The Last Dance
reverse is uncannily accurate, as my mother slips from dressing herself to being dressed, from coping in the bathroom to using Depends, from driving and walking on her own to sitting in a wheelchair, watching the world pass by.
By the spring of 2004, when people ask, "How's your mother?" I say, "She's doing fine, but have you heard? She moved into a nursing home in February. She is in a wheelchair now. She can't speak, but she stays cheerful. Thank you for asking."
My mother feels safe and secure in her new surroundings. Everyone is relieved. My father can let go of the burden of his responsibility as her primary caretaker. Now he can focus on his role as her husband, visiting every day, living in the moment, loving her one day at a time.
On a beautiful April day, I stop by to take her for a walk in her wheelchair. It's her first time outside in a while. The day is warm. The sun is bright. Everywhere we look, the world is painted in brilliant colors—pink tulips, yellow daffodils, green grass.
"Look up, Momma, look at the clouds," I say, pointing to the fluffy white clouds in the blue sky above.
My mother leans back in her wheelchair and smiles with a look of surprise. Has she forgotten about clouds? I wonder. What goes on in her mind these days? She seems like a child, marveling at the world around her.
As the path winds past a row of independent- living apartments, we come upon a woman planting pansies along her walkway. We stop to admire the pretty border and chat with her for a moment. Suddenly she looks at my mother and notices her face. "You look just like Susan McLane!" she exclaims.
My mother begins to laugh, as I respond, "This is . . . she is . . . Susan McLane."
The woman leans down and takes my mother's hand in her hand. She looks deep into her eyes, with a warm smile. "We are honored to have you living here at Havenwood," she says, with reverence in her voice. "You have done so much in the lives of women and families," she continues, looking intently into my mother's eyes. "You have done so much for our whole community."
My mother is beaming now, her head held high, her eyes sparkling. Behind my sunglasses, tears flow down my cheeks as I try to respond. "You are so kind. Thank you," I say with a smile.
As we continue on our way down the path, my mother watches the world go by, knowing that she has made a difference in the lives of others, that she has made the world a better place.
Half of the grief about aging and Alzheimer's disease is learning to let go. We have learned to let go of the loss and to focus on the love and laughter. Inspired
by my mother's courage and grace, her love and laughter, we have learned to be here with her, in the present.
Epilogue: On February 13, 2005—three months after the publication of the book from which this feature was adapted—Susan Neidlinger McLane died in hospice care at Havenwood nursing home in Concord, N.H.
The Concord Monitor ran a front-page, above-the-fold obituary that read in part: "McLane, 75, had Alzheimer's disease, a condition she spoke about openly. 'She wanted it to be okay for people to talk about Alzheimer's,' said Ann McLane Kuster, her daughter. 'We always said it was her last cause.'
"Although McLane had been living at Havenwood for a year, she was relatively active until last week. But then her throat muscles stopped working, a condition of the last stages of Alzheimer's. She had told her family not to put her on a feeding tube.
"Her children and grandchildren came from all over the country and joined her husband, Malcolm, at her bedside. . . . It was a peaceful end, her daughter said, and an appropriate one: McLane cowrote the law that allows people in New Hampshire to refuse life-sustaining medical care."
That allows people to die with dignity, adds her daughter a few months later.
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 on the facing page 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 on page 63 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.
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