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The Beast didn't conquer the love of life.

Byline: Dianne Williamson


Just months after her youngest child died, Marian French could sense within her own body the insidious presence of what her son had called The Beast.

In the son, it started with a tingling in his left hand. In the mother, it began with a weakness in her arms and a slurring of her words.

"She had a feeling that she knew what it was," said her daughter, Susan French Hull. "I almost wondered if she had taken on Tom's disease because she felt it should have been her."

The disease is ALS, which in 2005 had claimed Mrs. French's son, Worcester plastic surgeon Thomas French, who battled The Beast for nine years as it slowly sapped him of all but the ability to blink his eyes. And if the mother who helped care for him was stunned that such a cruel illness had moved on to her, she took her son's lead and refused to become a victim.

"Marian was a strong woman," said her husband of 56 years, Herbert French. "She knew what the future held for her because she had been down that road with Tom. But she didn't complain and never asked why."

If there's a genetic component to the two incidents of ALS in the French family, it comes with a remarkable resilience and deep appreciation of life's blessings. After Thomas French was diagnosed in 1996, he remarried his ex-wife, had a child against daunting medical odds, and lived his last days with such ineffable grace that a documentary called "Mind Games" was made about his life.

"ALS is a mind game - the ultimate mind game," Dr. French once wrote. "I told The Beast that although it had wreaked havoc on me physically, in no uncertain terms would it ever conquer my mind."

A few days after Marian French died on June 18 at age 81, her daughter was sorting through papers by her bed when she found a two-page letter from her mother. It was likely penned soon after she was diagnosed, because the handwriting was strong and clear:

"Celebrate my life," she wrote. "I want everyone to know that I have had a beautiful, happy life. I have always felt loved. I married the right guy. Our children are so terrific, so caring, so precious."

Marian French was a mother of four, the wife of an investment banker, and a 1948 graduate of Cornell University. For many years she and her husband lived in Shrewsbury, where she worked as a teacher and hospital volunteer, before the couple moved to Hopkinton, N.H.

Always active, she loved to ski and to swim at the family's camp on an island at Lake Winnipesaukee. And she loved the outdoors; after she was diagnosed and her body began to fail, she would sit in the family "nature room" with its large picture windows and watch the birds flutter in and out of the feeders. Her son, also, would sit for hours in a chair overlooking the flowers and fields surrounding his home in Barnard, Vt.

And, just as it was with her son, the final days of Marian French's life were filled with love. The scourge of the unrelenting ALS is devastating. It forced Tom and Jacqueline French to strip away the clutter in their lives and focus on what matters. Their days were quiet and peaceful. When Tom lost the ability to speak, he blinked his eyes to communicate with his wife.

Herbert and Marian French had always loved music. In their younger days they'd throw parties that ended around the family piano; in the last few months, as Marian grew weaker, her husband would sit her near the piano and play for hours.

"I played for her until my shoulders ached," said Herbert French, 84, his voice choked with tears. "Then I'd get up the next day and start again. We had a wonderful marriage. We had our rough patches, but we got by them."

In the note left by Marian French, she listed the music she wanted played at her memorial service - "God Bless America," "Joy to the World" and songs from Cornell.

"Music is high on the list of priorities," she wrote. "So please - play it, sing it, feel it. I've always had a hard time staying still when I hear it."

In the end, Marian French was forced to stay still. Maybe the music sounded more beautiful that way.

Contact Dianne Williamson via e-mail at
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jun 29, 2008
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