Essay: A perfect heart

Essay: A perfect heart

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Following is a reflection on the life of Patricia Neal, who died August 8, at her Edgartown home. Ophelia Dahl is Ms. Neal’s daughter and the chairman and executive director of Partners in Health, based in Boston, a 23-year-old organization whose goal is to improve health care in some of the world’s poorest countries. These remarks were prepared for Patricia Neal’s funeral service, on August 11, at the Federated Church in Edgartown.

By Ophelia Dahl

It may seem too soon to think about celebrating Pat, given the freshness of our loss. A funeral is often a somber affair. But knowing my mother as so many of you do, it would be impossible not to celebrate her today. She was, after all, someone who rarely dwelled on the difficult themes of her life. Indeed, when she presented an award at a ceremony a year or so after she was felled by the massive ruptured aneurysm in her brain, the audience rose and applauded and drank her in for a long time. She told them “It is wonderful, wonderful wonderful to be back with you. I’m so sorry I stayed away so long. I am so happy to be alive: alive, alive O.” How can we not celebrate this life force that was Patricia?

Pat, Patricia, Patsy, Aunt Pat, Mum, Mama and mor mor. About sums it up. As you have already heard, she was many things to many people — but always the same person: Unwavering in her loyalty and genuine love for so many. She had an unusual capacity to love people in an unadulterated way: Truly she loved all the parts, she knew people did not come a la carte and she thought that was just fine. How she would have reveled in your company today.

A few months ago, while she was in Los Angeles, she received the news of her cancer. She had only a few wishes: To visit the Abbey in Connecticut; to get back to her Island home of Martha’s Vineyard; and to see some people she loved. I’m happy to report she was able to visit with close friends and family and to bask in the company of each grandchild and of her great-grandson, Finley. With her trademark stubbornness, she waited to see you, to tell you before she left that she loved you all.

After her diagnosis, she said to me in the quiet of an evening: “Ofeeya,” (she called me Ofeeya even though as a Shakespearian actress she surely could pronounce my name). “Ofeeya, can you believe I have this cancer after everything else that has happened to me? I’m a little insulted!” And she meant that she thought she had paid her dues and would be spared more illness — who can blame her? Until that point, medical appointments were routine, and often she would report on bones and the odd aching joint. But after each trip to the doctor she would report: “they tell me my heart is perfect!”

Ain’t that the truth? Her perfect heart gave her the impression that she would go on and on. And yet she faced this final illness without fuss. Her doctors at Cedars-Sinai loved her. She told them they were good-looking (if they were), and on one morning after she had been in the hospital and rehab for several weeks, her oncologist came to explain all her options for treatment. He went through everything very carefully and when he finished he said: “Ms. Neal, do you have any questions for me?” “Yes baby, tell me what I’m going to do about this grey hair?”

She was so game. We loved this about her. She’d be up for anything even if it meant she’d be physically tested and hoisted about. “Anything” included, in the mid-seventies, a trip in a Winnebago up the coast of California with three of her kids plus Warren and Jean Alexander, her ICU nurse from 1965, and camping outside every night. One evening we had tucked her into her sleeping bag and all six of us bedded down under the stars with her singing into the night time her own version of “all day all night Maryann” — which should never be heard in a church. When we woke in the morning, she was not there; she had simply vanished. Let me be clear: this is a woman who could not stand unaided, let alone clamber out of a sleeping bag. We searched around, mystified, until we looked down to the lakeside to find she had rolled down the steep embankment and come to rest at the bottom and spent the remainder of the night there. “I really didn’t mind.” And we knew she didn’t.

Although she had a travel schedule that would make your head spin, she was never more content than with Warren on a road trip. No airs and graces — my mother was real, Velveteen-Rabbit real. She was happiest perhaps in a roadside deli eating a peanut butter and bacon sandwich. I won’t forget one Thanksgiving, in 1992. We were driving to Mel and Maryjane Scott’s house in Connecticut, she was reading the newspaper and she stopped at the article about the Queen. It had been a very rough year for the royal family. Pat started to read to me, and when she got to the part in which the queen famously said “it has turned out to be an annus horribilis,” she paused and without looking up said, “Boy I wish I could speak French, don’t you?”

