Where Do The Memories Go? For Aunt Ellie On Her Birthday

Aunt Eleanor with our Standard Schnauzer, Dulcie. Ellie was never a huge dog lover until she met Dulcie.

Today is my aunt Eleanor’s 92nd birthday.  Unfortunately, due to COVID19, I was unable to visit her in the nursing home. She wouldn’t know, but I do. Ellie has Alzheimer’s disease that has progressed to the point where she does not really speak at all, though she does seem to understand some of what is said to her. It’s hard to imagine her so isolated at this time. It’s been hard to visit her for the last several months, too. Her eyes stopped lighting up when she saw me, though she smiled sometimes when I talked 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. Last year, I had the perfect moment when I handed her a Mickey Mouse birthday card and asked if she remembered him- she smiled. Disney magic! Pixie dust!

Although I have never been her caregiver, I like to take this time to honor her here. Perhaps if you are a caregiver or are close to someone with dementia, you can relate to my experience. We were so close and she has influenced much of who I am. 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.

Ellie and I at one of my birthday parties.

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 wonder if her mind drifted back to her childhood 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 is the remaining relative to whom I was closest and with whom I spent a lot of time. It feels somehow disrespectful, but I realize that in many ways I am grieving her loss. Although she is still physically here, our relationship is not the same. It hurts to see her and her largely diminished quality of life. During the last few visits before COVID19, I left in tears. People sometimes ask me why I visit her if she doesn’t know I’m there and it upsets me, but she’s still here, and maybe somewhere in her mind, whether or not she can express it, she is happy to see me. I like to think so. I know that I need to see her. She is always in my thoughts and I often think about her all alone at the nursing home during these crazy times. I’ve heard through my uncle, her brother, that the facility says she is well- at least physically.

Ellie was a Spanish teacher and although my career has been varied, I have been walking in her footsteps for the past sixteen years. Sometimes, when I am in class, I see so much of her in my mannerisms and the rapport I have with my students. 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, memory loss and death, conveying that our loved ones are always in our hearts. With that in mind, I will spend this evening trying to think of all of the wonderful memories that we shared. Happy Birthday, Ellie.

The lyrics from the song “Remember Me” were very emotional.

Remember Me
Lyrics from Coco
Written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
Performed by Miguel, featuring Natalia Lafourcade

Remember me
Though I have to say goodbye
Remember me
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

Remember me
Though I have to travel far
Remember me
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
Remember me