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Marcia Gay Harden Recalls Her Last Family Thanksgiving Before Her Mother Died from Alzheimer’s

The Oscar winner lost her mother three weeks after the holiday


Although Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden had watched her mother Beverly’s continued decline from Alzheimer’s disease, she didn’t know last Thanksgiving would be their final holiday gathering.

“I knew it was uncomfortable for my three kids to speak to their grandmother and spend a week at her home in Texas over Thanksgiving,” Harden, 59, told PEOPLE at the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Hope on the Horizon fundraiser in Palm Beach.

On Monday, she was honored at the event as an activist, actress and author of last year’s memoir, The Seasons of My Mother.

“On the first day of our visit, I didn’t even recognize my 81-year-old mother, and it was hard to connect because she wasn’t really present, and didn’t smile or speak in complete sentences,” Harden recalled. “But we all treated her like the beautiful person she was although we had no indication that she would pass away three weeks later.”

With the familiarity of Harden, her children Eulala, 20, and twins Hudson and Julitta, 14, with ex-husband Thaddaeus Scheel, day two was better because Beverly was more focused and smiling.

“We talked about Thanksgiving and cooking, listened to music, and sat around a warm fire,” said Harden, who has been suffering the pain of her mother’s progressive disease for a decade. “While the younger children really didn’t know their grandmother, they wanted to be there.”

After Beverly was wheeled into the kitchen for socializing, Haden told her mom that she was making a pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving. “In her wonderful dry wit, mom asked, ‘When do we eat it?’” said the former Code Black star, who recently made the Lifetime movie, Love You to Death.

By Thanksgiving day, Harden had brought out the fine china, chocolate pots and vintage silver while talking about the family tableware with her mother.

“This kind of table setting has in some ways become a lost tradition but after seeing how beautiful it all looked while set for the Thanksgiving meal, we talked about it, and I saw that mom’s spirit was still there,” Harden continued.

“By the end of the night she was sitting at the fireplace and giving my daughter convoluted love advice. She was working to create words because she wanted us all on the same page. I was so happy to see my elegant, dignified and soft spoken mother engaged and happy while she enjoyed the warmth of the fire.”

Beverly died three weeks later of complications from the disease after a three-day hospital stay where she was kept comfortable.

“I had a dream that someone had a pebble, then I learned mom’s tooth had fallen out,” said Harden. “We flew out there to be with her at the end.”

Harden has been active in Alzheimer’s research since her mother was first diagnosed. She knows that the brutal disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. According to 2018 statistics, it affects 5.7 million people (more women than men) with that number expected to jump to nearly 14 million by 2050 unless there is a cure or some innovation to stop the disease.

According to Mark Roithmayr, CEO of Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, there are two recent reports that clinical trials are slowing the progression of the disease and new medicine could be available in the next three years. “This is the beginning of hope,” he tells PEOPLE.

Harden said she feels joy when giving her time for Alzheimer’s support, and is proud to be honored at this grassroots event. But it’s not enough.

“I will not feel satisfaction until there is a cure for this terrible disease,” she said. “I will continue doing what I can to raise awareness.”