by Beth Whitman
It started innocently enough. The book was sitting on the bookshelf. One of many that Mom would pull out, look through, and sometimes read aloud from. She had been a librarian in her younger years, and she loved having books around her, even if she wasn’t reading much. As her world started shrinking, she began to focus on a few specific books. For a while a book called Children’s Letters to God was her favorite. The mini vignettes that were the kids’ letters tickled Mom no end. At some point during the day, if the book was within her visual path, she would start thumbing through it, and eventually start reading aloud to anyone in the room:
“Dear God, I read the bible. What does begat mean? Nobody will tell me. Love, Alison.”
And then another one:
“Dear God, On Halloween I am going to wear a Devil’s costume. Is that all right with you? Marnie.”
On and on it would go. It was a short book, so she would get to the end quite quickly, making some comment about what a sweet book it was. But a couple minutes later, no longer aware that she had already read it aloud to those of us sitting in the room, she would be thumbing through the book again.
“Listen to this,” she would chuckle, and off again she would go.
It truly is a delightful little book, so the repetition was only mildly irritating — unless you were trying to get some sleep. Unfortunately, this was sometimes the case with my father, who, as Mom’s Alzheimer’s progressed, was often rendered sleepless by her constant verbal repetitions and ramblings way into the night.
At some point, though, Mom started to become less verbal, and her focus shifted to another book. A book with beautiful illustrations but fewer words.
A book titled The Dance.
I would often find her gazing at the cover of the book, a painting of a young girl dancing in a garden. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she would say, and then motion me to sit with her. “Look,” and she would open the book. I would read a few of the lines to her.
“A father once had a daughter . . . ,” I began, but Mom’s attention was on the pictures.
“Cute,” she would say, running her hand over the picture of the little girl all dressed up with a big hat on, and she would turn the page.
“She would jump and spin in the thick wild grass . . . ,” I would read while Mom’s hand slowly moved over the picture of the girl dancing in the garden, “where the tall meadow flowers grew.” And she would turn the page.
“Ha, ha,” she would chuckle as I pointed to the picture of the girl all dressed up as an ear of corn. And she would turn the page.
This time, to a painting of a graceful young ballerina in a pink tutu. Mom relaxed while she gazed at the picture and I read: “When the girl was a little older, she took dancing lessons. She wore a pink tutu and soft leather ballet slippers. At her first dance she tried very hard to remember her steps. She did not see her father standing close to the stage. But he was smiling.”
And slowly, Mom would turn to the next page, to a painting of an older ballerina in toe shoes.
“She danced a solo in the The Nutcracker,” I read. “The girl could not see her father in the audience. But he clapped louder than anyone else.”
Mom turned the pages, one after another — past a picture of a young woman embracing a young man, stopping for a moment at a closeup of a bride and groom. I would start to read, but she continued to leaf through the book. I read snippets off the pages as she turned them:
“The father smiled . . . ”
“You must never stop dancing . . . ”
“Then the father went to sleep . . . ”
“And . . . she danced.”
The last page was a magical closeup of the beautiful painting on the front cover of the book, the girl dancing in the garden. And Mom pressed her hand on the page.
“So beautiful!” she would exclaim. And I would read the last line of the book: “And though she could not see him, her father was watching.”
It’s a poignant story about dying, about the cycle of life. I’m not sure whether Mom was fully aware of that. She focused on the dancing and the joyful pictures. But even though she became less and less verbal, she always had the book near her, and often when I walked into the room she’d reach for it, and laboriously read the writing on the cover.
“Richard . . . Paul . . . E . . . ”
“Evans.” I would help her read the author’s name.
“Yes,” I would affirm. “The Dance.”
And I would sit down and “read” the book with her, sometimes with tears streaming down my face.
This was the one book she took with her to the Alzheimer’s Unit, and at some point she began to carefully tear the pages out of the book. I bought three more copies, so I could continue to replace the book after Mom had torn all the pages out.
Even now, when I go in to visit, I will go find the book and Mom’s face will light up with a smile as she slowly reaches out to caress the front cover.
Sometimes she can even still make out the words.
“The . . . Dance.”
Beth Whitman lives in Maine and is a member of Belfast Cohousing and Ecovillage, a developing community on the coast of Maine focused on multigenerational living and sustainability.