Mother’s Lasting Impact Shapes Her Children’s Lives
While a beloved mother is no longer present, her spirit is alive in the minds, hearts, and actions of her children.
ARTICLE BY LAURA W CLARK AND PORTRAIT BY KELLY MOORE CLARK
THERESA CATHERINE CLARK MARSALA, president of the Cancer Foundation League, delivered her welcome speech at the foundation’s annual fundraiser on Saturday, Feb. 21, 2009. About 30 minutes later, she left this earth the same way she spent much of her 56 years—serving her community and enjoying her family. While it was the last night her four children would spend with her, her spirit perseveres.
That Saturday afternoon was spent like most Saturdays for the Marsala matriarch and two daughters Leslie and Catherine: pedicures and socializing. Catherine, the youngest of Theresa’s children and a professional hairdresser, styled her mother’s hair for that evening’s event, and because Theresa was not feeling well, Leslie helped her assemble the gala’s decor.
Catherine and Robert almost did not attend the fundraiser, but they did so upon the request of their mother. Theresa was sitting with her family at the event when she suffered a fatal heart attack. Catherine, who was 22 at the time, said the evening was a blur.
“I don’t remember those days following her death because I suppressed it. I remember being angry. I had to tell myself that God needed her for something bigger,” Catherine said. “Now, we are all thankful that we were there because it was our last night with her. She’s our angel, and she appears very vividly in my dreams. And when that happens, I wake up feeling so comforted because in my dreams, she hugs me.”
Leslie, who was 30 when her mother passed, misses Theresa’s warmth. “She welcomed everyone with kindness and hugs. I miss her embrace the most. She could hold me, and all my worries would melt away—even when I was an adult.” Theresa’s family meant everything to her, Leslie said. “She once told me that she knew exactly why she had kids: so she could have grandkids. She loved her grandbabies so much, and she spoiled them rotten. I remember her reaction when my first child was born. She was in the delivery room, and she cried. She was so happy.”
Only 26 at the time of his mother’s death, Robert said he began each day following her death with a sick feeling in his stomach—as if he had been punched—and a lump in his throat. While the stomach pain eventually dissipated, living without her advice, emotional support, and love remains a fresh pain. Robert described his dad Tommy—Theresa’s husband of 34 years—as an “absolute wreck” after Theresa’s death, and remembers trying to help his dad cope. Catherine said her dad “worshipped” their mother, who was his high school sweetheart. They were true opposites, Catherine said. Tommy was a “wild kid” with long hair, and rode a motorcycle, whereas Theresa was more conservative.
Robert described his mother as a “master motivator” who helped people realize their potential. “Mom just had a way of making you feel so good about yourself, like you could accomplish anything. She had this incredible willingness and ability to give people advice,” he said. “She was never too busy for anyone. After a long day of working, cooking supper, and doing homework with us, she would still answer an hour-long phone call because a friend or a colleague needed advice.”
As siblings often do, the Marsala children would fight, and when Theresa intervened, she was always fair when dispensing punishments. She never lost her temper, and she always remained calm. She would listen to both sides of the dispute before making a decision regarding who to punish, and often both parties were reprimanded, Robert says with a smile. What struck Robert the most was at the end of each dispute, his mother would explain why the argument was wrong in a way that motivated the children to be better. The father of three children, Robert, still sheds tears when talking about his mother. “All I can do now is attempt to raise my kids the way she raised me, and try to be the man, husband, and father she would want me to be.”
Tommy Jr., now a physician assistant at Haik and Humble, was 33 when his mother died. He attributes his work ethic to his mother, whom he described as “always calm in the face of adversity.” Theresa worked for more than 30 years at St. Francis Medical Center; 15 of those years were spent as the hospital’s Senior Vice President of Patient Care Services. She later directed the Louisiana Extended Care Hospital and served as president of the Northeast district of the Louisiana Hospital Association, among several other healthcare leadership roles. Tommy routinely meets people in various medical clinics who worked with his mother or for her. “They often tell me stories of how great of an administrator she was,” he said. “Those stories never get old.”
Tommy began working as a technician at SFMC after high school graduation, heavily influenced by his mother’s contributions to the healthcare community. “I always saw her as a leader. Mom knew I wanted to do something in healthcare, and she always supported that. And I still rely on lessons I learned from her. If you’re ever placed in an adverse situation, and you put the patient first, you will always be doing the right thing. For the last 25 years, that philosophy has resonated with me throughout my career,” Tommy said. “She was so level-headed and patient, both at work and at home. If I have any of her traits, I’d like to think I learned that from her.”
