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October 27, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 138




Pat Marrin A distinction shared with famous people

By Pat Marrin, editor of Celebration

Today's gospel: Luke 13:10. Jesus cures the woman who had been crippled for 18 years.

It is midmorning, a sunny day. I am walking down the wide corridor of a nursing home, passing by residents parked in their wheelchairs along the walls, where the staff at the nursing station can keep an eye on them. Voices are calling out from some rooms over the sound of many televisions.

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I am going to visit my mother. She has Parkinson's disease, has been in this facility for the past five years, first with my father until he died in 1998, alone since then, though she shares a room, divided by a curtain, with another woman who rarely speaks.

My mother caught the virus that became Parkinson's disease during the influenza pandemic of 1925, when she was 10 years old. She shares this distinction with some very famous people. The virus lay dormant in her system until the late 1960s, when the first symptoms began to appear: a tremor on one side, dry mouth, nausea, a persistent feeling that her muscles were at war with one another, that her mind was a split-second behind the moment, blurred by medication or its side effects.

Over the past 30 years, she has gone from a beautiful self-possessed woman, a gifted pianist and vocalist, devoted wife, mother of seven, to what she is now. I picture her in my mind as I get closer to her room -- she will be either asleep on her bed or slumped forward or to one side in her wheelchair.

A tall Swiss guard is standing outside her room. As I arrive at her door and look in, a swirl of men dressed in scarlet sashes and black soutanes is crowding in around the bed. Doctors in white coats are in attendance, checking their charts, conferring with one another. A cart arrives with medications. These are counted out, put in a row of small paper cups, administered with a glass of water holding a clear plastic elbow straw.

Orderlies gently lift and readjust the figure in the bed. It is my mother. Her face is flushed pink against her white garments. She is addressing those in the room. Secretaries are recording her comments, delivered in a voice that is slurred but deliberate. Everyone offers a steady murmur of approval and gratitude. She will be allowed to rest now. Later in the afternoon, after she is fed lunch, my mother will make the rounds in her wheelchair, appearing briefly in the activity room, the piano room, or, if the weather is mild, be taken outside to the big swing that can accommodate her chair.


My mother finished her work in the spring of 2002, caught a cold and stopped eating. We knew better than to intervene. As she approached death, the Parkinson's released its hold on her and she became, in her final moments, as beautiful again as she had once been as a young woman.

During her long pontificate, my mother issued a number of short encyclicals, often only a paragraph or two shared by word of mouth among family and by the staff of the nursing home, who came to recognize who she was. Her main themes were family unity, taking special care of those who are struggling the most, never to be ashamed to ask for help when you need it, to be sure and say thank you and I love you every day. Her shortest message, delivered at the end of a visit, was always, "Have a piece of candy with me."

These messages, of love above all else, preferential love for the poor, our need to learn power through weakness, and about how to find and share the sweetness in life, will be the hallmark of her reign.

Her influence has grown in her absence. We will have a very long way to go to choose her successor.

Pat Marrin's email addres is Celebration, NCR's sister publication, is an ecumenical worship resource. To preview Celebration, follow this link: Celebration.
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