On this day after Christmas, my husband Pete and I laid to rest an incredible woman, whose accomplishments as a wife, mother and early pioneer for women in law were overshadowed the past 13 years by a long struggle with Alzheimer’s. Pete’s mom, Marjorie Clark, died Christmas Eve at age 96. For those 13 years, particularly the past four, Pete devoted his life to the care of his mom in selfless service that exemplifies a love that I doubt many others would endure.
Marj was born in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. Her father ran a feed store that served the horses in New York before automobiles and mass transit overtook the streets and subterranean tunnels of the City. She graduated from Hunter College, where she was the center on the women’s basketball team, then studied law at NYU. She wanted to become an attorney. The passing of her parents halted those plans, but not her love of the law. She was hired by the former Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Charles Evans Hughes, as a legal assistant at his law firm, Hughes Hubbard, and became the chief assistant to his son-in-law, William Gossett, general counsel at Bendix Aviation, then general counsel and executive vice president at Ford Motor Company.
In the 1940s, Marj was often mistaken for Katharine Hepburn. Her beauty led to her being asked out on dates by well-known figures in the New York of that day. She enjoyed riding horses in Central Park and adored dogs of all types. She loved the color red, swimming in the cold waters off Cape Cod in September, and an occasional gimlet. Her smile lit up the room and it was easy to make her laugh. She married Joseph Clark, whose first wife was killed by a drunk driver, leaving him to care for five children. Pete was the only child from their marriage, but his step-brothers and sisters always considered him to be a "full sibling" and his mom as their own. Pete's father died in 1972, leaving Pete the "man of the house," a role he took on for the next 41 years.
Marj continued to work at law firms in Manhattan and in later years, New Jersey, retiring after a fall that broke her hip at age 84. Even then, she bounced back quickly, befitting a woman who worked out daily in the gym, lifting weights, swimming and running around the track.
We noticed Marj was starting to get a little forgetful, nothing serious at first, but we believed it was time for her to move in with us. For decades, Pete would travel to New Jersey to help his mom. Having her move in with us simplified that travel schedule, but the long decline in Marj’s physical health and cognitive abilities had already begun, each stage bringing its own fears and concerns.
Four years ago, Pete got laid off by his employer, Clear Channel, ending a 35-year full-time career in radio (he is still on air part-time at another station). While he is now a licensed real estate agent, his real job was being the 24-7 caregiver for his mother. I will spare you the details, but the physical and emotional toll was tremendous. He carried Marj from room to room, cut and styled her hair when she could no longer go to the salon, cleaned her, brushed her teeth, fed her and more. He constantly hugged and kissed his mom, telling her, “I love you,” dozens of times a day.
We both learned a lot about caring for someone with dementia. For example, winters were rough because of decreasing sunlight, so we put bright lights in fixtures that could accommodate them. When she became depressed, we’d sing to her, simple songs like, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.”
A woman who worked with the powerful in courts and commerce eventually became a dependent, confined to a wheelchair and a hospital bed at home. Her interactions became limited to the point of just looking at us longingly but blankly, until the warmest of smiles creased her lips and she said, “I love you.” She’d reach out for Pete or me and we would melt in her arms, smothering her in hugs and kisses. We didn’t want to let go of one another, knowing the day would come when we would no longer be afforded the privilege of being Marj’s caregivers and comforters. That day came the morning of Christmas Eve, after a very difficult last couple of weeks. Marj’s passing that day was her way of giving us a gift – the knowledge that she was no longer suffering and was finally at peace.
Seeing Pete turn his life over to the care of his mother confirmed something I’ve known for 33 years. I am married to the most loving, wonderful human being in the world. We’re not done with our caregiving, as my mother has lived with us for six years, too. At 94, she is in relatively good shape, physically and mentally, but Pete and I know the time will come when we will go through something like this again with my mom. We were fortunate “the Moms,” as they became known to our friends, were as close as sisters. My mother is in mourning, too, but already, Pete’s inner caregiver has come to the fore, showing my mother the same love and compassion he did with the woman who gave birth to and raised him.
I am grateful for the best Christmas present I could ever receive – a loving husband and partner, talented in so many fields, universally loved and admired by friends and clients, a model of patience and devotion, someone with whom I long to grow old and, in the paraphrased words of “our song,” I love more today than yesterday, but not as much as tomorrow. Thank you, Marj, for the most wonderful gift of your son. We will always love and remember you. Rest in Peace.
One last thing...If you're looking for a cause to support, especially a last minute, end-of-year financial gift, please consider your local chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. With advancements in healthcare and medicine, longer lives now bring the prospect of millions more people like Marj suffering this affliction. The Alzheimer's Association supports research and families who endure this long goodbye.
Addendum: To read Pete's wonderful reflection on his mom, please visit his new blog.