Club Maplewood, they called it. A dance at the nursing home, complete with disco lights, a Tom Jones-type performer, ginger-ale champagne, and a wide-open dance floor. A dance floor lined with 70 walkers and wheelchairs.
As part of the entertainment, there are expert ballroom dancers performing choreographed routines. They twirl each other around the dance floor as the wheelchair-bound residents sit, solemn-faced, on the sidelines and watch. My discomfort is palpable. How cruel to subject the residents to this spectacle! Do the fancy dancers realize that although they might be superior in their abilities now, the same fate might befall them someday? I am convinced that this so-called “dance” is a bad idea. A really bad idea. I want to leave and take my dad with me.
Then the magic begins to unfold, like a scene from the movie Cocoon. People start to tap their feet and clap their hands. The performer sings to the elderly women, and they swoon. And slowly, other dancers join the pros on the dance floor. The aides work the room, holding up those with walkers who move slowly but in time to the rhythm. Wheelchairs begin to appear, and residents are twirled by partners with two good legs.
I realize at this moment that there is a dancer in every one of us, no matter our age, and even when the flesh gets weak, the spirit remains willing.
The scene is not lost on my father. He comments on how good the dancers are, looking at me intently. “Do you want to dance?” I ask him hesitantly. “No,” he says, giving me a moment of relief before adding, “Unless you want to?”
With much reservation, I wheel my dad onto the now-crowded dance floor. We start to dance, this little man “standing” three feet high in his wheelchair and me in my high heels and business suit. We dance the jitterbug, holding both hands and moving back and forth. Despite his diminished stature, he insists on leading and on twirling me, for which I have to stoop considerably. He grins.
Cameras flash. The scene is nothing less than extraordinary. We dance for the rest of the evening until the last song: Last Dance. And there, at the nursing home disco, I dance what is likely to be my last dance with my father. His eyes sparkle; mine fill with tears.
While I am tired, my father could have kept going, way past his bedtime. We are among the last to leave the event. And as I wheel him down the hall, two of the professional dancers approach him.
“You were good,” he tells them.
“No, you were good!” they respond almost simultaneously. They introduce themselves to him and ask for his name. They tell him they loved watching him dance, that he has great rhythm and so much enthusiasm. They tell him it was a privilege to be on the same dance floor with him.
He could have burst with pride, thanks to their kindness and sensitivity. And I am delighted to have my skepticism proven unwarranted for the second time that evening.
I take him to his little room, and we say goodnight. “Thank you for dancing with me, Dad,” I say, as I turn to go.
“Did you have fun?” he asks.
“Yes,” I respond emphatically. For it was truly the best dance I have ever attended.
Excerpt from They Live On: Saying Goodbye to Mom and Dad by Patricia A. Nugent