HOPEWELL - Happily married couple Larry and Sara “Jane” Briggs lived a normal life in Hopewell.
Larry had spent the past 40 years pastoring at churches in the area, including Hopewell's Destination Church where his son Bryan is lead pastor. He also spent time serving as a chaplain for the Chesterfield Police Department.
He was - and still is - well-known throughout the Tri-Cities. And up until a few years ago, he was happy, healthy and extremely active.
The Briggs were unaware of the lengthy, excruciating battle that awaited them.
Larry’s health decline
Jane first began to notice something was wrong with her husband’s health in the later part of July 2015, when Larry began to have what she referred to as an “event.”
The events - which began to occur in a rhythm of once every three months - involved Larry responding oddly to something, followed by what doctors believed at the time to be mini strokes.
“Blurred vision, speech, numbness, left-side hand coordination... all those things that were typically stroke-like, he had,” Jane said. “But we would get him to the hospital and the doctors couldn’t find a blood clot, [so] they never could definitely say it was a mini stroke. But they would try to treat it that way.
“I understood,” she added. “They’re doctors, and they’re just doing the best they can.”
After about six to nine months of experiencing undiagnosed mini-stroke-like episodes, Larry began having them more frequently and more severely.
“It became once a month… it jumped,” Jane said. “And the seizures set in. The seizures he would have are called myoclonic seizures - they’re not what you think in your mind like you would know someone was having a seizure. These are more… at first they treated him like it was restless leg because he would be jumping. [The] jerks would last maybe for a minute; some may last for an hour.”
Jane recalls one particular night when Larry had his first major episode. The pair was out to dinner with their sons and their families, and their daughter-in-law asked Larry several times if he wanted more soda. Larry wasn’t responding.
“He didn’t respond, and she asked him two or three times,” Jane said. “So I touched him and said, 'Honey, Amy’s talking to you,’ because the kids were kind of loud and I thought maybe he didn’t hear. But he didn’t respond, and he jumped and said, ‘Give me a minute, give me a minute,’ and it was like panic, and he was just gone.
“That’s the kind of seizure it is. Unless you speak to them or know, there’s nothing like passing out or anything like that. You’re just gone,” she added. “And sometimes there were tremors, but we just thought it was from him being upset, even though it’s not his personality; he’s a very calm person.”
As Larry’s health continued to dwindle, he was still lacking an official diagnosis. Then, around October, he had an episode at home that was so extreme, Jane decided to call an ambulance.
“This was the first time I called a rescue squad to come and get him. The shaking was so violent. Usually we waited it out or I took him to the hospital myself, but this was such a major one,” she recalled. “It was so major that I couldn’t control his body. He was awake, but he was out of it. He was saying ‘Where am I? What’s going on? What’s happening? What’s happening?’”
As their son Bryan and three EMS personnel worked together to control him enough to get him onto a stretcher, Jane asked that they take him to a different hospital.
“It was nothing against anyone, but we were spinning through the same thing for two years. So we went to [Bon Secours] St. Francis Medical Center, and when we went there, the emergency doctor on call said that he realized something was not right,” Jane said. “And the neurologist was on duty, so he came in and took over. He came in and said ‘something isn’t right, these are not strokes, something’s wrong.’”
Larry soon began experiencing the seizure episodes daily, and in November of 2016, doctors formed a clue as to what he might have - Lewy Body Dementia.
“It’s one of the rarest forms of dementia, and it’s so aggressive with the last six months being really, really bad,” Jane said. “So [the doctor] thought we were at the last six months, and that was in November 2016. That’s when he said, 'We’re going to send you to UVA.'”
Larry spent the next several months in and out of testing at the University of Virginia (UVA). During that time, Jane took notes to help her process everything going on around her, and to be able to answer doctors’ questions more effectively. Larry eventually lost his mobility and was forced to utilize a wheelchair, walker, or Jane and her safety belt.
On May 5, 2017, the UVA doctors concluded their testing, and the news wasn’t good. Not only did they confirm that what Larry was experiencing was in fact Lewy Body Dementia - they also gave him only two weeks left to live.
“They called us in and told us that it was Lewy Body, and with it comes lots of tentacles like seizures, parkinson's, hallucinations, and we were already experiencing all of it. All of it. And so they gave us two weeks,” Jane recalled. “On May 5th, they gave us two weeks, and told us if there is anything we wanted … he was elusive sometimes, he was there sometimes, and they told us if he was going to want any input into his care, we had two weeks.
