Archive for Thursday, June 15, 2000

A time to live in the moment

June 15, 2000

I went dancing last week with another woman right in front of my wife, Heidi. I danced with a woman named Naomi and made her giggle with delight.

And I loved it as much as she did. By the end of the dance, I had an entire room laughing until they cried. My wife just shook her head as she's becoming used to my antics.

This is a story about life and its inevitable dance partner: death.

Heidi's mom, Cindy, came to Eudora (she also thinks we need a bagel place) and the three of us drove to Springfield, Colo., to spend some time with Heidi's grandmother, Aileen.

She spends her days quietly, relaxing with friends and her "boyfriend," Harvey. Aileen and Harvey are in the Alzheimer's unit and though some may think it's a depressing place, time spent there was a lesson in life for me.

Sure, it was hard to get comfortable the first day there when there's a man next to you about to deposit his lung on you because he's coughing so hard.

And I'm sure for family, watching your loved ones' mental health deteriorate, while his or her body refuses to give, can be hard. But the folks in Springfield have terrific care and they spend their days happy and content.

After spending a few days there, I left wondering if their lives aren't better than those of us on the outside. We stress over our careers, money, the house, the kids, the future as a whole.

Harvey and Aileen were never stressed, even though every half hour Harvey would look around, shake his head and say, "Where are we? How'd we get here?" With a little reassurance, he'd keep chatting along with us.

He and his wife had no children, but Harvey thinks Aileen is his wife (Heidi's mom certainly surprised him when she told him she was Aileen's daughter. "Are you sure about that?" Harvey replied).

Don't get me wrong: Alzheimer's is no laughing matter. Four million Americans have it.

As the baby boomers age and medical developments extend lives, this number is certain to go up. Alzheimer's affects almost half of those over 85.

But this column isn't about the sad part of this disease. It's about the happy parts, like the moments of recognition in the Alzheimer's patient when she sees a familiar face and smiles.

We went for a drive and Aileen kept commenting on how pretty flowers were, what a pretty color a house was, etc. Springfield is prettybarren, and she was commenting on how beautiful it was. She found beauty in the color of the sky. I've certainly noticed it more in the week since we visited.

But the highlight was dancing with Naomi, another resident at the unit.

They had a morning sing along and Naomi loves music. She claps along and tries to sing, though the disease has progressed enough that she only communicates through her smile and unintelligible words.

The nurse told me Naomi loves to dance, so I grabbed her little hands and sang along as we got jiggy with it. Looking into her eyes showed me the life Alzheimer's patients have, regardless of their inability to remember or talk. In her world, she was happy, and that's all that really matters.

Now for the hilarious part: We're dancing along and I tried to spin her. We did the double hand swing and as I came around I saw the nurses, Heidi, other patients and even Harvey laughing out loud.

Naomi is so darn skinny as she put her arms up and spun around her pants dropped right down to her ankles. Think Naomi cared? Heck no, she wanted to keep dancing. I turned bright red and told her I wasn't that kind of guy, especially with my wife and mother-in-law right there.

There wasn't one person in that room who wasn't laughing until his or her stomach hurt. Including me. For one moment, nobody cared about remembering the past or how close death might be. We were all just happy to be in the moment. I'm sending this column to Naomi. So thanks, Naomi for the dance. I really enjoyed it.

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