The title will hopefully make you curious. I want it that way.
An ordinary woman with an extraordinary life – no, not someone you would know – not famous, no movie star, not a political figure. This woman was a daughter, a sister, a wife, mother, aunt and godmother – friend to many, mentor to some, protector and as my cousin said, even part “Super Hero”.
Last week, my family lost one of its more colorful characters. My Aunt Flo – Florence Sullivan. Born in Long Island City, Queens, New York, a resident of Dumont, Ringwood and finally Brick, New Jersey – not a world traveler, Ivy League graduate but one of the smartest, fiesty and formidible woman I have had the honor to have in my life.
I could make a list of stories: my godmother, held me in her arms at my “blessing”; cared for me on many a weekend/week long trip; summer vacation in Ship Bottom, New Jersey; at every life event – communion, confirmation, graduations, business opening; deep conversations as I got older; trips to Pennsylvania to visit with my parents at their campground retreat; holidays and other days to meet up and spend time as our family often did. So many things and times that left indelible marks on me as I grew up.
My mother’s family has been through this battle before – before “Alzheimer’s” was the unfortunate diagnosis of the week, my grandmother suffered from memory lapses, then loss, wandering back to her old neighborhood, going missing and making for frantic searches which I remember as a 5 year old. She was “just getting old” and “this is what happens” were the things I remember hearing about my grandmother. She passed in 1973 – her other grandchildren, my cousins had been spared most of the gorey details of how she could no longer communicate, becoming bed ridden, every need to be tended to by my grandfather and mom – even an “opportuntity” for me at the age of 6 to give my grandmother dinner – baby food as she could no longer chew or swallow. Now you may think that that is not something a 6 year old should be doing – you can have your opinion. Because she could not speak, she would grab onto you when she became cognizant of who you were and held on with all her might. I am not saying it was a wonderful experience but, as they say, it built character. My grandmother was lovingly cared for by her husband until the night she passed, at home, peacefully.
My aunt, my mother’s sister, my grandmother’s daughter was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years ago. I watched again as a woman who was tenacious, fiesty, vocal, and at times, demanding and strict, slipped away from our world, with only brief, fleeting moments of recognition. This time, it wasn’t just “this is what happens when someone gets old” – it was clinical, medical and diagnosed – ALZHEIMER’S. Even the word sounds like a throw back to some Gestapo torture briefly hinted on in a World War II documentary. Same things… same robbed life.
Retirement should have given rise to years of rest, travel, grandchildren and walks on the beach. But this was not to be for my aunt. Her daughter, Colleen, spoke at the funeral Mass yesterday and paid homage to everything her mother had done for her. Aunt Flo had done so much for her son, Patrick and her daughter, Debbie after their father’s untimely death in the early 60’s. She began a new life with my Uncle Mort and as he told me yesterday, “saved him”. He loved her more than any of us ever realized; as Colleen said, he cared for her through every step of this horrible disease – at home, by her side, where she passed.
Over the last two days, I have heard all the same words used to describe my grandmother and now, my aunt. Their caregivers, their husbands, did more than they ever thought they could.
I don’t know who has it worse – the person who losses the ability to know people, things, events and more or the people who have to watch the long fading and try desparately to hold on to every piece of normalcy. I had to apologize to my cousins as I did not form a tough skin from my experiences as a child – I should have been able to tolerate the progression and lend more of a helpful hand in the process, but I could not bear to see such a strong figure in my life fade away. I am sorry for that. Colleen asked me when it gets better – my dad had passed away in 2007, so maybe she thought I had some wonderful words of wisdom on this matter. I wish that I did. All I could definitely say to her was that it “gets different” – once you start with your normal routine, get back into the flow of your regular life, you’ll remember but it will be different. Enjoy people, places, things when they present themselves to you – be open and spontaneous – treasure the family that you’re born into, the friends you let into your life and every experience that comes your way. Whatever it is, make the best of it.
I keep with me my memories – good, old and recent – a blanket, crocheted by my aunt years ago even though she could barely hold the needles as arthritis and Carpal Tunnel made it a true “labor of love”. My last visit with her, when she saw me and immediately put her hand to her opened mouth and said, “I can’t believe your here!” with the biggest smile ever. She extended her hand, grabbed mine and held on ever so tightly – I felt the same way I used to when my grandmother would do that but I came to the realization that the tight hold was the hug they could no longer give – holding on to what my grandmother, now my aunt, remembered that they loved.
My aunt gave me the best gift she could that day as she allowed me to do something I had not done in over 40 years – I sat right next to my aunt, held her hand and told her that I loved her. She looked away sheepishly, turned back, then smiled with a tear in her eye. She remembered.