My mother, Alice, practiced dying on a regular basis. “Get a shower curtain or something to put under me, would you?” In the middle of Alzheimer’s disease, she retained the bit of scientific knowledge that our bodies let go when we take that last breath. “I don’t want to make a mess.”
Rehearsal usually happened around sunset. I would sit with her, my dead father and her parents hovering in the air around us. Alice took tiny steps toward them, then back to me—our own Lobster Quadrille. She was truly in between, liminal, as in an
anthropological rite of passage, between two social states, transcending two
worlds, though physiologically she had no signs that biological death was nigh.
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?
In the middle of Alzheimer’s disease, Alice knew that we needed to practice because death and dying remain relatively hidden in our culture. Our medical system equates death with treatment failure. Medical personnel hand off the situation to another kind of expert, religious perhaps, or secular, the funeral home director. Alice knew death was coming, so we needed to rehearse.
In our culture, where death is taboo, and aging is not celebrated, a person with Alzheimer’s experiences a social death long before his or her heart stops beating. Somehow, for the rest of us, they are not as fully human as they once were when they no longer recognize their own families, can no longer speak. The rules for interacting with them and caring for them shift. In the middle of Alzheimer’s, Alice somehow knew this death was already happening, so we needed to rehearse.
As a good member of my culture, I knew that “recognition” was the socially legitimate threshold for changing the rules of care. When Depends™ could not solve the problems of the body letting go, Peter and I came to the end of being able to continue with Alice in our home. The transition was OK—we had rehearsed.
Would not, could not, would not, could not, could not join the dance.
A few nights before Alice moved, she gave us a story to explain the transition to others: I had just tucked her into bed and had gone down the hall to my room when I heard her calling loudly. As I ran back to her room, I could make out her words.
“Lady, lady, lady!”
I opened the door. “What’s up, Na?”
“I just wanted to know your name.”
“Thanks. You gave it to me.”
“And if I just call, you’ll come?”
“If might not be me, but if you call, I promise you, someone nice will come.”
“That’s good. Thank you. I’ll sleep well knowing that.”
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?