Marcia Gay Harden: My Mother’s Courage

In an excerpt from her new book, The Seasons of My Mother: A Memoir of Love, Family and Flowers, actress Marcia Gay Harden writes about her mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease, and the struggles, lessons and unexpected gifts it brought them both.
Marcia Gay Harden with her mother, Beverly, in 1991.

 

A mother is the truest friend we have, when trials heavy
and sudden fall upon us; when adversity takes the place
of prosperity; when friends
desert us; when trouble thickens around us, still will she cling to us, and endeavor by her kind precepts and counsels to
dissipate the clouds of darkness, and cause peace to return
to our hearts.”
—WASHINGTON IRVING

 

Washington Irving, the author of the beautiful quote above, also wrote the wonderful short story “Rip Van Winkle,” about a man who goes to sleep in the Catskill Mountains for several decades, and when he wakes up, the world around him has drastically changed. He has slept through the death of his wife, and the growth of his daughter, life has transformed around him, yet he has no memory of the passing of time. I read that story as a kid, and hated it. Beautifully written, yes, but what an unbearable loss it seemed.

My mother too has spent many wonderful days in the Catskill Mountains while visiting my family on our lake in upstate New York. She has played with my kids, canoed on the lake, planted in the garden, and slumbered on the hammock. Unlike Rip Van Winkle, however, my mother hasn’t slept through life’s momentous events. In fact, she has participated fully in the growth of her children, the death of her husband, the births of her grandchildren, and all of the miraculous moments that life has gifted her, but she also has no memory of the passage of time. She has Alzheimer’s. I will never stop yearning for her to wake up and simply need an update on the last 20 years, rather than an update on her entire life.

My memories are not fact. Science says our memories change each time they are recalled, and that no two people’s memories are the same, even if they are recalling the same event. Memories are affected by emotion and perspective. As one of five children, I am grateful to have shared so many wonderful childhood experiences with my siblings, but I know these don’t necessarily translate into duplicate memories. So these memories are mine, of my adventures with my mother.

This is not a disease where one can “make lemonade from lemons”; there is nothing good about Alzheimer’s, and I resist even a nod toward accepting its ravages. But I will say that my beautiful mother has managed to teach me, even through the destruction of her capabilities and creativity, that there is such a thing as indestructible spirit. Pursue your dreams, now. Be in the moment, now. Fill your head with good loving thoughts, now. These are gifts from my mother, learned over the years, but especially poignant as the one place she lives the most fully is in the “now.” She cannot remember the past. She cannot imagine the future. But she is fully aware of the now. Through a daughter’s eyes, I share her stories in hopes of keeping her legacy alive.

Grief and loss have cycles, like the seasons. Sometimes loss can spur the planting of new seeds and give birth to a creative rush. Sometimes, however, loss can crush a seed, or force it to lie dormant for years.

But healing is a long, complicated and uncharted road. Unexpected loss turned for me into abject fury. Furious that the sun continued to rise. Furious at my helplessness. Furious at my sorrow.

Over the past few years, my mother’s Alzheimer’s disease has mimicked an evaporating spill. That’s what the memories seem to do, evaporate. One minute a person’s face, or the function of a spoon, is known. The next minute, it has disappeared and is replaced with confusion, or frustration, or amusement. Language tumbles out in no particular shape sometimes, words intersperse that at once make sense but don’t. There is a stealthy, cowardly, dangerous protein in my mother’s brain neurons that is malfunctioning, causing the toxic buildup to remain in her brain’s neural cells rather than being washed away.

In science photographs, this protein often looks like an unruly, tangled flower, but it is not a flower. It is a weed called Tau. It covers the path of neural connection like a weed run wild, slowly choking the path of memory. It is this toxicity that seems to be the cause of Alzheimer’s, and though mice have been restored to memory in Australia with sound therapy, to date there is no cure for humans. Millions of men and women suffer this barren brain devastation, and the brutality of it enrages me. Rich, fertile minds, PhDs and scientists, plumbers and dancers, doctors, presidents, inventors, teachers and firemen. Minds that gave birth to life-changing devices and ideas, minds and bodies that raised children and said prayers, and grew old hoping to sit around a fireplace, cozy in an overstuffed couch with their children, slicing into turkey and mashed potatoes, catching up on lives, sharing memories—these minds…these people…are now deprived of the validation of the memory of their lives. They don’t remember who they were. Their grandchildren will never know who they were. The histories of these minds become muted, evaporated, and exist only in the storytelling and memory of family, friends and children.

This is a disease with no dignity, yet my mother has somehow managed to keep hers. Her appreciation of beauty remains as a purifier for her spirit. She notices the cardinals, the blue jays, the mallards, the squirrel hanging upside down on the feeder swinging like a member of the circus. She notices the seasons as they advance, the water rippling on her dark Texas lake, the bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush in April. My mother always made a beautiful home: She filled a space with light and color and aroma, with silk pillows and Japanese tonsus made of cherrywood, with marble-covered dressers, with jazz records and, of course, with lovely flower arrangements that greeted you like a deep curtsy, and a warm hug, when you entered the room.

At her lake home in Texas, we light a fire and watch a movie and I say, “That’s me, Mom. In the movie. It’s called The Spitfire Grill.”

She makes the connection between me and the film, and she smiles and nods. “Wonderful,” she demurs.

“You visited me on that set, and on Mother’s Day we woke up and looked out the window of the old cabin I was renting, and saw my Jeep Grand Wagoneer completely covered in jonquils! Hundreds of them!” I imagine I see a spark of recognition, and go on. “My ex covered the car in jonquils on Mother’s Day—maybe two hundred of them!” She laughs, happy to imagine this scene. “He was trying to impress you, Mom!”

“Well, he did,” she responds, then adds: “That’s the happiest flower in the garden, the daffodil.” I am thrilled that she had made the connection between daffodil and jonquil. For some reason I always call them jonquils, maybe because once I heard Katharine Hepburn call them that, but Mom prefers daffodils. Yes! She has remembered that they are the same thing! A small but important victory.

From THE SEASONS OF MY MOTHER: A Memoir of Love, Family, and Flowers by Marcia Gay Harden. Copyright © 2018 by MARCIA GAY HARDEN. Reprinted by permission of ATRIA BOOKS, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.