And yet it was a miracle that she could speak at all. After her stroke she lost all words, and it took a team of friends and family led by my good dad Roald to help her learn to talk and walk again. It took a legion of volunteers who sat with her, spoke with her, walked next to her every day, ’round the clock through so many dark hours. Their persistence and love — your love — inspired a new way of treating those who had suffered from stroke and other neurological diseases. At Partners In Health, we call this “accompaniment,” and it is the heart of what we do. Never more than this year, an annus horribilis for so many of our friends in Haiti and elsewhere, I held fast to the memory of my mother’s recovery, and the many small miracles, acts of friendship and faith, brave and difficult hours and days by which she learned again to walk and to talk and live.

Once she had relearned the mechanics of speech, she still searched for names and that meant most of us were simply “darling” or “beauty,” the vowels stretched for seconds. She smoothed over this deficit with her inimitable charm — and sheer force of will. More than once, I heard her try to persuade a directory assistance operator to give her the telephone number of the tall man who lived on the street near Central Park. “Oh, God, you know, he’s got a limp,” she would entreat. And we all became experts at guessing, anticipating a word she might need.

My mother had a genius for adapting, making do, making elegance out of necessity. Even though her body conspired against her, she never ceased to be graceful. I don’t remember a time when she walked on her own — which meant she always had a firm grasp on someone’s hand. I imagine almost everyone here has felt that good grip of hers and will miss it. She did not rest her hand on yours, nor take your arm lightly, but gripped it fully as though preparing to arm wrestle. “No baby, not like that,” she would correct those who held her wrong because the idea of falling rightly terrified her. Though fall she did — pretty elegantly, I have to say, until she let out a torrent of cuss words.

“Just a Closer Walk,” the hymn we heard earlier, is one that she often sang out of the blue with breathtaking intensity. With her voice like strong bourbon, she could massage those lyrics into a crescendo of feeling, a seductive invitation to stick around, as she might need you to take her hand, to stand beside her and to keep going. I know I speak for my siblings and many of you when I say how grateful we felt to be able to walk with her for so long. We always thought we were holding her steady. It wasn’t ’til she let go on Sunday that we realized it was the other way ’round.

So many of you have accompanied my mother throughout her life. Her outstanding and loyal friends, of course, and the literal host of people who have taken such good care of her over many years and in these final months. Warren and Ruth, Teresa, Christine, and Gloria, Maryellen and Marcia and Lydia: we are indebted to you for the beautiful way you accompanied her. She treasured you even though sometimes she forgot to say it. To lovely Gerry Yukevich and Island Hospice, we are so very grateful to you for the tenderness and care you offered — to our mother, and to all of us. For those of you who held her hand (must be almost everyone here), bathed her, did her hair or her nails and helped her with every aspect of her life — you gave her much dignity and allowed her to seem well until the very end. And please remember that for Pat, “horse’s ass” was often a term of endearment!

I will say, for almost no one here has been spared, it is not easy to urge someone you love into the good night, least of all your mother. These last six months have been made bearable by your magnificent friendship and enduring affection for Pat. On Saturday, the evening before she died, we all had dinner together. She sat at the table with us and told stories and raised a glass as though she knew this would be her last. Ever herself, she pointed to several small pieces of lint on the carpet for us to pick up and directed me to an edamame bean right under the center of the dining room table. She then kissed us all several times and asked for the Pope (of course!). “The pope, the pope, the pope!”

It probably won’t surprise you to know that the next morning, though her lungs were failing, her heart refused to slow. That vital organ, so filled with love, kept up its strong beat for hours, transferring its capacity and rhythm to us. She had, after all, in her own words, a perfect heart. How lucky we are — how lucky we all are — to have had a place in it.