My father’s oldest sister passed away on Monday. She was diagnosed with advanced liver cancer and clots in her lungs just three weeks ago. It feels strange to say this, but fortunately, she had Alzheimer’s. At the end, she never knew how sick she was. She had enough of her memory to still recognize her children, but not enough to recall that every tiime she ate she became violently ill, and not enough to recall that her life expectancy was measured in days, not years.
Aunt Shirley was the honeymoon baby, the war baby. My grandparents got married, went away for a weekend honeymoon, and came back to find a letter in the mail telling my grandfather that he was heading off to fight in World War II. He was gone for the next several years as my grandmother learned she was pregnant and gave birth to my aunt. Fortunately, my grandfather came home, unwounded despite having been shot twice (shot in the ass but saved my a medal in his pocket, and had his helmet shot off), and they went on to have five more children, including my father, baby #4.
I didn’t really know my aunt or any of my relatives when we were growing up. My dad was the one who moved away, so we saw our grandparents occasionally and his siblings rarely. I do remember Aunt Shirley coming to visit us once or twice, and bringing her a-hole husband and their adopted daughter. She had five older kids from her first marriage, but they were all much older and were already out of the house by then. She was always nice, and she was always smiling.
The last time I saw Aunt Shirley was at my parents’ house two years ago. They were hosting a reunion for their siblings. Alzheimer’s had already hit Shirley, and we were starting to notice the memory loss. At that early stage it was frustrating for her because she knew there were things she couldn’t remember – i think it got easier for her later when she couldn’t even remember that she didn’t remember. Wildling was a baby at the time, just starting to walk (and run!). Shirley could never remember if Wildling was a boy or a girl, so I tried to subtly put a bow in her hair to save Shirley the embarrassment of forgetting – and I guess I wasn’t that subtle, because Shirley noticed and cried because she was so sorry she kept forgetting and it was so frustrating for her.
I’m sad for her loss, and I’m also sad for what it symbolizes. I don’t have any grandparents – cancer claimed my paternal grandmother in 1992, maternal grandfather in 1997, and paternal grandfather in 2006, while my maternal grandmother died of pneumonia in 2007 after years of living with dementia and Alzheimer’s. And now it seems that my parents’ generation is on the chopping block. Shirley is the first to go, but I have another aunt who is battling cancer right now, plus my dad just finished up his cancer treatments. My mother survived cancer five years ago, and my mother-in-law just finished up her cancer treatments as well. It’s like we’re watching a generation stalked by disease and starting to disappear and with the people go the stories and the memories.