At times it’s easier to reflect on the past more than the present because the past contains more pleasure, less sadness (in some ways).
Recently I visited my 92-year-old aunt*, whose mental state – which used to be sharp for any age – has dramatically deteriorated. During the two-and-a-half hour drive home, I reflected back on a lifetime of memories – times when our lives intertwined a lot, long gaps when they didn’t.
During my teens, she was the one who used to ask for my opinion. Imagine that. I suspect it was a strategy – you know, ‘engage the youth’. But it sure ‘made a difference’ in my life.
She was the auntie who used to organize games when we got together. Board games, blindfold roar-with-laughter games – part of what made it memorable when we celebrated at her house.
She was the auntie who wrote poetry; belonged to a writers’ group for twenty years and never mentioned it. Just as she never mentioned her many talents and skills, like quilting or sketching. Humility and Modesty were dominant values for her – ‘biblical’ values, you might say. She read the bible a lot, and would often quote from it – dire warnings (spoken quietly and politely but with a frown) about materialism (‘mammon’) or alcohol. Just as I remember her mother – my grandmother – doing.
In recent years when I wanted to do video interviews of her, at first she protested -the immodesty of it all, then the embarrassment of looking old. After reflection, she realized the value of it and relented, at first shyly, and then with enthusiasm. Consequently there are hours of Isabel on video for posterity, including her reading from her own poetry, with her usual sparkle.
In an era when children – (especially female children) – were expected to be much less visible than in this new millenium, she made us feel special. And to a misfit like me, it was sometimes even a bit of a thrill.
Isabel sparkled in any social situation. On this last visit, she still sparkled. Her personality – even her pretty smile – is still there. But she seems to have suffered a stroke, perhaps – or was it the pile of pills she consumed with apparent abandon? Or was it a lack of **B12? And will we ever know? For what kind of investigation will take place with a now “absent-minded” 92-year-old woman?
In her 80s, when she’d had five hip-replacements over the decades, a doctor decided against another one on the basis that she’d been “too many times to the trough”. I was enraged when she told me that, for I knew it meant the end of life as she’d known it. No more drives in the country, no more trips to art galleries or museums, and no more living by herself in an apartment, independently. No, she would henceforth have to live in a “residence” use a wheelchair or a walker, and try to enjoy a restricted, structured, unfamiliar community. “Full care”. Right.
She adjusted. Some years later her last bionic hip became problematic, and it was medically necessary to give her a new one. Ironic. But too late of course. Now, it was just a change of hardware, not a lifestyle enhancer. To add insult to injury, not only was she stuck in that ‘home’, she also had to recover from major surgery.
When I walked into her room on that last visit, something in her face told me instantly there had been a major change. By the third time she asked about my extended family, it was obvious she had no short-term memory. When I brought up a happy childhood memory, she recalled it immediately and talked about it, laughing – but moments later, she repeated the same details, unable to remember having already talked about it.
This was hard to see in my sweet little aunt, and it reminded me of the last time I had seen her mother decades earlier. When I left, I had known I was saying good-by probably for the last time. And I knew it this time. As I left, I held the palm of my hand on her soft cheek, as if to imprint her permanently. But I guess I didn’t really need to do that…