His mother even remained calm one day during a harrowing experience on the water. Theresa, who loved to spend time outdoors and enjoyed fishing, decided her family needed to spend their summer vacation—five days in a cabin—at Toledo Bend Lake in Texas. “We had arrived at Toledo Bend, which had a lot of dead timber. You couldn’t tell where the wood was located under the water. She was driving our family in the boat and opened up the motor pretty good. She was going 30 miles per hour, hit a trunk, and ripped off the back of the boat. She calmly said, ‘Well, I thought we were in the channel.’ Dad was the one who got excited, talking about how much money it was going to cost to fix. But Mom remained perfectly calm,” Tommy said with a smile.
Nicknamed “Mother Theresa” by her children, Theresa started her day by serving her family breakfast, delivering her children to Jesus the Good Shepherd School, and beginning her 10-hour workday as a healthcare administrator. Reflecting on those early days, Tommy, now the father of three children, is struck by how she managed to balance the many layers of her life, which almost always included a house full of neighborhood children. “As a 15-year-old kid, I remember aggravating Leslie—tickling her until she couldn’t breathe—and testing my parents’ sanity. We were a handful, but mom always remained calm.”
As calm as Theresa was, she was also outgoing, and known for her loud laugh and vibrant smile. She was confident and articulate when speaking in public, and she loved listening to music and dancing. Theresa was also dedicated to her church; missing Sunday mass was “never an option,” according to Robert. Outside of her children and husband, she dedicated a lot of time to her mother Mary, who died in 2011. Theresa ensured her mother’s hair was permed, and her medicines and finances were organized. She and her daughters often spent Saturday mornings with Mary, shopping and eating breakfast at Shoney’s.
Theresa’s unwavering devotion to her family, and the underlying strength this dedication involved, prepared Leslie for adult life. Theresa, whose own father died at 52 of a heart attack, often told her children that a positive attitude shaped one’s life. Leslie remembers the refrigerator sign in her childhood home: “Attitude is everything.” Leslie, the mother of three children, relies on this sentiment each day as she faces her husband Andy’s stage 4 lung cancer, a diagnosis he received on Valentine’s Day in 2013.
“Mom always told us that no one was guaranteed fairness in life, and you just have to persevere. Her wisdom helped me prepare for my life. I truly feel every circumstance in our lives prepares us for what’s to come,” Leslie said. “Surviving my mother’s death prepared me to deal with the challenges I face with Andy today. If she were here, she would comfort me, and she would say, ‘do what you need to do for your husband.’ So that’s what I’m doing.”
Theresa’s commitment to education also influenced Leslie. Theresa began her professional career as a nurse and earned two degrees from the University of Louisiana Monroe (formerly known as Northeast Louisiana University) after graduating from St. Frederick High School. She received a bachelor’s degree in nursing and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy. As a child, Leslie often accompanied her mother to evening classes while Theresa earned her master’s degree. “It was scary because I wasn’t allowed to talk,” Leslie said. “But I was so proud of her.” Leslie, now a speech language pathologist with undergraduate and master’s degrees of her own, remembers watching her mother lead, specifically the way she managed the many personalities at the hospital. Leslie worked alongside her mother at SFMC as a candy striper during the summer, and she said Theresa could “create a compromise between two people like no one else.”
While Theresa was quick to intervene and help other people, she rarely volunteered personal information about her own problems, at least to her children. Catherine remembers passing her mother’s car during the middle of a work day, so she called her. “I immediately asked her, ‘Mom, what are you doing?’ She said, ‘Oh, I just had a doctor’s appointment.’ She ended up in the hospital for several days after that with heart complications. Mom never worried anybody about anything.”
Theresa’s perseverance and steadfast focus on the positive aspects of life left a lasting impact on all of her children. Today, they carry on a tradition that was once Theresa’s dream: a golf tournament to benefit the Cancer Foundation League. The Theresa Marsala Memorial Golf Classic began in 2010, and Catherine and Leslie became the event organizers three years ago. This year, it will be held Friday, May 10, at the Frenchman’s Bend Golf Course. Robert, Tommy, their father, and the daughter’s husbands, Scott Stuckey and Andy Trahan, participate in the tournament each year.
Leslie said that chairing the golf tournament is a blessing because she and her sister are continuing the work their mother started: helping the community’s cancer patients. Catherine, who now has two children of her own, said, “Mom would be beyond proud of us both. It is truly an honor to be able to fulfill a dream of hers. I wish she could be here doing it with us, but I know she is with us in spirit.”
Theresa’s family also honors her in another way: the children and grandchildren eat together almost every Sunday at the home of their father, who is now retired from his job at a natural gas company in Fairbanks. Robert said, “Our family is still close, but it will never be the same without her. She made everything work. You always knew that everything was going to be okay when she was there.”
Robert, an area sales manager for Marsala Beverages, takes great comfort in a question he is asked repeatedly when people hear his last name. “When I meet new people, they often ask me, ‘Did you know Theresa Marsala?’ I’m so honored to be able to tell them, ‘Yes, she’s my mother.’”