January 1999Visions of Aunt Joan

Over the two months following my birthday party, Edweena began calling more frequently with “reports” of my mother’s forgetfulness. It was frustrating. Mom had missed an important appointment with her heart doctor, for example. She’d lost her keys. She’d mixed up the day of the week.

I found myself defending and denying that anything was wrong. “Mom’s seventy-six years old,” I’d argue, apparently willing to overlook Edweena’s own credentials in behavioral matters, gained during a long career as a social worker. “You live that long and you’ve earned the right to forget things. Besides, she’s been forgetful all her life. That’s just the way she’s wired.”

I reminded my sister that this was a woman who could pull off a fabulous three-course meal with a fridge full of leftovers but had never been able to balance her checkbook or remember the names of the neighbors.

At regular medical checkups, Edweena had taken it upon herself to talk to Mom’s doctor about these issues, but it wasn’t adding up to more than the ordinary memory losses expected in an aging person.

Today’s phone call, however, got my attention and left me thinking that maybe this was something more than Mom being her usual forgetful self. My sister is one of the strongest people I know, but the moment she came on the line, I detected the fatigue and worry in her voice. Something was different. Something was wrong.

She began by telling me that Mom had an “encounter” with our Aunt Joan, the sister who was not only Mom’s closest in age but also her favorite. The two had much in common, having both married Americans and immigrated to the U.S., but Joan had died in 1972 at the age of 46.

“Last night I overheard Mom talking to Auntie Joan,” Edweena announced. “They were arguing. Joan was furious with Mom for not visiting her and Mom got mad and told Joanie to shut up. Then Mom wandered right past me, outside, barefoot, wearing her pajamas. It was freezing cold.”

Edweena had followed our mother and found her in the middle of the street, looking up at the stars. “I asked her what she was doing in the street without shoes,” she continued. “Mom said that she just wanted to see the stars. Then she said it was nearly time for her to go visit Joan. I reminded her that Joan’s been dead for years, but she just waved me away. Then she said she was hungry. ‘Is it dinnertime yet? I’m starving.’ I led her back inside and sat there while she ate a banana and then walked her to her room so she’d go to bed.”

When Edweena finished her story, I didn’t know what to say. My first instinct was to dismiss it as a gross exaggeration; something my family is prone to do. But I’d heard Edweena’s strained, exhausted voice and I knew she wasn’t stretching the truth. It had to have been real, too real.

Mom and Edweena have lived together in the same house in Post Falls, Idaho, just twenty-five miles east of Spokane, for over twenty-six years. Their relationship was more like that of sisters than mother and daughter. They did just about everything together. Sometime after her divorce, Edweena committed herself completely to Mom. She gave up on any dreams of having a romantic relationship or her own separate life. After this latest event, though, I wondered if even my resourceful social worker sister could manage Mom’s care all by herself.

Mom wasn’t just displaying unusual memory lapses and odd behavior. She had other health issues too. She had suffered several Transitory Ischemic Attacks (TIAs), episodes of neurologic dysfunction that are often referred to as mini-strokes and are not unusual among the elderly. She had also experienced other medical episodes. Edweena was forced to miss work because of all the minor and serious crises and was constantly on alert.

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