Friends, family struggle with illness of Ellicott City gallery owner

In 1973, Marian Berman saw a newspaper ad for an art gallery for sale in the Baltimore suburbs. With an asking price that was exactly the amount of money she had recently inherited from her grandfather, the 23-year-old knew she was meant to own it.

But on Feb. 10, the dream career that was launched on intuition and chutzpah 38 years ago — the last dozen spent as owner of Gallery 44 in Ellicott City — came to an abrupt halt for the entrepreneur and community activist.

When what Berman believed was a nasty cold rapidly escalated into something more, she was taken to an emergency room, where doctors induced a coma to allow her body to better fend off acute respiratory distress syndrome, according to her daughter, Tracie Guy-Decker. She remained hospitalized late this week, and doctors were unable to offer the family a prognosis, Guy-Decker said.

At one point during Berman's illness, family members considered scheduling friends to serve as salespeople to keep the gallery open until her return. Then they decided that Feb. 29 would be the last day of business for the 2,000-square-foot store in the 9400 block of Baltimore National Pike. They changed course again this week, and closed the gallery for good on Wednesday.

The past two weeks have been an ordeal for those closest to Berman, said her daughter.

"It was shockingly sudden," said Guy-Decker, who is eight months pregnant and drove from Norfolk, Va., to be at her mother's bedside. "On Feb. 8, she had awoken with a high fever and cold symptoms."

Berman's husband, Bryon Wilkins, who said he had come down with a cold two days before his wife. "By Thursday morning [Feb. 9], I couldn't understand what she was saying on the phone when I called to check on her; it was like her tongue was swollen," he said. He rushed home from work to find her ashen-faced and trying to catch her breath.

"She was surprised when I showed up at the house," Wilkins said. "She's very independent; it's one of the things I like best about her."

Doctors later explained that his wife couldn't get enough oxygen to form her words correctly, he said. Testing revealed that one lung and half of the other were infected with pneumonia. She was placed on a respirator, and doctors later induced a coma to prevent her from fighting the machine, a typical treatment move, Guy-Decker said the family was told by doctors.

Guy-Decker said she's trying to remain optimistic, although her mother remains in a coma and on the respirator.

By Monday, longtime friend and business adviser Duane Carey said, the family and gallery staff had decided that the prospect of keeping the business open indefinitely without Berman — who has so many contacts and has developed a reputation for her knowledge of both art and her customers — was "too daunting."

"You can imagine what the recession has done to her business anyway … to any business that's related to homes and relies on disposable income," said Carey, a self-employed marketing consultant. Keeping the gallery going for an indefinite period no longer seemed feasible, he said.

Guy-Decker said her mother cares most about giving a painting or a sculpture a good home and wouldn't sell buyers a work of art that might be wrong for them, even if it meant no sale — bad economy or not.

Longtime customer Maggie Wilson, who met Berman when she and her family moved to Ellicott City in 2000, said she was devastated by the illness of "such a giving person and giving friend, and someone who was always able to nail it" when it came to advising buyers on art.

"This just teaches us that every day is a gift and life can really turn on a dime sometimes," said Wilson, a dentist who moved in 2009 to North Carolina to join the faculty of East Carolina University's dental school.

To deal with the emotional strain, Guy-Decker has been blogging about the ordeal.

"It's very personal stuff, but a lot of women can identify with it and it might help them," she said of her entries, which can be read at "So many women and their mothers have an ambivalent relationship, but we don't. She's been my rock."

The family has requested no calls or visits, making the online journal not only cathartic but useful as a way to provide updates. There's a section where readers can contribute to a recovery fund while Berman remains hospitalized.

"It's my way of engaging the community and informing people who know and care about her," Guy-Decker said about her daily entries, which come under the heading, "While you were sleeping," and all begin, "Dear Mom."

Berman recently stepped down as the longtime chairwoman of Success in Style, which collects used business apparel for low-income women, said Carey, chairman-elect of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce. She is also a board member of Shari's Promise, which fights child sexual abuse, and Bright Minds, which provides computers to children of low-income families.

"It's no mean feat for anyone to stay in business for 38 years, especially a business that relies on [customers spending] disposable income," he said. "Her longevity is a testament to her warmth and genuine desire to make people happy."

Guy-Decker, who asks that people check her blog for news on her mother's condition, echoed Carey's sentiment.

"My mother says that art is happiness you can buy that's totally legal, moral and safe," she said.

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