing a career in medicine following his and Judy’s graduation from UNH was a double-edged sword. He was learning about the body and the mind, knowledge that may one day guide him toward answers to his bride’s confounding, frustrating affliction.

At medical school in Colorado, the aspiring physician devoted every possible minute to his wife’s well-being. Together, they trudged along. But things didn’t get any easier when they relocated to New Jersey for Ed Hall’s residency.

“The stuff she went through, I can’t imagine,” Ted Hall said. “Then in Jersey, it got really bad.”

Judy Hall had to be hospitalized in New York. Family members did what they could, as did Ed Hall – whose residency, at best a demanding, exhausting part of medical training, must have seemed an almost impossible accomplishment.

The 41 years the Halls shared weren’t all bad ones. As a matter of fact, there were many good years, Ted Hall said. Sometimes medications helped, sometimes they didn’t. Ditto for therapy. But the support of family and friends was constant.

Tears flowed, but warm smiles and a few laughs – like the “tee-hee-hee” Judy Hall was famous for – also filled the handsome sanctuary Friday.

“I can picture you right now sitting on the floor at CVS talking away on your cellphone,” Jacqueline Freese, Judy’s youngest sister, said while remembering the long phone conversations they were known for. “You talked to me all the way home from Connecticut that night, until I pulled into my driveway.”

Judy Hall refused to let her illness overshadow her many qualities, her sister said.

“We had so many fun times,” Freese said. “… The kids loved to hear Aunt Judy’s laugh. You never criticized. You were our peacemaker, our caregiver. You helped your family through difficult times. Your favorite phrase was, ‘I hear you.’

“I’ll think of you every single time I use the coffee mug you gave me: ‘A sister is a lifetime friend.’ ”

Ted Hall was brief.

“My mother was a proud, strong woman,” he said, his voice breaking. “She battled a terrible illness for more than 40 years. But she put family first. And we love her more than words can say.”

The South Congregational Church was central to Judy Hall’s life. Family, friends and admirers celebrated her life Friday in the same sanctuary they celebrated her and Ed Hall’s marriage on Aug. 22, 1970. Well-read and an accomplished musician, Judy Hall was her church’s organist for several years.

Ted Hall’s paternal grandmother is former state Rep. Betty Hall, of Brookline, a Harbor Homes founder and longtime board member. Despite her and Ted Hall’s close ties and their decades of service to the agency – which assists the homeless, those with substance abuse problems and people with mental illness – they remain frustrated, Ted Hall said, by one pervasive question:

“If my mom, who had such great access to help and the means to get it, and had all the wonderful support around her, still cannot successfully fight this illness, then what the heck is happening to all the people out there with little or no means?”

Those in the field know. Lack of understanding. Politics. Stigma, though muted compared to 40 years ago, is alive and, unfortunately, well.

“In ‘polite’ society, nobody would ever talk about such things,” Ted Hall said of the era in which his mother married and had children.

“This is a disease, like cancer is a disease. We need to find a way to talk about it. We as a society need to help everyone, of all means, especially those who can’t fight for themselves.

“Finding a way to ease the burden on those less fortunate (who are) suffering with this terrible disease – depression – was especially important to my mother. Just because she chose this route doesn’t mean it’s the only route. We need to shout it from the rooftops: You can live with this illness.”

When Sid Hall, a writer and published author, received news of his mom’s death, he did what he does best.

“I turned to words,” he said Friday. “I felt the need to write a poem.”

In it, he addresses his mom as “Judes,” a family nickname.

“You came with us on our journeys,” he wrote. “You came as far as you could.”

Andy Hall did likewise, penning a letter to his mom “in the still of the early morning darkness,” he said.

“Dear Mom … I can’t believe how big your heart was. You always said you were guided by an inner voice. Why your voice called you away, I’ll never understand. I guess some things just cannot be comprehended,” Hall read from his letter.

Perhaps most stirringly, he spoke of “a miracle that came along just six days after Mom died.” She’s Judith Louise Hall, his mom’s namesake, who “might as well have been born with wings, because she’s my little angel.”

If Judith Louise ever asks her parents why they named her Judy, Hall said, he’ll be ready.

“I’ll tell you, ‘Judy Louise, your Grandma Judy had an amazing amount of courage,’ ” he said. “ ‘I hope you’ll have just a few ounces of the courage she had.’ ”

Hall paused.

“Get some rest now, Ma. You’ve given everything you can possibly give.

“It’s time to rest.”

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Saturdays in The Telegraph. He can be reached at 594-6443 or