The Lobster Quadrille

the lobster quadrille
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.”

“Dana.”

“Pretty 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?

Aliceheimer’s

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13 Responses to The Lobster Quadrille

  1. I’m speechless. In a good way.

  2. Sally says:

    Beautiful, Dana. Love the Lewis Carroll reference. You’re a step ahead of us on the road. And you and your mother are quite graceful in the way you’re handling the dance.

    • danawalrath says:

      I’ll be thinking of you and your mother, Sally. The days you are living together now will make the next steps of the dance feel right. Thanks for your kind words.

  3. Lindsey Lane says:

    Oh my…she’s moved out?
    That’s huge.
    Are you okay?

    • danawalrath says:

      Thanks, Lindsey. Very much at peace. It all has felt like a natural part of the journey with lots of room to process along the way. The practicing really does help.

  4. Louise Hawes says:

    I hope you and Peter didn’t beat yourselves up over this “letting go” of yours. When my father became violent, when he sat for five hours on the commode, my sisters and I came to the same impasse. His violence and his refusal to part with what he’d made both came from living in a different world with different rules, and only occasionally visiting ours. We understood, but we couldn’t stay in his, not all the time. ..

    • danawalrath says:

      That must have been so hard to have your father get violent, Louise. That makes things so much harder. Peter and I have been very lucky because my mother has sweetened with this and all the good years we had together helped balance our guilt. With the transition, she completely accepted, even liked, the idea that she was going to a school for people with Alzheimer’s. The regularity and the predictablity of that new world has been some comfort for her.

  5. This is a big change for all of you, but I’m so glad she wanted to practice. To practice change of any sort, let alone the ultimate change, shows great courage and in Alice’s case the great sweetness and whimsy that I’ve come to know fills her heart at this time of her life.
    I’ve heard really good things about some of these places that provide Memory Care–about the people who provide it, the ideas and ideals they have, and their patience. So off she goes, ready for the next small or giant step. You’ve given so much love.

    • danawalrath says:

      Thank you, Andrea. I think the smaller and more predictable world can really make a difference. Also though recongition was not necessarily my threshold, as that faded we no longer had the special power to ground her. She just needed kind people who get it and appreciate the sweetness and whimsy that is part of this phase of her life. As for practice, could this be why we write?

  6. Dana, thinking of you. xx

  7. Sally says:

    Reblogged this on One Month at a Time and commented:
    When I first started blogging about Alzheimer’s, I discovered Dana Walrath’s blog. Her stories and her art spoke to me like few others. Enjoy this, one of her last posts.

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