Last November Frank and Frances Leatherman realized they would not live forever. Until then, by both their accounts, they had had a happy life together, not perfect or without regret--they wanted children and couldn't have them--but happy. They had people whom they loved nearby. Both retired, they were ready to do the things they always had wanted to do --he to see the redwood and sequoia in California, she to visit Alaska. They had a comfortable home and a garden that Frances cherished. And they had their health.
But then, in a matter of months, their dream of "golden years" was shattered. In November, the Leathermans learned that he was suffering from congestive heart failure and that his physical activity would have to be curtailed. Frances tried to take over some of the physical chores that Frank used to do. Her first warning that she also had a problem came in March, when she was carrying some logs in for the iron stove in their sitting room. After the effort left her light-headed, Frank insisted on making an appointment with Robert Brull, their doctor in nearby Hagerstown. Brull recognized that Frances had a problem, but no one realized how critical her situation really was until she collapsed on the kitchen floor two months later.
Even after his wife's operation, when she was safely home and recovering, Frank Leatherman could reconstruct in vivid detail the events of May 14: "I was so frantic and almost beside myself. I don't think I really knew what I was doing most of the time. As far as I can recall, I heard her hit the floor, and I knew exactly what had happened. I knew it was Frannie. Had to be. Nobody else was here. And I ran up the steps. I don't think I hit the steps over two times. I was upstairs. And I turned the corner and saw her there lying on the floor. I said, 'Boy, I hope I don't have a heart attack here.' I said, 'God help ya, I hope I don't die here, too, and they find both of us like this.' I ran over, she was lying on her face, and turned her over."
She was not breathing. Her face was purple. Her neck was so swollen it was larger than her head, he said. He gave her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. "I was so scared. I didn't know what I was doing."
He dialed the operator and asked for an ambulance. Then he ran back and started trying to get her to breathe again. No response. He looked at the clock, knowing he had only a few minutes. "I was so scared. I'd breathe for her a little, and then I'd pray. Breathe for her, then I'd pray a little more." Although untrained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation, Leatherman had seen it demonstrated on television a few times. Realizing that her heart wasn't working, Frank Leatherman hit her with his fist in the chest--putting the full weight of his body behind each blow --at least four times.
She vomited and then started to breathe. "I said, 'Thank you, God. We got her going.' I never felt so good about anything like that in my life. It was such a relief after being scared like that. I was just knocked out of my mind almost."
Leatherman, 67, has a handsome, weathered face and silver-gray hair. He is a big man, not heavy, but lanky, large-boned, with hands used to manual labor. His wife is also in her late 60s. They celebrated their 41st wedding anniversary in the coronary care unit of Georgetown University Hospital May 31, two days before her operation.
For Frances Leatherman, who is not used to physical restrictions, the news that she had a serious heart problem came as a shock.
"First I resented it," she said. "I thought, 'What have I done? I've taken care of myself.' I've never done anything to excess except work. I love to work."
As she had more time to think about it, her perspective shifted. "You think, 'Well, a lot of people die a lot younger than you. A lot of people have a troubled life. And you've just about had everything. What do you really expect out of life?' So I just was philosophizing with myself, saying, 'The Lord's been good to you. So now don't get too uptight about this whole bit.' But I found one thing, that you don't really start thinking seriously about dying until it's pretty close."
Frances Leatherman has worked hard all her life. She was born on a farm in West Virginia, one of seven children.
The Depression wiped out her father's savings, taking with it her dream of being a journalist. Instead, she went to a two-year business school and became a secretary. She spent much of her adult life working for the federal government at nearby Fort Ritchie.
Frank Leatherman kids his wife about being a "hillbilly," but she and her older sister, Sarah Martin, describe themselves with undisguised pride as "mountaineers"--fiercely loyal, independent people who never forget a friend or an enemy.
The Leathermans make it clear that they are devoted to each other. When she came home from the hospital she found a big, hand-lettered sign made by Frank over the garage-- "Welcome Home Frannie." About 20 of her relatives were on hand to celebrate her homecoming.
