The Last Dance
When I arrived at my mother’s today she was slouched in her living room chair dozing in the most uncomfortable looking position. As she noticed me coming in the front door, she began to tell me that she had had a really bad night and was very tired. Mom came around a little after a few moments and we took time to sit there in the living room and visit for a bit before I got busy doing some cleaning for my parents. Dad came out from the tv room to join us, which was nice also. After a few moments of small talk, my mother began her litany of ailments and limitations and ended with a deeply felt sense of futility and hopelessness as she declared once again that she was losing her sight. I reminded her that I had said the day before that I would take her to the basement if she was able to dress herself today. (Mom hadn’t been to the basement since her hospitalization in May because she had been very weak and was a fall risk.) She said she didn’t think she was up to it today and returned to the topic of her failing sight. My father admonished her by saying with a rather impatient tone, “Kay you are not losing your sight!” and, “You just read the whole darn newspaper without your glasses on for heaven’s sake!” My mother responded by reporting that had been very hard work for her. Well, this back and forth went on for a few minutes when I decided to jump in and change it up a bit. I suggested that my mother think of three things that are great about herself today and to tell me what they are. Mom was completely at a loss. She could only go into her head and report that her love for her husband was something that was great about her, or her love for her children, or her determination to get well again. I told her that those were true in the abstract but I wanted her to think of three “concrete”, physical things that she could say that were great about her today. Mom really could not grasp what I was asking, so to clarify the question I gave her an example; the fact that she woke up this morning, got herself out of bed and to the bathroom by herself and took care of her business even if it did mean changing those damn “Depends”; and walked down her hallway to the living room unattended at 94 years old! “I think that’s pretty darn remarkable”, I told her. Mom tried to deflect the value in those achievements. She can only see the losses she has experienced in cognitive ability, mobility, balance and strength. I believe she feels a lot of shame and grief over those losses. I gave her a couple more examples but she was never able to generate them for herself, for whatever reason, but she did begin to warm up to the idea that she may still be a little bit special. I went off to do some chores and the next thing I knew she was back in the bathroom finishing up her toilet and getting herself completely dressed with shoes and socks. I asked her what had gotten her going and she remarked that she couldn’t go see her basement without being dressed for the occasion. I believe that was a net gain. Even if she couldn’t think of anything great about herself today she was able to demonstrate the determination to keep trying to get back to normal.
I asked dad if he wanted me to go out to get Wendy’s Apple Pecan Chicken Salads for lunch and he said, “We have salad stuff here if we need a salad”. He then immediately said, “Well, do you want one?” He had a chance to think about it a minute, you see! I said no, but I now know who does! Dad laughed. He had been found out. That is my father’s favorite take out meal and it had been awhile since we had gotten one: A large salad with double blue cheese, double chicken and double Pomegranate dressing! When I had them dished up back in mom’s kitchen, she said she wasn’t hungry and couldn’t possibly eat anything, especially the meat, ugh! I told her to just nibble at it and eat what she could before we went downstairs. Her entire plate of salad including the chicken, a cup of tea and two shortbread cookies later, my mother was ready to go see her basement. Mom was really excited and a little anxious about the adventure. Not just anxious about her ability to get down and up the stairs but also anxious about what old friends and ghosts she would run into down there. Mom got down without a stumble with lots of support from me and dad and plopped down in a chair in the most central part of the big finished room. She slowly looked lovingly around the room at all the memories stored there. My mom was embracing all of the history of that space that touched her heart and soul. She especially remembered the hundreds of hours she spent sewing in that basement over the past sixty years. My mother is dancing with her past in many interesting ways. I don’t know if she is saying goodbye to those things or if she is just dancing with them one last time. My hope is that my mother will recognize what a loving gift from a loving God this is for her. How special and blessed she is to be the recipient of this Last Dance as so many others don’t have this privilege.
My father’s Last Dance is a bit different. When I arrived this morning the beds were made; the used Depends and all the contents of waste paper baskets had been removed to the trash bin in the garage; the breakfast had been made, dishes done and the squirrels fed; and, mom’s meds and eye drops administered. By God, he was going to show me that he was still capable of taking care of his wife! That’s my dad’s dance. No sentimentality here, just straight forward – I’m gonna live until I die – grit, determination and purpose, all in the name of love and dignity for his wife and himself. My father is not at all religious and hasn’t attended church for himself since he was a child but he has a deep belief in his Guardian Angel. Dad had three or four instances in his life when he almost lost his life and he knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it was his Angel that saved him. I don’t think dad has ever spoken to me about God or the Divine in any other terms. But his faith in and gratitude for his Angel is absolute and concrete for him. I think that faith is where he draws his fortitude from. It gives him the strength for his Last Dance, his last caring gifts of service to his darling bride of 74 years.