Today is my aunt Eleanor’s 91st birthday. I visited her in the nursing home. She has Alzheimer’s disease that has progressed to the point where, for the most part, she does not speak coherently, though she does seem to understand much of what is said to her. Her eyes do light up a bit when she sees me, and she smiles sometimes when I talk to her. I believe that her memories of me are floating somewhere in her mind, or I let myself believe that to cope with my profound sadness. A perfect moment was when I handed her the Mickey Mouse birthday card and asked if she remembered him- she smiled. Disney magic! Pixie dust!
We were so close and she has influenced much of who I am. I look like her and have many of her mannerisms. Ellie was the person who took me to the theater and ballet and inspired my love of the arts and of travel. Ellie took me to book signings when I was young, and I was always thrilled to meet famous and wildly talented people. Now, attending book signings is one of my favorite activities. For a long time, after her Alzheimer’s advanced and she could no longer accompany me, I got books signed for her. We looked at the books together, which she enjoyed despite the changes in her memory, and I enjoyed because it let me step back in time and relate to her in a way that transcended the Alzheimer’s. I remember how excited I was to bring her a children’s book written by Wendy Wasserstein. It was about a girl whose aunt takes her to her first musical. When I handed Wendy the book to sign, I told her that my aunt Ellie was like her book’s Aunt Pamela. She smiled and inscribed the book, “To Eleanor, who IS Aunt Pamela.” I am tremendously proud of my collection of signed books and CDs, and proud to honor the relationship that I have maintained with my aunt.
I tried to maintain our favorite activities and took her to the theater even as her Alzheimer’s progressed. I once took her to a Yiddish theater production where they gave out pickles at intermission. It seems that she immediately forgot the play, but she told people she had pickles and it was really fun. I think she pictured herself back in Brooklyn. I felt like that was still a good memory for her, and I was glad that in the moment, she enjoyed sitting through the show. After spending another day at the theater with her, I took her home, and when I got home there was a panicked phone message from her asking if we were supposed to see each other that day. She had completely forgotten the day. I could only reason with myself that at least while we were at the theater she enjoyed watching the play. I stopped taking her when she seemed to not have as much fun because she was easily confused and disoriented. It would have been selfish to keep trying to keep things the same when things had changed and I had to accept it.
Ellie was the remaining relative to whom I was closest and with whom I spent a lot of time. Although she is still physically here, our relationship is not the same. It hurts to see her and her largely diminished quality of life, though I try to be comforted by the moments that I make her laugh. It feels somehow disrespectful, but I see that in many ways I am grieving her loss.
She was a Spanish teacher and although my career has been varied, I have been walking in her footsteps for the past fifteen years. Today, I can’t help but think of the beautiful song Remember Me from Disney’s Coco. She would have loved it. I’ve put the song clip and lyrics here. The film dealt so beautifully with aging and loss, conveying that our loved ones are always in our hearts. With that in mind, I will spend this evening trying not to dwell on the Ellie I saw today and instead think of all of the wonderful memories that we shared. I hope that somewhere in her mind during her visit, she had a happy birthday and that she felt loved.
The lyrics from the song “Remember Me” were very emotional.
Lyrics from Coco
Written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
Performed by Miguel, featuring Natalia Lafourcade
Though I have to say goodbye
Don’t let it make you cry
For even if I’m far away I hold you in my heart
I sing a secret song to you each night we are apart
Though I have to travel far
Each time you hear a sad guitar
Know that I’m with you the only way that I can be
Until you’re in my arms again