Figment or Fiction

old woman turns child on photo.jpg

I recently met with one of my great aunts whom I hadn’t seen in many years. Last time I saw her she was independent, living alone, summering on her own, and enjoying her life in general. During this visit, she was someone else. She’s recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and she’s become thinner and more frail. I think this was my first encounter with someone with Alzheimer’s. I stayed with my aunt as her daughter and my mom left to run a quick errand. As they were getting ready to leave, my aunt got anxious and asked her daughter in an almost frightened voice where they were going. Her daughter threw her purse back down on the couch, clearly having seen this type of separation anxiety from her mother before, and tried to tell her that she wasn’t going far and would be right back. The behavior reminded me of a new mom dropping off her child to preschool for the first time, the child upset at being left behind. Only in this situation, the mother was the one upset that her daughter was leaving and the daughter was at her wits’ end by her mother’s clinginess.

They were gone for maybe half an hour, maybe a bit more. During that time, my aunt would reply if we spoke to her, and she kept a smile on her face. She didn’t engage in conversation the way she did before the decline of her health, but she wasn’t completely reserved either. She did, however, ask us three or four times where her daughter had gone. And when they got back, her face lit up, relieved that her caretaker had finally returned. Their roles have now been reversed; mother has become dependent on daughter. And while I understand that this happens, that often our parents require our assistance in their old age, it still makes me sad. Yes, it’s part of life, but it still breaks my heart.

I used to think it would be awkward to care for another adult. That I would be embarrassed to, say, bathe someone or help someone in the bathroom. But recently I was blessed to be given the chance to help my aging mother-in-law. Yes, I used the word blessed, because during that time, she needed someone to be there for her, and God chose me to be there. It wasn’t an embarrassing experience at all; it was truly humbling. I am humbled every time I pass by an older person who walks with a cane or walker. I am humbled every time I help an older person retrieve an item that they dropped. I was humbled to help my mother-in-law. And I was humbled to spend those few hours with my aunt. I am humbled by these experiences because I know that once upon a time, these people were as physically and mentally agile as I am now. And one day, I will probably be in their place. I praise God for the blessing of my mind, for the blessing of my body and independence, and for the blessing that both my parents are healthy and independent. Praise God. I pray He continues to shower us with his blessings for all the days of our lives.

Just a few weeks before this visit with my great aunt, I saw an uncle of mine who is also suffering from memory loss, but this seems to be onset by his medications. My cousins told me he sometimes talks about people they don’t know. It made me remember when my best friend’s great aunt, in her final days, kept mentioning a young boy—Nicholas—although there is no Nicholas in their family at all. I wonder where these names come from. Is it possible they are childhood friends, names of people they loved decades ago? Or are they simply figments of their imagination? Is it possible they were not figments but another part of their imagination…

When I write fiction, I live with these characters that I’ve created. They become a part of me—I cheer for their victories and cry at their defeats. They become so close to me that I wonder if one day—when I’m older and my mind starts to lose its edge—I’ll expect them to walk through the door. Or I’ll tell my grandchildren about them, never really aware that they only ever existed in my imagination. Is it possible that I’ll become so connected to them that in my old age I will mistake them for friends and family? I wonder…



One thought on “Figment or Fiction

  1. Heather LHeureux says:

    Thank you for sharing this story about your aunt with Alzheimer’s. I was blessed to have to help my grandmother on occasion. It was heartbreaking to see her so helpless, knowing that she was once such a proud, strong woman, and would have been so embarrassed if she had known what was going on with her. My favorite memories of that time are the stories she used to tell is about the ladies dancing in her upstairs rooms (figments of imagination), and of the time my mom and I had to invite my grandmother’s “friend in the mirror” to Friendly’s with us.

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