In 1969, teacher Marty Hayes wrote in the yearbook of one of her favorite students, “If I ever have a daughter, I hope she is a replica of my Carolyn Denson.”
Although the two would lose touch for more than 30 years, their bond proved strong – so strong that the former student, now Carolyn Denson James, ended up taking Hayes into her home and caring for her around the clock.
To those who feel they could never be that selfless, Denson James says, “When it’s somebody who truly changed the landscape of your life, you’d do anything for them.”
Their paths first crossed when Denson James was a sophomore at Justin Ford Kimball High School in Dallas. Sitting in study hall, “I had this teacher who was about 110 years old, carrying around a ruler,” recalls Denson James, now 63. “It was not fun. Then at the door appeared a really cute woman with long hair and a perky ponytail. She said, ‘Anybody want to come sing in the choir?’ ”
For Denson James, the decision was easy: “I thought, ‘Hmm, this 110-year-old teacher or this perky person?’ I remember my heart beating as we walked down the hall, because it occurred to me: ‘You don’t sing.’ But Miss Hayes told us the most important thing was that you give it your all.”
In the three years that Denson James had Hayes as a teacher, choir membership increased by almost 40 percent. Everybody loved Miss Hayes. And for Denson James, her influence was so strong that she decided to become a teacher herself.
Denson James, now the guidance counselor at Highland Park High School in Dallas, never forgot Miss Hayes, so in 2004, she decided to find her – despite a bit of trepidation.
“Out of 20,000 kids that she’d taught, why would she remember me?” she recalls thinking. “I just didn t want her to say, ‘Carolyn who?’ It took me a little over a month to get up the courage to call and not care if she said that.”
So it was a relief when she got an answering machine. It turns out that Hayes did remember her.
“You could never forget this child,” she says today. “She was just so full of mirth and love.”
As Denson James and her husband, Daryl, became friends with Hayes, it soon became clear that something wasn’t quite right with Hayes’s health. She’d forget to pay bills and began to get lost during routine drives.
“Her perception was not good either, so when she drove she kept hitting the curbs, running into them,” Denson James says. “We were buying tire after tire because of that.”
Tests revealed that Hayes, now 76, has Lewy body dementia, which causes cognitive impairment as well as symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease. Since she didn t have family living in the area, “we encouraged her to live with us,” Denson James says. “It just seemed like the right thing to do.”
Moving Hayes into an extra bedroom, Denson James and Daryl became her main caregivers. Denson James would rise at 4:45 a.m. – already having gotten up several times during the night to take Hayes to the bathroom – to give her breakfast. Then Denson James would leave for work and Daryl, a retired choir director, would take over.
At night, the whole family, including Carolyn’s father, F.E. Denson, would watch Wheel of Fortune together.
That routine went on for seven years, day in and day out. But it wasn’t easy. As Hayes’s condition worsened over time, she lost the ability to walk and became more confused in her thinking.
“She said to me, ‘I m starting to lose the thread that sews life together, and I don t know how to mend it,’ ” Denson James recalls.
In March, Denson James’s father died, and her husband suffered a near-fatal heart attack. He could no longer physically help with Hayes, so they made the difficult decision to find her a home. For Denson James, “I felt like I was losing everything at once.”
Denson James has visited nearly very day in the seven months since Hayes moved into the assisted-living home. As each visit ends, Carolyn says, “a cute little lady who lives across the hall will put her hand on Marty and say, ‘Honey, she s coming back! You know she is.’ ”
Although Hayes has trouble remembering many things, she’s crystal-clear about who Denson James and Daryl are – and what they mean to her.
“I have to say that these two people are truly the most loving people I ve ever known,” Hayes told PEOPLE in November 2013. “I’ve known a lot, and they are the best. This is the family I never expected.”
Denson James knows she’s been there for her favorite teacher, but she wouldn’t describe it as a sacrifice.
“Marty is always saying, ‘I feel so bad that you ve done so much,'” she says. “I tell her, ‘Marty, God picked me out of 20,000 kids to be the one. It’s my blessing. Don’t steal my blessing.’ ”
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