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Same Dance, Different Song
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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.

This is ridiculous! my mom says.

It's not us; it's the chair, I say.

My sister Claire comes charging in. Oh, forgodsakes, she says. Get up! Claire worked for years as a physical therapist and is unafraid of brute force. She goes for the grab with one strong arm, while my mother says she's not doing great, and within seconds Claire has her upright. My mom and I share a knowing glance: Claire is a monster.

We steer our mom into the living room, sit her on the piano bench next to Anna, facing out. Dance? Dance? Emily says, her signal to Anna to replay oom-pah-pah, and several of us shout, One more time! And so it goes, again and again, with my mother's wide and exhausted smile now part of the show. Behind her is a picture on the piano, a photo of her own mother and father, taken perhaps in the 1930s.

You can't help but marvel at the passage of time, all these generations. I watch Emily's twirls and picture Anna doing that just a few short years ago, my nieces and nephews doing it a few decades before that, my own vague memories of being the dancer before a cheering gathering of grown-ups. I suppose my mother was once the dancer, a little tomboy girl doing a jig on the hot summer streets of Philly. I suppose, and hope, that her parents sat and watched and shouted, One more time! Every child should get a chance to be the dancer, a thing of marvel and joy, the center of the universe.

My mother is tapping her good foot to the beat, her fingers bouncing on the handles of her walker. Claire motions to see if I notice. I smile and motion to others. It's not much of a dance, but it is right, exactly right. Every old woman should get a chance to be the dancer, I think. Every old woman deserves exactly this.

Okay, I'm not sure I can listen to this song again, my mother finally says. Anna, you got any others?

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is post@jmlaskas.com.

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