My Aunt Ann passed away early Sunday morning after a long and courageous battle with Alzheimer's. After hearing about just a fraction of what my cousins went through (as well as my sisters-in-law who nursed my mother-in-law through it) I certainly hope a special VIP room is reserved in heaven for Alzheimer's caregivers. They surely deserve some sort of everlasting reward.
I think it was Nancy Reagan who first referred to the disease as The Long Goodbye. That is an apt description, for when the valiant heart of an Alzheimer's patient finally gives out, the person has usually been lost to their family and friends for many years.
Since I received the phone call from my cousin yesterday morning, I've been thinking a lot about who Aunt Ann was before a terrible disease stripped her of all the things that made her her. I've discovered many long-forgotten memories. Here are just a few of them.
I remember childhood visits to Aunt Ann's summer cottage on the shore of the Sakhonnet River. I remember the long climb down winding wooden stairs to get to her rocky beach. I remember Ann overseeing the action on the beach wearing her ever-present navy blue Dr. Scholl's sandals, a baseball hat on her cap of steel-gray hair, and her hands jammed into denim shorts. "Don't even think about it," she would say sternly when one of the cousins got a big idea to pick up one of Aunt Ann's rocks and aim it at a sibling or cousin.
I remember her working the long clothesline in the cottage's side yard. Towels, wet bathing suits, sandy t-shirts clothes-pinned to the line until we were ready for another trip down to the beach. She called her spot by the river "God's Country," and it only took one dazzling sunset over the river and the bay beyond for a visitor to understand how the place got its name.
I remember decades of birthday cards, first to me and then later to my children, signed with love from Aunt Ann and Uncle Jack. During my college years, regular cards and letters would arrive from Aunt Ann, sometimes with just a pithy note about the goings on in God's Country (which later became their year-round home), other times with some "mad money" so I could buy a treat from her. She loved to say she "gave at the office," though I don't remember her ever working in one!
I remember the almost aristocratic, Kennedy-esque timber to her voice and how she would explode with laughter at the slightest provocation. Each of her four daughters inherited that ringing laugh, and I know their laughter will always remind me of hers.
I remember family gatherings, cookouts, birthday parties, Ann and Jack's 50th anniversary celebration—events at which the 5 original siblings, their 21 children, their 35 children and recently, the first of the family's fourth generation, would come together as a loud, messy, outrageous group. It's a great joy to most of us cousins that our 35 children would know each other in a crowd despite the distance of years and geography. For two weeks every summer, many of the cousins come home to visit, and the circle of beach chairs grows wider with each passing year.
I'll remember that my Aunt Ann and her sister Kay became first-time grandmothers on the same day. In an ironic twist, Ann's eldest grandchild and his wife both lost their grandmothers yesterday. In the great cosmic calendar in the sky, what are the odds of two such events happening on the exact same day?
My mother was Ann's baby sister, younger by 12 years. My mom was 10 years old when Ann married Jack. She was 11 when Ann made her an aunt. Five years ago when my mother died, Ann's daughters came running to me with food and friendship and old stories and lots of laughter. Last night I tried to return the favor and came home aching from hours of laughter over the same old stories. Some things never go out of style.
Our mothers are gone now but they left us with something so precious and enduring. They left us with each other.
Aunt Ann has gone home to God's Country. May she rest in peace.