“It was hard,” Jane said, choking up. “We actually we had nine days. Come the ninth day, everything was gone. The ability to feed himself, walk…”
Larry’s failing health and limited days caused doctors to recommend that Jane admit Larry into a care facility, but she respectively declined that idea. She wanted to take care of her husband on her own, in the comfort of their home.
“I already decided that I would not do that. The only reason I would is because they told me he would become very combative, and I just believed he wouldn’t do that,” Jane said. “I know people can, so I wasn’t going to deny it. I just decided, unless that happened and I couldn’t keep him safe, I wasn’t going to do it no matter what.”
Time went on, and Larry made it past the two-week mark. But his health was everything the doctors said it would be and more, Jane notes.
A few weeks later, on July 30, Destination Church members were having a going away dinner party for their worship pastor who was moving. Despite his mental state, Larry remembered and wanted to attend.
“For some reason, he knew it,” Jane said. “We hadn’t been to church for a while because we couldn’t. We had tried to go, and he seemed to be doing well, and then things would get really bad in the middle of the service, so we hadn’t been going.”
Everyone in the church seemed to catch wind of the dinner party that evening, leading to a fully-packed Dante’s Restaurant.
“Larry was insisting he was going to come and tell Pastor D bye. Whenever one thing clicked in his mind during this time, there was no turning back. Whether it was a certain shirt he was going to wear, if something got in his mind, it was there. So he was determined he was going to go and tell D bye,” Jane said. “When we got there, I tried to talk him out of it, because there were so many people, and you know what size that little restaurant is. I couldn’t even tell you how many people were there.”
Despite Jane’s nerves and hesitation, she got Larry inside the restaurant and into a seat that a staff pastor had saved for him in the corner.
“The seat in the corner was so nobody could really come by and speak to him, because he didn’t know anybody else by this time,” Jane said. “He didn’t know our son. He didn’t know our children. He didn’t know our grandkids. He didn’t know anybody. So we tried to shelter him from anybody because a lot of people didn’t personally know how bad it was. We were trying to protect him.”
Due to the fullness of the room and the way Larry’s seat was positioned, few people were able to make it over to speak to him. Each time someone did, Jane would introduce Larry to the person as if they were strangers.
One of the Briggs’ church friends who was attending the party, Melinda Mutter, had seen Larry a few times over the past two years, but never that bad.
“Where I’ve known him for so many years, to see him when he came in that room that night, it just tore me up,” Mutter said. “When he walked in that night he just literally … i just could not believe that was him.”
“He just looked so bad,” added Jane. “I don’t know if you’ve ever been around anybody with Parkinson’s, but they lose facial muscle, [and] there’s like blank eyes like nobody’s home.There’s no emotion; there’s nothing. So it was really difficult for those who did know him. That was probably the hardest part.”
Like the other attendees, Mutter didn’t want to overwhelm Larry and Jane by pushing her way over to talk to Larry. But she felt like she had to.
“I kept sitting there like, 'No, I’m not going to go over there, because I knew how bad he had gotten. I knew when there was that many people, not to go over there,” Mutter said. “But then something just kept saying, 'Go, just go say hi to him, just go.' So I guess it was just God telling me go. So I made my way through all of these people, and I just laid my hands on him and I said [my husband] Aaron and I are praying for you.”
Mutter said when she arrived home that night, she immediately felt God telling her to stop praying for healing, and start thanking him for healing.
“It was really weird, so all night long, I didn’t sleep that night. I just kept thanking God for that healing,” Mutter said. “I woke up Monday morning, and I looked over to Aaron and I said ‘Do you know what? Pastor Larry is healed.’ He’s like, 'What?' I was like, 'Aaron, I just know it... I felt it. I felt it. I had this peace on me. I said, he’s healed.'”
When Joan and Larry returned home from the dinner party that evening, Larry told Joan he was going to attend the church’s staff meeting the next morning, and he began to lay out his clothes. Larry hadn’t been to staff meeting in a long time, because the last few times he went, he would come out and ask Joan who all of the people around him were.
Nevertheless, when Larry woke up the next morning, he persisted with his plan.
“So the next morning, it’s crazy... but it didn’t register to me that he was showering by himself,” Joan recalled with tears in her eyes. “He got up and got dressed, and of course I was driving. We had already decided [he would] not drive a long time ago.”
Once they arrived at church, one of the staff pastors told Joan he would drive Larry home after the meeting. Later when he returned home, Larry walked up the set of steps leading to the couple’s front door - something he hadn’t done alone or even when assisted in a substantial amount of time.
