March 4, 2009

Dropping the Mask







I woke up early today, thinking about my Aunt Jean, my mother's sister, who died yesterday after a long illness (Alzheimer's Disease). I remember my last interaction with her at her rest home.

She looked like an adolescent, with acne and her dark hair--relatively free of gray even at her age--now cut in a bob. She didn't have her glasses on and as we sat around the table I wondered if to her, we all looked like blurry moving masses of color. Uncle Steve, her husband, met my mother, my father and I there; we had come because it was my aunt's birthday.

She sat silent, gazing at us like we were the ones in the zoo, her mask-like face showing neither awe, nor curiosity. Uncle Steve stroked her hand. She turned and looked at my father, mother, then me, then at the lady serving the lunch gruel, a white pasty dish.

After chatting at her and around her and congratulating her on her birthday, it was time to go. I stood and leaned over very close to her face and said "Happy Birthday, Aunt Jean." The blank mask she'd worn the entire visit dropped away for a second; her eyes lit up and I sensed the person there. A wide, beauty-queen smile--a twin to my mother's radiant grin--broke over her face. I patted her shoulder, moved back to give my mother her chance. As my mother stood up from her hug, Aunt Jean's mask slid back into place.

We left her behind the locked doors, escaping into the brisk sunny day.

8 comments:

  1. This is powerful. Although my aunt didn't have Alzheimer's, she did have dementia and major lapses in lucidity. My last visit with her was the first time when I really didn't think she grasped who I was during the whole time I spent with her. Each other time, she might have confused me with someone else for a moment here or there, but she always came back to knowing exactly who I was.

    It's hard to see these changes in our loved ones, to see how time can strip them of the selves we have grown up loving.

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  2. Amazing moment. Thank you for sharing. It's also a bit heart-wrenching.

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  3. This is an important memory to savour, I think. My friend, who died when she was 93, was starting to lose some lucidity before she died and everytime I stopped in for a visit she seemed to not really remember me at first. I was worried.

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  4. It can be so painful to watch that happen to a loved one. I had a similar incident with an aunt of mine who could only see my father as a little boy and had no idea who my mother and I were.

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  5. Beautifully written. Loved the title and how its significance becomes apparent once you've read the entire passage. Thanks for sharing something so personal, but beautiful.

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  6. Wow, what an outstanding piece of writing. I kept thinking of my sisters. You nailed this.
    ~T-Dawg

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  7. I forgot to add...Thank you.

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  8. Alzheimer's is such a cruel illness. It seems to erase the person gradually but leave their shell. So painful for their family and friends. Well done for writing such an honest account.

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