The Last Dance
interpreters dressed in period costume and asking questions about life in the 17th century. Lucia's mother listened intently.
Later, Lucia asked her mother if she enjoyed the visit. "It was terrible," her mother replied. "I felt so sorry for the poor people living in those dingy houses." Lucia realized that no amount of explaining could help her mother understand that the "Pilgrims" were just actors. Four centuries ago was indistinguishable from the present. So Lucia bit her tongue and focused on her mother's compassion. She said how much she admired her mother for caring about the less fortunate.
When Lucia finishes her story, we chuckle over the actors going home to cook dinner in the microwave. Alzheimer's is serious and sobering, but we realize that humor is essential now more than ever. Lucia even wonders if my mother's candid approach to Alzheimer's could actually be changing the course of her disease.
That week, my colleague Lucy calls to ask, with urgency in her voice, "Annie, are you okay?"
"Sure, I'm fine," I say. "Why?"
"Well, I just spoke with a client who saw your mother last week," Lucy says. "Apparently, she told him that you are running for governor. Then she told him how much money you make!" Lucy is laughing now.
"Oh, my God!" I am laughing, too, but I am mortified. "Maybe we're not okay. Thanks for telling me," I add, laughing with tears in my eyes.
Once again, in my mother's world, public and private lives merge—with a new twist. I suddenly think of a TV cameraman on the State House lawn on September 11 who said to me, "The world will never be the same again." Our family's life will never be the same again either. The question now is how to live amid the changes. How to reconcile my mother's wishful thinking about me with my wishful thinking about her.
The next Friday I focus my questions on my mother's parents and her life growing up in Hanover. Although my original idea was to capture the story of her political career, her memory is stronger the further back we go. I decided to follow her lead.
My father, "Pudge" Neidlinger, was the dean of Dartmouth, so he was out of the picture much of the time. I never got to know him very well. He painted pictures when he wasn't working, so we didn't see him very much. I loved my mother completely! When she died, I went to her best friend to tell her and she said, "Thank goodness. The lucky duck!"
I will never forget that day myself. My parents and I were visiting my grandmother at her home in Chatham on Cape Cod over Labor Day weekend in 1979. My grandfather had died in the spring of 1978, just before I graduated from Dartmouth. Grammy was going blind and was lonely living by herself. One morning during our visit, my mother was sleeping upstairs while my father was reading in the living room. I was taking a bath when my grandmother burst into the bathroom.
"I'm so sorry, Ann, but I think I'm going to lose my lunch," she said, rushing to the toilet. Grammy was flustered about intruding on my bath. I knew right away she wasn't feeling well. I dressed quickly, then settled her in her bed, thinking she had the flu. Her last words to me were,
"Ann, I hope you can manage making your own breakfast."
"Grammy, I'm 23 years old. I think I can fix my own breakfast!" I replied with a laugh.
Over the next half hour, I kept checking on her from the doorway, so as not to disturb her. She was sleeping peacefully each time I looked in. Eventually I noticed she hadn't moved in a long time and I went closer. Only then did I realize that my grandmother had died in her sleep of a heart attack, without sound or struggle.