“We have three or four steps to enter our house, and he just walked up the steps. Usually I’m helping him in and out of the car - never up steps - and he just walked in, and he said, ‘I’m different. Something’s happened. I feel good. Let’s go to breakfast, let’s go shopping, let’s go wash the car.’ And i’m thinking, 'Oh my gosh… what?! So I just did one step at a time and I said, 'Okay, let’s go eat.' And we went to Panera.”
After the pair ordered, Larry grabbed offered to grab their drinks as Joan sat at their table perplexed.
“I watched him walk over and get some drinks and I thought… I felt like I was in a movie,” she recalled. “And I thought, 'What is he doing? So we ate, and he talked to me about the staff meeting, and as we were leaving, we’re walking out and usually I help him get in the car. When we were walking out, I'm thinking, 'What are we doing?' He opens the car door for me, I get in, I watch him in the rearview mirror walk around [and] get in the car like nothing happened.”
Larry proceeded through the day, continuing to act like nothing happened. He requested to go shopping, which made Jane nervous.
“I thought, 'Shopping?' If you know anything about anybody with dementia, they can’t handle the lights and music and color and aisles,” said Jane. “So we go in, and I decided I was going to walk away, but not away away. I stood over in the jewelry department and I just watched him pick out his clothes and shop and try things on and he walked up and paid for it.”
Baffled but not expressing it, Joan asked Larry a few simple questions about her family, who lived in South Carolina, and told him he didn’t have to answer if he didn’t want to.
But Larry had no problem with it, and he answered the questions correctly even though he hadn’t seen them in a couple of years. As the couple was in the car driving, Larry even pointed out the street he and Jane used to live on.
Jane couldn’t help but call her son Bryan.
“He’s busy, he’s a busy guy and I don’t usually call him about stuff, but I thought maybe, if i say it out loud, maybe that’ll make sense,” Jane said. “Or maybe I’m gone. I was questioning myself like, 'Maybe I’m asleep?' So I call him and I said ‘I just wanted to let you know we’re having a really good day, your dad is doing really well.’ And I told him briefly we went out to eat, we went shopping, we got the car washed, and he said, 'That’s good mom, that’s good.'
“So I hung up and I said, 'Okay, well he didn’t get it either,'” Jane added laughing. “So I said, 'What do you want me to do, God?'”
Once the couple returned home, Jane expected Larry would fall right to sleep, because sleeping hours upon hours had been the norm for Larry. But he didn’t. After waiting a while longer, Jane decided to call Bryan back.
“I said, 'Bryan, I’m telling you: you need to come see your dad,'” Jane said.
Once close family members were aware of Larry’s healing, the Briggs decided to keep the news among them for a while to ensure he was truly recovered.
“We were like, 'Okay: let’s just keep this right here. And let’s just see, 'Why is this happening?' And then we’re going to announce it to the church and let them all see a miracle - because who’s seen a miracle like this? We’re just going to bless everybody,” Jane said. “And that’s where we got the term, which we really believe: the healing is for us, but the miracle is for everybody else. Because how many people have actually seen such a thing?”
Needless to say, Larry’s doctors were more than astonished to see him alive by the time his appointment at UVA rolled around in August, let alone that he was healthy and doing very well.
Left with no understanding of how Larry could have possibly recovered from the terrible, unfixable state he was in, doctors wanted to involve him in testing, which he happily agreed to.
“He agreed to do any testing they want, which he has,” Jane said. “He’s had three tests since then.”
To this day, Larry has no recollection of the events that happened during the two-and-a-half years he suffered from dementia.
“It’s literally like I went to bed one night and woke up two-and-a-half years later,” he said.
His unfamiliarity with the time period has left his wife to tell the story.
Months after Larry’s recovery, Jane returned to the notes she had written back in November when Larry was going through testing at UVA. She decided she was going to type them up, clean them up grammatically and give them to her sons as a remember-your-dad type gift.
Jane asked her youngest son’s wife, who is a high school English teacher, if she could look at the notes in Google Docs and check them for grammar, but she declined due to the high level of emotion involved.
“She said, 'Mom, I can’t do it, it’s too emotional. I can’t do that.' And I said, 'Oh, it’s okay,” Jane recalled. “And she said, 'So you remember this guy named Daniel Brantley?' Daniel was in the ninth grade with our son. She said, ‘He’s an editor now. Do you want to see if he’ll edit it?’ And she told me he owns his own publishing company.”
