May 16, 1996 my dearest Auntie B was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). It was not a happy day, I can tell you. We were all shocked to the core. Auntie B was the healthiest of us all it seemed. Yet she has a disease that is termed “the long good-bye.” We all have learned why very quickly.
Auntie B was the one who always took care of me when I was in need of anything; be it a hug, a playmate, a trip to the playground, a weekend get-away, or a dose of chastising. She taught me to paint with oils and watercolors, how to crosstitch, how to sew, how to clean, how to stand up for myself, and most importantly how to love God. She is a stained glass artist. Her paintings, drawings, and pieces of stained glass are scattered throughout my home. She used to take me to work with her, long before the “take your child to work” days. I loved to meet her co-workers and boss. I’d sit at her desk and pretend I was the employee!
She is a devout Roman Catholic and served on the Altar Guild at her parish for many years. She made the Altar clothes, laundered them, fixed the priests vestments, and cleaned the church weekly. She supported her parish, not only with her time, but financially as well, which earned her the privilege of her name engraved on the donor recognition wall in the back of the parish.
Nine years post diagnosis and physically she is going strong. To look at her you’d never guess she had AD. But when you chat with her it becomes obvious, at least to me. While she can carry on a general conversation, she loses the topic thread very quickly. She can no longer read books. She says she does word searches to try and keep her mind sharp. She cannot paint or draw anymore. Her handwriting is becoming blocky and halting. She repeats her stories innumerable times. She does not remember the home she lived in for 40 years. She cannot remember what her husband looked like in his older years. Today she thought it was March and does not know what year it is. And today she forgot her mother’s name, which just so happens to be Auntie’s middle name.
I try to visit her every few weeks and take her out to lunch to her favorite restaurant…McDonalds. (She loves their French fries and fish sandwiches!) It is easy for her to tell me what she wants rather than be confused by the hustle and bustle of a waitress who asks too many questions and a menu with too many words.
Today was my day to visit and my 24 year old son wanted to come along. So I picked him up and off we went! After picking up Auntie, we proceeded to McDonald’s which was the first stop for our fries, soda, and sandwich. Afterwards we took her to her old parish for a visit. She was thrilled! I showed her the engraving of her name on the parish wall and took a rubbing of it so she would remember it. She told my son all about what she did in the church and criticized whoever put the altar clothes on for the week because they were crooked! “I’d always make sure they were perfectly straight and even on both sides,” she quipped, shaking her head in disgust.
Then we went to the cemetery to visit her husband’s grave. Good thing I’d been there once before because she couldn’t remember the name of the place, nor where his marker was. This was a place she visited quite frequently when she lived in that area, and drove past on a daily basis. We found the marker with only a little bit of looking. With a flash of brilliance I had brought the digital camera with me that morning so I could take pictures of my son and AB together so she would have an updated picture of him. He took one of me and AB as well. I also took a picture of Uncle’s grave marker and a picture of the surrounding area to mark where it is for future reference. I shall print all of the pictures out for AB so she might have them as a remembrance.
She spends a good deal of time thinking about when she will be with her husband again. She misses him. While we stood there gazing at his grave, she said to me with a small smile, “Next time we come here, it will be to leave me with Uncle.” I hugged her very tightly, remembering when she did the same to me when I was small and defenseless.
And I replied, “And I shall come to visit you.” Then we walked off into the remainder of the day, arm and arm, with the sun on our faces and breeze in our hair…just remembering.