Childless, the Leathermans have focused much of their energy and affection on her family. "She's held the family together," Frank says. "She's just like an old cat with a bunch of kittens. Whenever they needed help, she was there."
Her two remaining brothers live nearby. Her sister lives in Harrisonburg, Va. A nephew lives right next door.
Frank Leatherman has worked as a carpenter and foreman since before World War II. He substantially renovated the house where they live, which Frances Leatherman bought while her husband was in the Army during the war.
Frances describes her home as a "little old country house" and themselves as "country people." From the kitchen window of their plain, clapboard frame house, they have an unobstructed picture-postcard view of a lush green valley and farm and an imposing mountain five miles off. The house is full of sturdy wooden furniture that he has refinished or repainted. Photographs of her family share space with homilies, prayers and pictures of Jesus Christ. Frank Leatherman has a carnival glass collection that he proudly shows with a little encouragement.
Frances Leatherman is a deeply religious woman, who describes herself as a Christian. She has a gentle manner that masks a feisty streak. "I can't say I'm the master of my fate, the captain of my soul. I don't think anyone is. But you to an extent are . . . If you don't think you did your best, do it over again or go back and try to correct it. But don't accept it the way it is."
Frances Leatherman told her husband that he should stay home in Ringgold, Md. the day of her operation. He wanted to come. He stayed home.
She doesn't remember his visit, along with her sister, the day after. Although she appeared lucid, answering their questions, she recalls none of it. She does, however, remember the nightmares she had the first few nights after the operation. One involved a snake. Snakes terrify her. On another night, she thought she was having an abortion. "It was kind of ironic. I thought I was in the hospital and they were performing an abortion on me, and of course all my life I wanted children, and we were never able to have children. And I thought, 'Isn't this crazy now. Here when I can have a baby, I'm going to have it aborted.'"
She thought she would be in a great deal of pain after the operation. It wasn't as bad as she had feared. The hospital--including the food-- she said repeatedly, before and after the operation, was "wonderful."
Frank and Frances Leatherman have differing views of what her operation means--both practically and philosophically. "You know, Frank told me, 'You're not doing the same when you come home.' I said, 'Now listen, I'm going to ask the doctor what I can do. I'm not going to make an invalid out of myself. I'd rather be dead than be an invalid.'"
"I told my wife," Frank said, "We're just going to have to have a sale and sell all this stuff and sell this place and get a little apartment." He doesn't want to do that, "But it's almost a necessity. We've got to try to conserve our strength a little.
"Frannie and I have always been very close. We have our little tiffs once in a while, but in a couple of minutes it's over . . . But now, I'm more conscious of the time we've got left, and I want to make the most of it. I want her to be just as happy as she can be. And whatever she wants is what she's going to get regardless of whether it suits me or not. Because I don't know--they say that valve is good for 15 years. But I don't know that. And I don't know if I'm going to be here tomorrow. In fact, neither one of us has the promise of tomorrow. None of us does, as far as that goes. And since I've gotten her back, I want to try to keep her just as happy as I can. I want to take all the load off her I can . . . I'd like for her to enjoy herself, maybe travel a little bit."
Frances Leatherman's brush with death has not changed her outlook. "I have a lot of faith in my Lord and I have this feeling that you're put on this earth for a designated period of time . . . and you have things to do here. And I think you live until your Lord takes you home . . . I think that is why I never felt any fear . . . I didn't know whether I was going to be crippled, whether I was going to be back to normal, whether I was going to have better health than I did. But I have implicit faith that whatever is going to be good for me, I am going to have . . . I think I'm truly a very, very fortunate person, that I had a kind, caring husband who was near me and who was there when I needed him. I had a Lord who was there when I called on Him. I had a doctor who knew what to do, and he knew where to take me. So I feel like I'm just a real, real fortunate person. Real fortunate. And I don't know how else to put it other than that. I didn't want this happen, but I'm awful happy the way it came out."