The Last Dance
Grammy's best friend was jealous that her final moments were peaceful, in her own bed, with her family there. I remember her doctor telling us he wished more families could experience death this way. When I expressed regret that I hadn't called an ambulance, the doctor said if I had, my grandmother would have died on the highway, rushing to the hospital with sirens blaring. He was certain she'd have preferred falling asleep, in her own bed, wearing her sneakers.
My grandfather, Pudge, had been legendary for kicking a 51-yard field goal for Dartmouth against Harvard in 1922. My Dartmouth College classmate Nick Lowery kicked a 51-yard field goal in 1976, before going on to a distinguished NFL career. Watching from the stands at the Harvard-Dartmouth game in Cambridge, Pudge was pleased that Nick tied his record but didn't surpass it.
Once, when the twins were young, Susan and Sally convinced their father to demonstrate his athletic prowess to a skeptical student. According to legend, Dean Neidlinger put on his fedora, walked the skeptic down to the football field, and had him hold the ball on the 41-yard line (the goal posts were 10 yards behind the end zone then). Pudge repeated the kick in his tweed suit and street shoes, without ever removing his hat. Then he turned around and kicked another 51- yard field goal in the opposite direction, for good measure.
I ask my mother whether her father's athletic achievements had influenced his daughters while they were growing up.
Daddy drove Sally and me to all our ski races on weekends. We skied at Moosilauke and Cannon before there were any ski lifts. We hiked up the trail and learned the race course on the way up. It was better that way. We knew the trail when we raced down.
My mother is clearly enjoying these memories. But then she comes to a sad one.
When Pudge died in the hospital in Hyannis, I didn't realize he was going to die. Grammy had to make a decision about another surgery or letting him die. She didn't know what to do. She was so sad to let him go after all their years together. After Pudge died, I put in the bill for the living will and it passed. That was one of my proudest moments.
My mother wanted other families to know
the wishes of their loved ones. She didn't want anyone else to feel the pain Grammy experienced, not knowing what Pudge wanted at the end of his life. My mother organized a broad coalition of health-care and religious groups and hammered out compromise language for the living will legislation. She even garnered the support of the Catholic Church. She also sponsored legislation to license hospice services in New Hampshire and became an advocate for a more humane approach to death and dying, one that would allow physicians to administer pain medications but withhold extraordinary measures to prolong life. She wanted patients and families to spend their last days together living life rather than fighting death. Now her own activist life is nearing an end.
The anthrax scare is the top story on NPR as I drive to my parents' condo the next Friday; there are even FBI warnings of another terrorist attack. "What is the world coming to?" I wonder. I decide to ask my mother about her longtime interest in international affairs.
We invited foreign students to stay at our house when you kids were young. I enjoyed having foreign guests, so the World Affairs Council would call whenever someone interesting came to New Hampshire. I had the most beautiful house and a nice guest room, so they came to stay with us. Then when I was in the legislature, I would bring the foreign visitors to see the State House.
The World Affairs Council brought in famous speakers and held conferences. Secretary of State Dean Rusk came to our house for cocktails before his speech. New Hampshire had the first presidential primary, so everyone came to visit here first! Later, I organized a big conference on China before President Nixon went there.
I'm flooded with memories. I remember at
age five showing students from Martinique and Guadeloupe how to use a dishwasher. I recall a huge red dragon in the middle of our dining room table for the "Red China" conference. Foreign policy was a constant theme in our family. "What do you think about the threat to world peace now, Momma?" I ask.
"I don't think about it at all," she says. "I read the front page of the paper and then, that's it."
I realize that my mother is now able to simply tune out terror. Is this the silver lining of Alzheimer's disease? In her world, there is no place to hide from the plaques and tangles destroying her brain. But bioterrorism at home or war halfway around the world is just front-page news. Nothing more, nothing less.
Slowly I realize that I face the same choice. Live in fear or come to terms with the changing world. Anthrax, Afghanistan, Alzheimer's: in my life, it's all the same state of mind.
November sinks into our psyche as leaves gather on the ground and wind whistles through the bare trees. My mother's life echoes the season, slipping into gray, with occasional bursts of brightness.
My parents call to report that they've visited a new retirement community in Concord that specializes in memory loss. "I love it," my mother says, sounding like a teenager who's been visiting boarding schools and is about to begin the next chapter in her life. "It's perfect! Malcolm can visit anytime. We can even go out for a drive or to dinner whenever we want." My mother sounds delighted by the relative freedom. My father is pleased, too, relieved to have a plan for their future.
My mother didn't want anyone else to feel the pain Grammy experienced, not knowing what Pudge wanted at the end of his life. She wanted patients and families to spend their last days living life rather than fighting death. Now her own activist life is nearing an end.
Later that week, I drive to Hanover for dinner with my Aunt Lilla at Kendal. Then we attend a forum at Dartmouth—"Mind, Memory, and Aging: Perspectives on Preventing Memory Loss and Alzheimer's Disease"—by three leading medical scholars. Dr. Robert Santulli, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Dartmouth and president of the New Hampshire