Trish V. - My Mother was larger than life


My Mother was larger than life. She embraced life with style and grace and passion. She was a fashion plate. She wore drop-dead hats with her signature pearls and had the glide of a woman who had won every dance contest. She could capture a room just by entering it.

And my mom had guts. Born with a speech impediment, sort of a nasal voice, she decided to become a public speaker. “Watch,” she would tell me, “the first minute I speak they will snicker; the second minute they will start to listen; the third minute I’ll have them.” And it always happened that way. That’s who she was – a woman who didn’t give up.

She wasn’t always easy and we had issues, but there was no one who loved me more unconditionally. That’s what Mothers do. And nobody did it better than she.

In 1987, when my professional life was finally on track and I was writing for the television show Designing Women, my Mother’s life suddenly began to unravel. At first we didn’t know what was happening. My Mother, this powerful, dynamic woman – invited personally to JFK’s Inaugural as a thank you for handing him New Jersey—had suddenly become a confused, helpless person. We went from doctor to doctor, hoping to reverse the situation with a quick fix. But, we quickly learned, there was none.

Alzheimer’s, they diagnosed. I barely knew what the disease was. What I did know was that there was no cure. For the next two years, I juggled writers’ meetings with desperate, rambling calls from my Mother. I cursed those calls, but when they stopped, I longed to have them back because at least then my Mother was talking. The next two years were spent shuttling between studio tapings and a nursing home where this elegant lioness was reduced to a glazed-eyed woman in a wheelchair. I watched helplessly as her mind, her dignity, her soul, and finally her body succumbed to this killer.

The attendance at my Mother’s funeral was small. It mystified me since I knew how many people revered and loved her. Then I realized that by the time my Mother died, people had simply forgotten her. The spiral of Alzheimer’s had taken not only her memory, but also the memory that people had of her.

It is with enduring faith in what could be rather than what is that I wrote my play, Surviving Grace. It is the story of sitcom writer – go figure – and her Mother facing and fighting Alzheimer’s together. Grace, the mother, volunteers to be a test case for a new drug. The possibilities… But, of course, no one beats Alzheimer’s…yet. The play is a comedy/drama because laughter is what keeps me sane. Surviving Grace was produced at The Kennedy Center, Union Square Theater in NYC, theaters across the country and, most recently, translated into Portuguese and produced in Sao Paolo and then throughout Brazil. Each time I see the play, I get to be with my Mother. And I see a Mother and a daughter who are forced to learn to accept, love, and, ultimately, separate. And although after sixteen years I am still struggling with the separating part – my Mother is in my dreams three times a week, still telling me not to wear horizontal stripes because it accentuates my hips – I certainly learned how to love her. That much we did well.

Surviving Grace is about hope and possibilities, two things my Mother instilled in me. A fighter – that’s who she was – and that’s who I’ve had to become.

I often think to myself, If only my Mom had gotten Alzheimer’s now when researchers are racing to find a cure. A cure for Alzheimer’s: a fantasy, a wish, an impossible dream; the same words that were said to Galileo, Edison, Curie, Salk, and whoever dreamed up the Internet. Yesterday’s dream is today’s reality.

I know my Mother would be proud.

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