The Last Dance
picks me up at the dentist and brings me back to my car, I find a parking ticket. Even my mother's optimism can't brighten this day! Is my life too crazy, I wonder, or is Alzheimer's contagious? What happens when our brain reaches its functional limit?
Yet no matter how hectic my life is—juggling client meetings, legislative hearings, and charitable commitments with soccer practices, meals, laundry, and meaningful time with my family—I feel at peace as soon as I walk through my mother's door each Friday.
The next Friday, though, when I begin taping, she is at a loss for words. "I can't talk anymore. I just feel as though I have deteriorated so in the last week or two," she says.
"What would you tell people about how to cope with Alzheimer's?" I ask her.
"Well," she replies, "that I don't want to live anymore. That is principally it. I am willing to die tomorrow. That is very private. I don't tell that to Malcolm, at all."
Amazed once again by my mother's frankness, I try hard to be compassionate yet rational. "Do you remember anything about your campaign for Congress?" I decide to ask. My mother tells her favorite story from that campaign.
You and I were campaigning all over New Hampshire. One day, an old guy in a gas station said, "Lady, you should be home taking care of your babies." And I said, pointing at you filling up the tank, "That's my baby, and she's taking care of me!"
"We watched all the debates," I remind her, "you and nine men standing up on the stage. You would put on your jacket and step right up to speak your mind. Do you remember how that felt?"
Yeah, I do. I beat Charlie Bass and I didn't lose to Judd Gregg by very much. Well, I didn't ever think I was going to get elected. That was when I first felt dissatisfied with the Republican Party. I can remember how incredible my daughters were about the campaign. They kept me at it. I felt that I was inferior in a way that my daughters don't feel. That was the era back then. Malcolm was ambivalent about me running for Congress. But I had a good time.
My mother came in second in the Republican primary, beating eight men and narrowly losing to Judd Gregg, who went on to serve in Congress and then the Senate. She even beat Charlie Bass, who later joined her in the New Hampshire Senate and eventually went to Congress, too. But clearly my mother has no regrets. In her world, things happen and "there it is."
I arrive early at the family's summer house on Newfound Lake for Columbus Day weekend and the annual McLane family reunion. My parents are relaxing on the porch, reading aloud the early chapters of my mother's story. I am relieved that they both seem pleased and willing to share their past, including some family secrets.
For my father's recent birthday, I gave him a new book on Alzheimer's disease—The Forgetting by David Shenk. Since Daddy's mother had Alzheimer's in the 1970s, the number of Americans af- flicted with the disease has risen from 500,000 to more than 5 million. As the baby boomers age, the number will climb to 15 million. I share Shenk's theory that "the act of remembering itself generates new memories . . . Overlap, in other words, is not only built into the biology of memory. It is the very basis of memory—and identity."
As we talk, my parents begin opening up about the changes in their lives. Capturing my mother's story is becoming a catalyst for more candid family conversations.
My sister Robin arrives next. She is the oldest and I am the youngest of the five children. Our memories are often different, even of the same experiences. Certain themes in our childhood transcend these differences, however, such as our mother's passion for nature and for cooking. We laugh as we recall picking apples for applesauce and collecting sap for maple syrup.
The conversation turns to the manuscript and Momma's candor about her pregnancy and marriage during her freshman year in college. Talking with Robin openly for the first time, my parents' tone is lighthearted and loving, as if they are relieved to finally tell her about her birth.
The theme of open communication inspires us all weekend. I recount to Robin a conversation I had with Daddy about their options as the illness progresses. For the first time, he has expressed an interest in someone coming to the house in the morning to be with Momma while he goes to the office. He also recognizes now that she may decline to an advanced stage before they can move into Kendal. I tell Robin about his idea that Momma could move to a nursing home in Concord while he stays in their condo and visits her every day. Robin and I are relieved by his open and honest approach to their future. Considering his denial less than a year ago, he has come a long way.
The rest of the clan gathers and the weekend is a wonderful, festive occasion. We renew our commitment to such gatherings.
The theme of open communication inspires us all weekend. I recount to Robin a conversation I had with Daddy about options as the illness progresses. For the first time, he has expressed an interest in someone coming to the house in the morning to be with Momma while he goes to the office.
The next Friday, I talk with my mother about her awareness of the changes in her life and her willingness to talk about her decline openly. When my father's mother had Alzheimer's disease in the 1970s, nobody talked about it until she was too far gone to understand what was happening to her. We are hopeful that my mother's openness can help others with Alzheimer's and their families to cope and connect. To get past the denial. To savor their last dance together.
My friend Lucia's mother has Alzheimer's, too. Lucia and I make a point of getting together regularly, to share our experiences. She tells me during one visit that she took her son Sam to Plimoth Plantation and brought her mother along, thinking she'd enjoy the living museum. Sam and Lucia had fun talking to the