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Peter Gallagher: Keeping Memories Alive

The actor talks about his mother's struggles with Alzheimer's

My work with the Alzheimer's Foundation started for one simple reason: My mother, Mary Ann, had the disease for a third of my life. She was diagnosed in 1985 and died in 2004 — 60 years to the day after D-Day. (That's not an inconsequential date in our family: My dad landed on a Normandy beach, and my mom was a bacteriologist at Walter Reed hospital.) Watching a loved one suffer from Alzheimer's is excellent at making you feel powerless, but it doesn't have to make you feel alone. That's why I speak about it when I can, and perform at the foundation's event in Los Angeles every year.

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Actor Peter Gallagher saw how Alzheimer's took a toll on his mother.
Andrew Brucker/Corbis

Even though my mother lived a long time with it, the disease progressed quickly. All of a sudden she was a little out of reach, and then it just kept going. But even at the end, there were moments of grace. If I sang her a song or we danced a bit, she would say, "Now that was real!" I don't think she recognized us, but she recognized feelings. If she felt love, her face would show it. If she felt threatened, her body would show it.

When I was growing up, my mom was the one who talked to me, and I was sometimes able to give back. She suffered from depression as well, I believe. I had been a "mistake" in the family; my two siblings were much older when I came along. So when everyone was out of the house, with my dad on the road, and Mom couldn't get out of bed because of whatever was haunting her, I would take care of her until it passed.

spinner image My Cause: Peter Gallagher
Gallagher, born in 1955, and his mother, Mary Ann, a bacteriologist who had Alzheimer's for nearly 20 years.
Courtesy of Peter Gallagher

My mother had beautiful handwriting, and she would leave me little notes. I remember one that said, "Be good, dear son, and let those who will be clever do noble things and not just dream them." If it weren't for my mother, I'd be living in a hole in the ground. The first Broadway show she saw me in was Hair, in 1977. Oh, yes, I took my clothes off. I told her I didn't have to disrobe that night, but she said, "Peter, there's nothing I haven't seen before."

My mom had always been the navigator of the family. She kept us on track, and when she couldn't keep herself on track, the family started to dissolve. Alzheimer's is not pretty, it can get embarrassing, and when the pillar falters, everything else changes.

Like a lot of married people, my parents had their issues. There were times I wished they'd break up; the house would have been much quieter.

But later I saw evidence of an abiding love. I remember one night after my mother had gotten lost, my dad called me to say, "Oh, Gallagher, you could have knocked me down with a feather." That was a lot for him, as he was not an emotional man. But he was a good man. He and his brothers were the first in their family not to work in the mines and to get college educations.

My grandmother lived with us for a while, and she also had Alzheimer's, though we called it senility then. So it's in the family. I figure I've got about 10 years left. I worry about it, of course. I am now doing a show on Broadway, and the show and this role are gigantic: Not only do I have to learn my lines and cues — I have to worry about not getting hit by scenery. There is nothing harder than doing a Broadway musical, yet this is where I started and where I will come back as long as I can. These moments are precious because I know the mental faculties won't always be available.

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One of my great regrets is that my kids didn't know their grandma before she had the disease. They would have loved her. It was incredibly sad to watch her suffer and then to lose her, but one thing about the Irish: We do sad well.

I am grateful for films like Still Alice and that people in my business are getting involved with Alzheimer's research. So are people in all businesses all over the world. Because everyone knows someone who has it. And at the current rate of growth, it could bankrupt the country.

—As told to Michele Willens

Peter Gallagher, 59, is appearing in the Broadway musical On the Twentieth Century.

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