alz·hei·mer’s disease [noun, pathology] a common form of dementia of unknown cause, usually beginning in late middle age, characterized by memory lapses, confusion, emotional instability, and progressive loss of mental ability.
It’s a slipping away. Someone with a name and a history and a family, feelings and emotions—a soul that was always full of warmth and love seemingly grows cold. Slipping from those who are near and dear.
The letters slowed down after over 15 years of writing—the replies less personal, making less sense. And it was the same with the visits and the conversations.
She seemed less enthusiastic, less excited.
I didn’t understand why. Where had all her energy and zeal for life gone? What had happened to my nosey aunt who wanted all the details about my daily life? The one who kept track of all my friends and prodded about love interests? The one who would send a note and a $20 to remind me she prayed for me daily and loved me dearly.
I was away at college and then off to the city, and it was in those last few years when I wasn’t around for as many family events that things seemed to change.
And when I did see her she couldn’t remember my fiancé’s name or where I lived or worked. She didn’t ask questions or share words of advice. She never asked to see my ring or hear the engagement story.
I wasn’t much of a wedding girl. Not the one who thought and planned and dreamed for years before. But she used to always talk to me about her wedding, and show me my Nana’s jewelry and say she would let me wear it on the day I got married.
But she didn’t come to my wedding. She wasn’t in the room when I put my gown on. And I missed her. I remember thinking, as my mom handed me my Nana’s opal ring to slip on my right hand, why isn’t Auntie Ann kissing my cheek and whispering her favorite God bless you in my ear? She had cheered me on for so much of my life. And she was still alive. And yet she was gone.
After we were married my husband and I went to visit Auntie Ann and Uncle Bob, toting pictures from our wedding and honeymoon. We shared the day and the memories with them as best we could. But this was the first time I realized it.
With our wedding portrait in her hand, a tear rolled down her cheek and she smiled at me.
She does care, desperately. But the words have failed her. The part of her brain that communicates those emotions just isn’t working like it used to, like it ought to. Her searching eyes tell me that she literally cannot find the words to speak what she is thinking.
She got out a box of old photos—familiar faces. My father and his siblings on the farm, my great uncle at sea in the navy, my grandparents on their wedding day. She points and holds a high school photo of my dad up side-by-side of his dad. Then she points at me.
“See, the same!” she says.
I saw her again last week. Still standing up straight, still smiling, eyes still lighting up. Still looking so youthful.
I remember when I turned 13, she asked if I felt any different.
“Not really,” I said.
“You know what? You never really do. I’m 56 and I still feel like I did when I was 25 inside. And I have a lot of days when I feel exactly like I did when I was 15. You mature. But you always feel like you.” She told me.
It seemed impossible to me, a bit frustrating, and reassuring—which is how she meant it. Over the years I’ve found myself thinking about that numerous times. Days when I felt 14 and vulnerable, days when I felt 8 and invincible, days when I felt 23 and free.
She recognized me when she saw me drive up. Came running to the car with a hug. Like she always had.
And as I stood looking at her, I thought, how do you feel inside? Do you still feel the same? Or is it somehow different?
But later when we were walking, my mom said something referencing me.
Auntie Ann turned to me and asked, genuinely, “Who’s Hilary?”
“I’m Hilary,” I said with a weak smile.
Today I took a long walk on the beach in the rain. It occurred to me that I’ve been in denial the past few years. Despite what my mom and Auntie Arlene had shared, despite the differences I had noticed. Up until that Who’s Hilary? Since then the grief has flooded me. It’s so especially hard to miss someone who’s still here, and to wonder if they miss you too.