The Last Dance
A prominent New Hampshire family faces Alzheimer's disease in a very public way, deciding that love, laughter, and painful honesty are the best antidote to the agony of loss. Here are some of the lessons they learned along the way.
My mother, Susan McLane, has lived a beautiful life—like a party with a long, slow dance at the end. Nobody wants the party to end. This is the story of her last dance.
You see, my mother has Alzheimer's disease. At first, a few years ago, when people started asking, "How's your mother?" I would respond, "She's doing fine, though she's having trouble with her shortterm memory." Then it was "Oh, thank you for asking—you know she's headed toward a diagnosis of Alzheimer's." And finally, simply, "My mother has Alzheimer's disease."
She has led an amazing life, from 18-year-old bride to candidate for Congress, all while raising five children and serving for 25 years in the New Hampshire legislature. When I was little, our big old house in Concord, N.H., was filled with delightful chaos, and we were used to our mother never finishing her sentences. The phone would ring, the dog would bark, and she would trail off to another thought, leaving us standing in the kitchen wondering what it was she had meant to say.
Later, when she was in the legislature—serving as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee—her mind was often in another world.
But the lapses that we start to notice in late 1999 are different. Her mind begins to trail off to another era. She can't remember names anymore, a hallmark of the good politician. She seems to be slipping into the past and—quietly, peacefully—letting go of the future.
Finally, in February of 2000, I sit down and look her in the eyes. It sounds simple now, but at the time it took all my courage. "Momma," I ask her, "would you like to see a doctor about your memory loss?"
Her response is like that of a child: "Oh, could I? Yes, please, I would like that very much."
It's early spring when we finally see the neurologist. Sitting in a doctor's waiting room with my mother for the first time in 30 years, I am suddenly aware of the role reversal. In the exam room, she perches on the examining table as I sit in a chair by the desk. The doctor performs a series of neurological tests, asking my mother to touch her finger to her nose and to walk a straight line. He reviews the results of her MRI and EEG, then explains that she has suffered a minor stroke, which could be the cause of her short-term memory loss.
The doctor asks my mother if she remembers meeting him before.
"Did you go to Hanover High School?" she asks expectantly, although he's clearly 20 years younger than she is.
"No," he replies, looking down at her medical record, "we met at my office three years ago."
Then I remember that my mother saw a neurologist when she first lost her sense of taste. I feel compelled to explain her situation to him. "My mother was in
politics in New Hampshire for 25 years," I say. "It's no exaggeration that 10,000 people know her by name. There's no way she could remember them all."
Then my mother chimes in. "Would you have recognized me in the grocery store?" she asks. From the look on his face, I can tell that she has scored.
"No," the doctor concedes, "I would not."
Before we leave, the doctor recommends that my mother take an aspirin a day to lower her chance of having another stroke. He assures us that he can't yet definitively diagnose Alzheimer's disease. We walk out of his office relieved and hopeful.
That feeling lasts throughout the summer. My mother goes about her life, adapting to her short-term memory loss. A trick from the campaign trail serves her well. Whenever she runs into people whose names she can't remember, she throws her arms around them and plants a big kiss on their cheek. Her theory is that the people will assume she knows them so well she doesn't need to call them by name. It works every time.
My father, Malcolm McLane—a trusts and estates lawyer who still goes to the office every day—begins to adapt as well. Early on, he was in denial. Whenever I tried to talk with him about my mother's memory loss, he would change the subject. I realize that acknowledging her aging requires him to face his own mortality.
My siblings and I first begin to notice the transition in their roles over the phone. Throughout our lives, my mother was in charge of making the plans. In fact, I rarely spoke to my father on the phone. Slowly, we realize that she's confused about times and places to meet, so we get my father on the line to clarify the arrangements. As time goes on, we chat briefly with my mother and then talk at length with Daddy.
By September 2000, my father is
Ann McLane Kuster is a 1978 graduate of Dartmouth College and a 1984 graduate of Georgetown Law School; she is a partner in Rath, Young, and Pignatelli, a Concord, N.H., law firm. This feature is adapted with permission from a book titled The Last Dance: Facing Alzheimer's with Love and Laughter, which she wrote in collaboration with her mother, Susan Neidlinger McLane. Information on the book, published by Peter E. Randall Publishers, is available at www.thelastdance.org. The photograph above and all the color photos in the article were taken by Ken Williams, who is both a staff photographer for the Concord Monitor and a family friend of the McLanes. The skiing photo here is courtesy of the New England Ski Museum. The historical photos in Dartmouth settings are from the Dartmouth College archives and were taken by Adrian Bouchard. The other historical photographs are courtesy of the McLane family.