On My Mother’s 100th Birthday…Remembering Her as She Was.

When people hear that I had a parent who suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease, they sometimes ask, “After they’re gone, how long does it take to remember them the way they were before?”

Everyone has a different timetable—but for me, the answer is about five years. It took until now, the month when she would have celebrated her 100th birthday. She was two weeks shy of 95 when Alzheimer’s took her in December 2014.

When I was working on her obituary, I was almost startled to recollect the details of my mother’s busy and accomplished life—details that had been obscured by the struggles with dementia during her final years.

Muriel Stevens, a lifelong Rhode Island resident, held a Masters of Music degree from the Yale School of Music. She became involved with the Rhode Island Philharmonic in 1948 when, as a pianist and a young mother, she saw a need for the fledgling orchestra to provide concerts for local schools. Volunteering her time, she helped establish its Educational Concerts Program which, with the help of the Providence school district and local sponsors, took off and eventually included all of the state’s cities and towns. After serving as orchestra board member and president, she was hired as general manager in 1964.

At the Philharmonic, Muriel worked under eight presidents and five conductors, and supervised 22 annual funds, two major endowment fund campaigns, and numerous special projects before retiring. She received an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree from Rhode Island College in 1981 and a citation from the state upon her retirement in 1987. She continued to receive rewards and accolades even 15 years after retirement.

That was her public persona. As her daughter, I was amazed by how well she managed to handle a demanding career and a busy social schedule while still being such a great mother. She was always there for us, and my friends all acknowledged she was the coolest mother around. When I was a high school student at the Wheeler School, Muriel signed out a friend of mine, a boarding student, on a school night, with a note stating that she was taking us to symphony. The truth is, she dropped us off at a local concert venue to see the Rolling Stones. A very cool mom indeed.

We were the best of friends. She was a terrific companion—intelligent and funny and active. In her eighties, then widowed, she would come out to our home in California and visit for a week or so. I begged her to stay longer, but she always said she had too much going on back home.

I remember one time, she called me late at night to tell me about a play she’d just attended. She went on to describe her plans to go to movies, parties, and the Philharmonic later that week. Exhausted myself, even though it was three hours earlier in California, I finally said, “Mom! You’re 85 years old. It’s half past midnight. Go to bed!”

Alzheimer’s diminished her, turned her into a simple and childlike version of her former self. She was sweet and loving, and retained glimmers of the old sense of humor, but she struggled mightily. This was the person who inspired one of the main characters in my first play and subsequent novel, both titled Stage Seven. 

As a professional musician, Muriel retained her impeccable sense of timing up to the end. She had the good graces to leave us while she was still able to walk, talk, and recognize her loved ones—before Alzheimer’s robbed her of her remaining faculties. Her quality of life had left her, and it was time to go.

For a long time after her death, the woman I remembered was neither the distinguished community leader nor the fun and companionable parent. It was the vacant and childish version of Muriel who dominated my thoughts. Perhaps writing both a play and novel about her Alzheimer’s forced me to view her with a more clinical eye, delaying the healing process for me rather than facilitating it. But in time, my gaze softened–I could look at her with joy once again, revel in those memories, and be thankful for all those years of friendship and love.

Happy birthday, Mom.

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