During his three decades as a Congressman from Arizona, Morris “Mo” Udall kept his colleagues amused. The lanky 6’5″ Democrat (and author of the 1988 autobiography Too Funny to Be President) was quick with a quip on any topic—even his struggle with Parkinson’s disease, a nerve disorder that causes progressive loss of muscle control. He once likened his illness to the troubles associated with another Parkinson—Paula, a lobbyist who in 1980 was linked to a sex scandal involving several of his fellow congressmen. “They both cause you to lose sleep,” he said. “And they both give you the shakes.”
Udall, 68, first experienced symptoms of the disease during his 1976 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, when he began to feel aches and stiffness in his lower back and legs. After the disease was diagnosed three years later, Udall kept up a normal routine while submitting to standard and experimental drug treatments at the National Institutes of Health.
From age 6, when he lost his right eye after a pal accidentally punctured it with a pocketknife, Udall has endured more than his share of adversity. The most devastating blow came in August 1988 when he found his second wife, Ella, 59, dead in the front seat of her car, an apparent suicide.
A year later Udall married Norma Gilbert, now 58, a divorced mother of two grown daughters, who was then a congressional aide. Their hopes for the future were cut short, however, when his health rapidly deteriorated. Last Jan. 6, Udall fell down a flight of stairs at his home in Arlington, Va., suffering a concussion, cracked ribs and a broken shoulder blade. Udall’s six children, ages 30 to 40, wanted him to give up his congressional seat soon after the accident. Norma, resisting until it became apparent Udall would have to remain in a convalescent hospital indefinitely, submitted a formal letter of resignation to the House leadership, effective May 4. She spoke with Washington correspondent Jane Sims Podesta about her decision.
I COULDN’T BRING MYSELF TO TELL Mo, “You’ve got to resign.” So when his doctors told me there was no way he could get better and go back to Congress, I asked three of his key staff people to come to the hospital with me to deliver the bad news. Mo’s eyes filled with tears and he shook his head. He understood completely. After everyone else left the room, I kissed him and said, “I’m sorry, Mo. I don’t want to do it either, but we have to.”
“I know,” he whispered.
Mo is a prisoner of his own body. His heart is strong. His lungs are strong. He is functionally a vital man with a good strong mind, but it is very hard for him to talk and walk. Still, I keep holding on to this hope that he will improve. He is a fighter.
I first met Mo in the ’70s, when I was a lobbyist for an electronics corporation. We became good friends in the late ’80s, when I worked as a subcommittee staff assistant on the House Interior Committee, which he headed. Mo was diagnosed in 1979 as having Parkinson’s, but it was a decade before the effects of the disease were fully visible. His mind was always going full speed ahead, but more and more the messages to his speech muscles were not getting there in time. Sometimes in committee meetings he’d slump or roll his head, a side effect of his medication. It was so painful to watch.
After Ella died in 1988, he seemed lost. He would have a dream of her standing in their house the way she looked in a picture on the wall. The best thing was to get him away from that house. I helped him find a lovely condo in Arlington, got him moved in and then helped him decorate. We enjoyed being together, and he started relying on me to get his life in order. Then one night at dinner he said, “We really ought to get married.” Once he said that, it opened the door. After that, every other sentence I heard from him was “I love you.” We thought this unpredictable disease had reached a plateau, as in so many cases.
Between our engagement in May 1989 and the wedding in August, Mo’s health took a turn for the worse. He was more stooped and began to have the Parkinson’s mask, that expressionless look. Even getting dressed had become a struggle for him. But I was hoping he would eventually rebound.
We got married in the Capitol building’s prayer room (an interdenominational chapel for members of Congress). At the ceremony, some of the guests worried that they wouldn’t be able to hear Mo because his voice was beginning to fade. But he was loud and clear when he said, “I do.” Then it came my turn, and I looked up at Mo. I saw a tear trickling down his face, and my voice was filled with tears. The whole room broke up. We were all crying. It was probably the most touching moment of my life.
As the disease got worse, we had to “Mo-proof” the house. I moved pictures that he bumped into when he walked and replaced wicker chairs that he went through when he collapsed into them deadweight. Eventually we had to hire someone to help Mo get dressed and get around. It was always a challenge. Sometimes I’d think, “Gosh, this is difficult.” And it was heartbreaking to watch him go downhill, because he is a man of pride and dignity.
But he has kept his sense of humor. In the hospital after his fall down the stairs, one of the attendants went into Mo’s room and said, “Oh, Senator [I kept saying to her, ‘He’s a Congressman’], don’t worry. God will take care of everything.” Mo looked up at her, smiled and said, “Humbug!” He just couldn’t resist teasing her.
We used to talk about what we’d do when he left Congress. We wanted to travel around without a lot of hoopla, to a different national park every few weeks and stay in cottages, spend a few days and walk under the trees. Mo especially wanted to see Alaska again. It was so special to him. Under Mo’s aegis, the Alaska Lands Act was legislated, doubling the size of our national park system. Mo constantly talked about Alaska. He’d say, “I can’t describe it to you, but you can stand up and look out on the land and see for miles. The air is so clear, miles and miles of untouched lands, mountains and streams and not one beer can or fast-food container.” We never made it to Alaska, but I’m still hoping we’ll go one day.
For now, however, Mo must remain in a convalescent hospital. You can see him fighting this. He will sit there unresponsive, and then suddenly he’ll say something clear as a bell. The other night, as I was about to leave his room, he looked at me and said, “I love you.” Well, I just cried and cried and hugged him. I kept saying, “Say it again, Mo. Say it again. I love you too.” He was silent.