Nearly every Westport Y member knows Debbie Stewart.
She’s the woman with long dreads and boundless enthusiasm. She popped in and out of Zumba and cycling classes; chatted with employees and members, and lit up every corner of the building with her presence.
Now, Y staffer Midge Deverin has told her story.
A Jamaica native, her mother died of breast cancer when Debbie was 6. Her father soon left her and 3 siblings alone. Debbie graduated from high school, moved to Florida, and became a certified nursing assistant.
She worked in Brooklyn and Connecticut. Soon she was hired as a caregiver for Libby Nevas. She and her husband Leo were noted Westport philanthropists.
Debbie quickly became an important part of the family. She never left Libby’s side, Midge writes. “They were inseparable; talking, laughing, enjoying each other’s company until the day Libby Nevas died while Debbie, her ‘angel,’ held her hand.”
Debbie planned to return to New York. But Leo — “strong, healthy and exceedingly independent” — asked Debbie to stay. She accompanied him to plays and concerts in New York, and meetings in California.
Debbie charmed “statesmen, ambassadors, authors,” Midge writes, “with her easy banter and informed opinions.”
Suddenly, in 2003 — while studying to become a dental assistant — Debbie underwent emergency surgery to remove a large brain tumor.
It continued to grow. She endured 2 more operations. The last, in 2009, resulted in debilitating side effects.
Debbie was left with short-term memory loss. Her brain is no longer aware of the entire left side of her body, or surroundings.
Throughout all her surgeries — and her “tremendous physical and emotional turmoil” — the Nevas family was there for her.
In May of 2009, Pat Pennant was hired as Leo’s housekeeper. She met Debbie, who needed round-the-clock nursing care.
A few months later, Leo died. His daughter, Jo-Ann Price, promised Pat that when Debbie was out of crisis, but needed a companion/caretaker, Pat would get the call.
Three years later, it came.
“Many might say that from that time till now, Debbie has led a compromised and limited life,” Midge writes. But anyone who’s had “the pleasure and honor of really knowing Debbie” knows otherwise.
Her “enthusiasm and joie de vivre” followed her everywhere: from volunteering 3 days a week at the Notre Dame Convalescent Home in Norwalk, to Compo Beach, the Levitt Pavilion, museums, dancing, trips to New York, shopping at TJ Maxx and Home Goods — and of course the Y.
A few weeks ago, however, Debbie’s inoperable tumor grew again. She is now virtually immobile.
The other day, Midge visited Debbie at her Westport home. She was propped up by Pat, but Debbie’s welcoming smile filled the room.
She asked Midge about her Y friends. They visit often.
In typical fashion, Midge writes, Debbie did not talk about her problems.
Instead, she told Midge, she’s determined to be back.
Meanwhile, Midge misses Debbie at the Y. She misses her shimmying down the hall. She misses her irrepressible energy. Most of all, she misses her unwavering spirit, which “stares at both life and death with a smile.”
(To read Midge Deverin’s full story about Debbie Stewart, click here.)