Same Dance, Different Song

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, June 29, 2008

Look at me! I'm doing great. Aren't I doing great?

Yeah, you really are, Mom. Look at you. You're doing great.

I am!

My mother has had this conversation with a lot of people today, and with some of us more than once. It's her 85th birthday, so we're indulging her more than usual, probably. She's suffered through much in the past decade: breast cancer, followed by a weird disease that left her paralyzed for a year, followed by neuropathy, years of rehab. She credits her longevity to her regular visits to the body shop, all those hospitals that rebuilt her.

No one is talking about any of that. We probably should be making more of this birthday. More than a casual chicken dinner at my brother's. More than strawberry shortcake and a three-berry pie. More than 20 or so family members sitting around a long table shooting the breeze. Could we have done more? She and my father certainly seem thrilled.

The party is winding down. My 9-year-old daughter, Anna, is playing her oom-pah-pah song on the piano, looking over her shoulder as my nephew's 2-year-old daughter, Emily, dances to the music, all blue eyes and smiles. The rest of us clap. The same song, the same dance, over and over. Only in families does a show like this not lose its appeal.

I'm missing something, aren't I? my mother calls. Somehow, she ended up sitting alone in a soft chair in the adjoining family room, and she can't see the action.

Yeah, come on in here! my brother calls back. Your granddaughter and your great-granddaughter are putting on a show.

Oh, I can't get out of this chair, she says. I'm not doing great.

The remark sends off no alarms. This is how it seems to go every day now. My mother is a bundle of great for a few hours; then she deflates like a balloon. No endurance. It's okay, she says. I might just shut my eyes a moment.

No way. I stomp in and hold out my arms to hoist her up. She cocks her head. I'm not doing great, she says. I tell her she can be not-great in the other room as well as she can be not-great here. She sighs, surrenders. I position her walker. I grab her forearms and she links her hands around mine. On the count of three, I say. This damn chair, she says. I don't know why they have to make chairs so low.

One, two, three. We lose momentum and she lands back in the chair. Sorry, I say. Try again. One, two, three ... oh, dear. I am not good at this. My mother is not a heavy woman. She is small and bird-like, and I'm afraid of breaking her. We try again, and she falls back in the chair and we burst into laughter.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company