Jane was conflicted, because she didn’t want Brantley to edit the notes for free, but she also didn’t want to spend a lot of money since they were just going to the kids.
“Daniel contacted me and said he’d do it. He edited it and we’re like halfway through. And he goes, 'You know what? This isn’t for your sons. We’re going to publish this,'” Jane said. “He said, 'I’m taking your notes - they’re great, we’re just going to put everything in present tense and we’re sending it to get published just as it is.'”
Astonished, Jane asked Brantley to hold off until she talked to Larry and let him read it.
“I said, 'Wait a minute, I need to let Larry read it. I said, 'Let me make sure Larry is cool with this,'” Jane said. “He had lost the ability to read. I waited a few days and he brought it up to me. He said, ‘You’re on the computer a lot; what’re you doing?’ And I told him, and I said I won’t do any of this unless you’re okay with it.”
Larry agreed to read the notes, and Jane left the room as he did so.
“I told him, 'Stop if you need to; this doesn’t have to go anywhere else,'” she said. “But it took him awhile - probably a couple days actually - and when he finished, he closed it, and he stood up, and he didn’t have any expression, which kind of scared me a little bit because I thought, 'Oh my gosh, have I done something? Maybe this is way too much.'
“But he stood up and he looked at me and I said ‘What do you think?’
"And he said, ‘First of all, I didn’t know you could write.’
"And he said, ‘I don’t know any of this, but I’m sorry you went through so much.’
"Which gave me a little heart moment too," he said. "He just said he was sorry that we went through so much.”
Following Larry’s approval, Jane’s book went into publication, and she and Brantley began to discuss options for a book cover. Jane decided to have her youngest son, Robert, who’s a photographer, shoot the cover of the book.
Jane wanted the book cover to encapsulate exactly how she felt throughout the journey - like she was saying goodbye to Larry every single day. She asked Robert to take a photo of her and Larry in a blank field, with her in the back, Larry in the front, and some sort of fog effect around Larry.
“So we did that, and we were leaving the park, and [Robert] said, 'Mom, there’s a bridge over here, I’d like you to come stand on it.’ I didn’t want to; emotionally, I had had enough. But I said, 'Okay honey.' I mean, he was doing me a favor,” Jane said.
“But I was standing on the bridge and Larry was standing in front, and Robert said, 'Dad, come closer,' and so when he got a certain distance from me, I remember looking at the back of Larry and thinking, 'That’s exactly how I felt… that he was just going further and further away, and it was just the longest goodbye, and now he’s out of control,'” she added. “'I can’t control it; he’s gone too far.' And so that was just the look on the book; I couldn’t help it.”
The book, titled “The Long Goodbye: journey to a miracle” officially came out in May of 2018. Since its publication, Jane and Larry have both been blown away by its success. In addition to touching lives in various, unexpected ways throughout their church, the book has done well on Amazon.
“It's so odd... this isn’t false humility. This is just facts. I didn’t expect anybody to read the book,” Jane said. “I thought maybe a few close friends will read it. Then, the first month it came out, our son [Robert] sent me a picture. I don’t know if you know who T.D. Jakes is, but he’s a wonderful international pastor in Texas, but [Robert] sent me this picture from kindle, and my book was rated number one in the new releases in its first month in the area of family and inspiration, and Pastor T.D. Jakes was number two.
“I thought he photoshopped it. I said. ‘That is cute baby; how did you do that?’ Because he knows I like TD Jakes,” she added. “He said, ‘No, Mom, it’s on Amazon.’”
Not only is the book receiving good Amazon ratings, but a copy is currently in the hands of a screenwriter in Hollywood.
“This just means they’re reading it, so we aren’t jumping to any conclusion… but we were asked to send books to a screenwriter in Hollywood,” Jane said. “Just the fact that they’re asking to read it… I’m impressed with God. I’m getting so many people that it’s touching them in their journey.”
Jane and Larry have been amazed by the number of lives the book has been able to touch, and in so many different ways.
"The doors that have opened have been incredible," Larry said. "We just want God glorified from it."
"We still have the same philosophy: we’re not going to promote the book, we’re not going to promote ourselves. All of this could go away tomorrow and it would be just fine," Jane said. "We just deeply appreciate all prayers that were given for Larry's healing. We know many people carried our need to God daily. We will forever be grateful for the hundreds of people who supported us, prayed for us and loved us through this journey."
Kelsey Reichenberg may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 804-722-5109.