The Last Dance
completely engaged with my mother's decline. He accompanies her to the next round of doctor's visits. Slowly, he becomes an authority on aging and dementia.
In May 2001, the doctors pronounce my mother's diagnosis to be "probable Alzheimer's disease." Based on her medical history, a current medical exam, and neuro-psych testing, my mother's memory loss and functional difficulties meet the criteria for Alzheimer's. She accepts the doctor's conclusion graciously, but the rest of our family needs time to come to terms with the news.
In midsummer, my parents tell us they've applied to move to Kendal, a retirement community in Hanover where my father's sister Lilla and brother Charles live. We are all relieved. And my parents sound delighted, as if they've just been accepted to college.
When she fills out a questionnaire for Kendal, my mother responds with complete honesty. Her answer to the question "What are your plans for the future?" is simply, "Nothing. My life is in the past." To "Will you miss your family and friends?" she replies, "No, my family will be here and I have friends, but I can't remember their names." Her words are direct and to the point, without pain or anger or frustration. When asked "Do you have any regrets about your life?" she writes, "No. I am relieved that I did not win when I ran for Congress."
I wonder how many of us, when all is said and done, will have no regrets as we look back on the decisions that have framed our lives. What is it about my mother's life—or perhaps about Alzheimer's disease—that gives her such peace of mind?
I decide to tell her story before her memory slips away completely. I want to understand her past and come to terms, as she is doing, with her present. I also hope her candor about Alzheimer's can open up the world of dementia and aging, just as the book Tuesdays with Morrie did for death and dying.
In August of 2001, I present the idea to my parents. I will bring a tape recorder to their house every Friday, my day off, and get my mother to tell the story of her life. I watch my parents' expressions closely to gauge their reaction. My mother smiles, looking pleased with the idea. My father says simply, with tears in his eyes but hope in his voice, "We'll call it 'Fridays with Susie.' " I know then that the project is meant to be.
On the first Friday in September I arrive, full of anticipation, at my parents' condo in East Concord. They've just returned from a visit with my brother Donald in the North Cascades and then a cruise up the Inland Passage to Alaska. My mother embraces me with a big hug. She's clutching a present in her hands like a child. "I can't believe that I forgot your birthday," she says.
"Don't worry, Momma," I respond. "You just got home from a long trip. These are beautiful," I add, as I open the bag and find three pairs of bright, dangly earrings. But we both know that remembering birthdays is just one more thing in her life that's slipping away.
Before we start the taping, my mother wants to show me her journal from the trip. For years, my mother has kept meticulous journals of her travels—from vacations all over the world with my father to legislative junkets to Japan, Korea, and South Africa. I am pleasantly surprised that she can still recall the details of her days.
The journal is also a testament to my mother's optimism. She was raised on the expression "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." As her Alzheimer's has progressed, her good cheer has taken on a life of its own. She seems stuck in the superlative. Every meal is the "most delicious I've ever tasted!" (even though she's lost her sense of taste). Perhaps when you can't remember what you had for breakfast, then lunch is the best meal you've ever eaten. Or perhaps she's just living in the moment, finding joy in simple pleasures.
Anyway, the visit with Donald and his family was a success, but the boat trip was cold and rainy and both my parents were sick. On the last day, Momma finally admits in her journal, "A bad night. Malc coughed all night and I was sick. But the morning sun made it all better. The first sun we've seen in 10 days! Our criteria up to now has been if it isn't pouring rain, it's pleasant!" Reading the account, I wonder if maybe with Alzheimer's, misery is the memory that fades first.
We settle down to start the taping. To prompt my mother's memories, I've brought along some old photos. One shows my father schussing across the finish line at Dartmouth Winter Carnival in 1946, the year he graduated. Another is of my mother and her identical twin sister, Sally; one of the little girls holds a Raggedy Ann, the other a stuffed dog.
My mother was raised on the expression "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." As her Alzheimer's has progressed, her good cheer has taken on a life of its own. She seems stuck in the superlative. Perhaps she's just finding joy in simple pleasures.
"I would like you to tell your story," I say. "You can pick wherever you want to start." My mother looks at the tape recorder, then 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