The Last Dance, Facing Alzheimer's with Love and Laughter

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Excerpt from The Last Dance

From Chapter 5, "The Acceptance Speech"

As I set up the tape recorder, my mother says, “I’ve been wandering around this house all morning just looking back to all my years.”

I know she means the pictures and memories throughout the house, decades of family photos, honors and awards, piles of mail, an endless stream of her life.

“I’m just saying, ‘I’m over with the whole thing,’ ” my mother declares.

Just like that, so succinct and complete. I know from her expression that she is talking about her life. I know that the time has come to tell her story.

My mother settles into her chair by the fireplace. With tears in my eyes, I say, “I would like you to tell your story and then we can write about it. You can pick wherever you want to start.”

My mother looks at the tape recorder, then she looks at me. She begins.

My twin sister was the most valuable part of my life. We were together all the time. We didn’t fight for years and years. When we were thirteen years old, we got our period for the first time. I got it first in the bathroom upstairs. Then Sally called from the third floor and she had gotten it, too. Mother explained it all to me and then went downstairs. She called the doctor while Sally was sitting on the john because she was so surprised. The doctor said “that’s the sign of identical twins!”

My mother brings me an old photo of her first-grade class and points to twin girls in the front row. “Here we are. The two of us, always together,” she says proudly.

“Can you tell which one is you?” I ask.

“No,” she responds. “I don’t know.”

“Look at the ringlets in your hair,” I say. “Who did your hair in the morning? Your mother or the maid?” I ask.

“My mother,” she says fondly.

“Who else do you know in the picture?” I ask.

“I know everybody,” my mother says confidently.

“Who do you recognize?” I wonder aloud.

“Here is . . . (pause) . . . Bowler,” she says haltingly.

“Patsy Bowler?” I ask, remembering the name from my own childhood.

“Yes, Patsy Bowler. That’s Andy . . . (pause) . . . I can’t remember any of their names now. But I recognize every face. I can tell you exactly where they all lived in town.”

My mother continues talking about her early years growing up in Hanover.

We grew up in Hanover where my father was the Dean of Dartmouth College. We went to the SAE house every day. We became excellent at pool! . . . [she pauses, searching for the words to describe her childhood] . . . I have some pictures of what we did when we were young.

We were ski racers. Andrea Mead won three gold medals. She was a very good friend of ours. Sally was on the Olympic team, too. But I was having my third baby, so I was never in the Olympics.

One of the best things that ever happened to me was to be with Sally before she died. I was retired from the legislature and Malcolm and I went around the world. I would have been so horrified if Sally had died when I was around the world. When I got to California, she was dying of cancer. I never came home because she wanted me to stay with her. I wasn’t in the legislature and I didn’t have anything else to do, so I stayed with her.

I couldn’t do anything about her dying, except to be there with her. I have discovered that half of the grief about death is guilt. I didn’t have any guilt when Sally died. I stayed with her for two and a half months. When she died, I wasn’t sad.

From Chapter 23, "Heaven's Gate"

Change is the only constant in our lives. Slowly, day by day, week by week, my mother is slipping away from us all. Grief comes in waves, at the sight of a flock of geese flying south or a child skating on the ice. Memories fill my mind. Loss fills my heart.

The snow is soft and deep. The world is white all around as I drive into town, past The Birches, past the hospital, past the hospice house. The tall pines are drooping from the weight of the storm. Snow clings to the branches. The sky is filled with white as the snow drifts down in fluffy flakes. The world is all white, a cocoon of soft, downy flakes. I am in Heaven. The tears flow freely down my cheeks. Susie will be safe here, far from the cares of the world. . . .

First, there is the beginning. Then, there is the end. Everything else is in the middle. Facing Alzheimer’s disease is about coming to terms with living in the middle, in limbo, in a constant state of change. We are living the last dance, feeling the anticipation that the party will end, yet hoping that the feeling of love in our hearts will last forever.

Three winters have come and gone in our lives since my “Fridays with Susie.” Life goes on, adjusting day by day to the changes all around us, but the music never stops. Children grow up, parents age. The leaves fall off the trees, the snow and ice come again. The cycle of life goes on, one season at a time.

The Last Dance has become a metaphor for a life worth living. My mother reads her book cover to cover every day. Then she begins at the beginning again. She loves sharing her story. For many months now, reading the story of her life over and over again, Susie has held on to her identity, even as the person within her slips away.

We have all savored our last dance together, each of us coming to terms with Alzheimer’s disease in our own way. We live in the present with Susie, entering her time zone whenever we visit. We leave our cares at the door, focusing instead on the moment when her face lights up and she smiles, waiting for a kiss on both cheeks. Every glimmer of recognition is a gift from the past. Every moment together is a memory for the future. We stand at Heaven’s Gate, waiting, hoping, praying for peace in our hearts and in her soul.