Fighting Her Son's Disease, Real-Life Mother Courage Mary-Lou Weisman Inspires a TV Movie with Liza Minnelli
Then their picture-perfect life shattered. Concerned over Peter's slow development rate and his increasing clumsiness, Mary-Lou took him to a pediatrician. The doctor's diagnosis: muscular dystrophy. The incurable disease would waste away Peter's muscles and lungs, until he would die of pneumonia.
From the day that she heard Peter's prognosis until he died at age 15 in 1980, Mary-Lou struggled to make the most of her son's short life, one in which he would lose his capacities (including walking) as he grew. "I wanted my child to be happy even though he was dying," says Mary-Lou. How well the Weismans succeeded is the subject of A Time To Live, a two-hour NBC movie (airing October 28) starring Liza Minnelli as Mary-Lou. Based on Intensive Care, the 1982 book that Weisman wrote about her experience, the show is no maudlin, disease-of-the-week tearjerker. In fact it is often funny. "We used humor to get us through," says Mary-Lou. Minnelli is making a successful TV dramatic debut following her treatment (for Valium dependency) at the Betty Ford Center.
Superficially there are few similarities between Minnelli, 39, and the more subdued Mary-Lou, 47. Last summer on the Montreal set where Weisman was serving as technical adviser, she was initially guarded. "I was afraid Liza would be too sentimental," says Mary-Lou, "but she does a better me than I do. We both make jokes when it hurts and we'll both sell ourselves down the river to be liked." Adds Liza: "We're soul sisters, a couple of tough marshmallows."
Throughout the three-week shooting, Weisman worked with Minnelli, answering the actress' many questions about the child's upbringing. (When Mary-Lou told Liza that she had sung nonsense songs to Peter while brushing his teeth, Minnelli incorporated that into a scene.) Weisman also tutored Corey (Silver Bullet) Haim, the 13-year-old actor who plays Peter, and advised Jeffrey (Warning Sign) De Munn, who is cast as her husband. "I worried that I might get too close to Corey and be hurt," Weisman says. "But he was such a strong, healthy kid, and I was concentrating so hard on getting his arms and legs right that I never mistook him for Peter. It only got to me at night when I saw the day's work on film. Then I'd laugh and cry."
The making of the TV movie has brought back memories for the Weismans. "It's hard to explain," says Larry, "but Peter found things very amusing, and he was very clever with words, which were one of his few connections to the world. When we'd take a walk—'taking a walk' meant his going out in a wheelchair—he'd observe things I'd never see. Once, when the trees cast moving shadows on the street, he said, 'Look, Dad, the road is breathing.' " Another time Larry tried to teach Peter about money. "But he'd say, 'Who's going to cheat a kid like me?' "
Observes Mary-Lou, "Here we were, these 'achieving types' with a twisted, overweight child who didn't even get good grades. We realized that there was no point in raising him with the usual parental expectations. Peter never thought of himself as an object of pity. He thought he was adorable—and he was."
He was also dependent from age 7 when he became confined to a wheelchair. "As time went by you had to put his arms around your neck when he wanted to hug you," says Mary-Lou. In his last years Peter couldn't sit up without polyurethane "wings" attached to his sides.
A typical day in the Weisman household would begin at 6 a.m., with Peter calling "Ma" over the intercom. Says Mary-Lou, "I'd grab the urinal from behind the toilet and head into his room. As I went through the door, a voice inside my head said, 'Smile.' "
Maintaining that positive attitude was a strain. "Larry and I would level with each other about being in a bad mood," says Mary-Lou, "but we never let Peter know how difficult it was for us or how frustrated we often were. After Peter went to school [until he died he attended regular classes in public school] I'd jog for miles. I had a 'crying rock' where I'd go when I couldn't stand it any more."
Writing was a release for Mary-Lou, who began Intensive Care two years before Peter died. "Writing was something I wouldn't lose." During their ordeal the Weismans' marriage was stretched to the breaking point. "Every morning I'd waken, depleted and frantic over how I was going to summon the energy to get through the day," says Mary-Lou. "To me, when Larry left in the morning for work, he might as well have been going to a party."
Larry saw it differently. "I was a young lawyer trying to build a practice, with clients and partners putting pressure on me," he says. "I would come home tired, and Mary-Lou expected me to take over. Then I'd realize that Adam had been given short shrift, so we'd talk. In 15 years I never got to read a book at night."
If Mary-Lou was angry with her husband, Larry took out his frustrations on machines and people that got in his way. "I was angry at everything," he says. "When we'd go places, I always managed to get Petie where he needed to be. But I was constantly fighting with a stewardess, theater usher, everybody."
The divorce rate among parents of seriously ill children is well above the national average. Yet the Weismans survived. "I thought about divorce every day," says Mary-Lou. But, says Larry, "We knew that, despite our problems, we loved each other and wanted to stay together. Besides, I thought, 'If I leave, who'll lift Petie?' "
Because of his brother, the Weismans' older son (by 19 months) assumed burdens beyond his years. In the summers Adam got up at night to help Peter turn over in bed or use the urinal. During the school year Peter spent Friday or Saturday night at home. "I suppose I had some minor resentments over my responsibilities," says Adam, 22, a writer for New York's Amnesty International. "But I didn't feel deprived. Peter and I had fun together." Adam always slowed down for his brother, and they would race in wheelchairs. "We were typical brothers," says Adam. "I miss him."
The TV movie has fomented some family dissent. Larry, who visited his wife on the set, endorses the film, although he is portrayed unsympathetically in the beginning. Adam, though, is disdainful of the movie. "I thought my mom's book was terrific," he says, "but I don't want to turn on the TV and see [my life as] some dumb sob story."
Had he lived, Peter Weisman would be celebrating his 21st birthday next month. Since his death the Weismans' lives have moved forward. Peter's soft, round face shines in family photographs on the walls of the couple's Westport home. But his wheelchair was given away (to another muscular-dystrophy patient), and his prized drums are in the attic. Mary-Lou, a free-lance writer, works in an office that was Peter's room. Her son's favorite stuffed animal, a hippo he dubbed Soft Gray, nestles in the Weismans' bedroom.
For Mary-Lou, her son's tragedy "was a lesson in unconditional love. I loved Peter as I had never been loved myself," she says. "We weren't saints—the capacity for losing yourself in another made us noble."
Says Larry, "You got the real stuff with Petie. He gave me much more than I ever gave him. I'll never be that good again."
And what of Peter himself? In his later photographs, there is sorrow in his eyes. But, until he was in his final days in the hospital, he never discussed his death. "He knew what was going on," says his brother, "but there was no need to talk about it."
Dependent on others most of his life, Peter made his own decision on how to face the end. Just before he died, his parents removed the breathing mask from his face. "Daddy," he said, "what does 'impudent' mean?" Startled, his father replied, "Bold, shamelessly bold."
"Then," Peter said, "put me in an impudent position."