After nearly 40 years of living with multiple sclerosis, all that Harriet Fridkin has left now is her voice. But what a voice it is, slow but happy, warm and clear.
“I love to laugh,” the 75-year-old from Potomac, Maryland, tells PEOPLE, “and I love to talk. Being friends and enjoying their company — that’s what keeps me going.”
In 1996, Harriet’s mobility began to worsen and her friends decided that her husband, Jerry, then working full-time as a tax attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice, could use some help. Those friends, who lovingly call themselves “Harriet’s Harem,” have been keeping their once-active friend interested in life for more than 20 years.
Five nights a week, nine longtime friends of the Fridkins take turns showing up to help feed Harriet, give her massages, play bridge or just sit and talk and listen to Harriet’s advice about dilemmas they’re facing in their own lives.
“Harriet, in her own way, is a counselor and a listener to all,” Judy Feldman, 83, one of the group’s original organizers, tells PEOPLE. “She and Jerry are exemplary, incredible people who have been dealt a terrible blow in life, but have played the hand they’ve been dealt with utter perseverance.”
“Harriet has such a gift of humor and living,” she adds, “that it’s hard to realize she has no movement at all except her head. You just don’t notice the immobility.”
Feldman and the eight other women keep an online calendar filled up each month with “Harriet time.” Jerry, now 79 and retired, has a caregiver come to assist with his wife’s needs during the day, but appreciates the caring and camaraderie that the harem provides for a couple of hours each weeknight.
“They help to give me a respite,” he tells PEOPLE, “and I love more than anything to see Harriet laughing and happy. But don’t for a minute feel sorry for me and Harriet. From day to day, we try to focus only on the good. We’ve had a very good life.”
Married since 1963 after they met on a blind date, the Fridkins raised three children in Potomac, with Harriet working on and off as a schoolteacher, a secretary and as a support group coordinator for a local Alzheimer’s organization.
“I also loved to cook,” she says, “and I used to always have a bunch of people hanging out in my kitchen. Nobody ever went away hungry. I was always trying out new gourmet dishes, always wanting to feed my friends and neighbors and send them home with something good.”
She was in her late 30s when she started experiencing numbness in her limbs and problems with her vision, leading to her collapse in a parking lot one day.
When medical tests revealed that she had MS, “it was a hard thing to hear,” she says, “but you have to stay positive. That’s one reason why I still like to help others when they’re having problems and give them advice. To help somebody else solve a problem makes me feel better. And I’ve always loved listening to other people.”
Harriet also still enjoys playing bridge and doing Sudoku puzzles, thanks to her friends, who play her cards for her and fill in the numbers in her puzzle books as she comes up with answers. And she says quality time with her devoted friends means more to her than words can express.
“She’s a remarkable, cheerful and optimistic person who always sees the glass half-full, not half empty,” Barbara Ranhand, 77, tells PEOPLE. “With her wisdom and caring, Harriet has helped a lot of us in our personal lives. We’re only too willing now to help her in any way that we can.”