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SWEET Sorrow
Allen Abel
November 11, 2002
Gordie Howe, one of his sport's fiercest warriors, can only watch and grieve as his wife—the smarts behind Mr. Hockey—slowly succumbs to a rare brain disorder
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November 11, 2002

Sweet Sorrow

Gordie Howe, one of his sport's fiercest warriors, can only watch and grieve as his wife—the smarts behind Mr. Hockey—slowly succumbs to a rare brain disorder

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Sliding Toward a shadowed place where light and hope cannot reach her, a woman sits in a padded chair, and a small black dog licks her hand. There is a toddler's safety gate at the top of the basement stairs, and every door that leads outside is equipped with an alarm, not to keep intruders away from the home in Bloomington Hills, Mich., a leafy suburb of Detroit, but to keep the woman inside during the dislocated wanderings that are a consequence of her terrible, wasting affliction. The man of the house—one of the paramount athletes of the 20th century, an icon of humility and patience—is as stricken as his dying wife, and already feels her loss. "If missing someone is love," says Gordie Howe, "then that's what it is."

Colleen Joffa Howe has Pick's disease, a lesser-known form of dementia comparable with Alzheimer's in its inexorable destruction of the mind, yet specific in the portions of the brain it attacks. There is no cure. Colleen is 69, and had this misfortune not befallen her, early next year she would have been leading her Hall of Fame husband toward a cluster of milestones: her 70th birthday in February, his 75th in March, their golden anniversary in April.

Now that cavalcade of happiness will not occur. After years of private sorrow, the Howes—Gordie, sons Marty, 48, Mark, 47, and Murray, 42, and daughter Cathy Purnell, 43—have decided that the time has come to publicly close ranks with the millions of other families whose elders have faded into the same unreachable dimness. Extraordinary in their achievements, the great Red Wing and his family bear a common grief. "It's one of those things that always happens to someone else," says Marty. "Until it happens to you."

For at least the past year, Gordie was his wife's sole caregiver—preparing her meals and medication, shepherding her through her wanderings, waking in terror at the sound of those door alarms. (With the disease rapidly progressing, a nurse now helps him three days a week for four hours each day.) The little teacup poodle named Rocket, after Gordie's nemesis on the Montreal Canadiens, Maurice (Rocket) Richard, once was her joy and companion. But now, says Gordie, "it's just a dog."

"When Mom first quit eating," Cathy says of Colleen, who has lost close to 30 pounds over the last two months, "Dad would order a pizza. But then he wouldn't eat either, because he didn't want to be eating if she wasn't."

The chores have been onerous, the toll of sorrow obvious in the big man's eyes. But Gordie was taught as a small boy on a Saskatchewan farm not to weep for his woe, nor shun his duty. "For him," says Murray, a radiologist in Toledo, "it's like getting a Ph.D. in life."

Colleen Howe was one of the first women to demand and win a place at the money tables of major league sports. Twenty-nine years ago, as America's first female player agent, she negotiated the revolutionary package that brought Gordie out of his early retirement—he was only 45!—and teamed him on the ice with Marty and Mark in the World Hockey Association for the happiest seasons of Gordie's legendary career. She raised and nursed and chauffeured four athletic children and arranged her husband's every personal appearance, every grand tour, as well as hundreds of acts of public and secret charity, leaving the man his mates called Power free to rearrange the scoring records of the NHL and the facial bones of his opponents.

"She fought as diligently as any agent I've ever worked with, in sports or Hollywood," says Howard Baldwin, who was president of the New England Whalers when Colleen negotiated the move of Gordie, Marty and Mark to that team from the WHA's Houston Aeros in 1977. During those negotiations, Baldwin, now a film producer in California, flew to Michigan, where Colleen had purchased a small ranch and was raising exotic livestock. "There she was, out in the middle of a field, feeding llamas," Baldwin recalls. "I got attacked by a goat as I walked out there. We went at it until two in the morning, but we got the deal done. At the press conference [to announce that the Howes were joining the Whalers], she gave me a toy goat."

Shrewd and visionary, Colleen even had Gordie's name trade-marked, as well as their sobriquets: Mr. and Mrs. Hockey. For this relentless drive and ambition, she was ridiculed. "Back then, hockey wives were told, 'Stay at home and stay out of the way,' " says Mark. "Even when I got engaged 25 years ago, I remember telling my fianc�e, 'My team comes first,' and that sort of stuff. It took us a few years before we realized that's pretty stupid."

"She got angry at the walls that were built up," Cathy recalls. "But she said, 'Well, I'll just pull 'em down!' "

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