My great-aunt died tonight. She was old, and had had Alzheimer’s for many years (it runs in our family, unfortunately). My memories of her true self are from early childhood. She was a neurologist and lived in Philadelphia with her many dogs and large collection of books. Her tiny row house had a solar water heater on its roof, an energy-saving system she had installed decades before it was in cool to be an environmentalist. She would come over every so often for a visit and would bring my sister and I curious toys. She was kind yet strong-willed, owing to her upbringing in Oklahoma. She kept a weapon in her house out of sheer habit; to not do so out on the prairie would be unthinkable. I don’t think she ever really mentally left the prairie of her childhood.
Years later, when my dad and I stayed at her place while attending a comics convention in Philadelphia, she was already suffering pretty badly from Alzheimer’s disease. She had repeatedly gone out driving and gotten lost long after she shouldn’t have been driving at all. Having never been married, she was a very independent woman, and didn’t like anyone telling her what she should do. So her brother, who was now living with her and taking care of, disabled her car by disconnecting a lead to the engine. She was eventually moved into a nursing home because her brother, just as old as she was, was in failing health as well and couldn’t manage her. Some Alzheimer’s patients get very complacent while others get combative; she was the latter type. Though given who she was, that wasn’t any surprise.
A year or two later her brother died, and my dad and I visited her at the nursing home to tell her in person. It was severely depressing. It was as if she simply wasn’t there. The body remained, but the woman she had been was gone. She couldn’t talk; she could only mumble at nearly inaudible levels. I listened closely and intently with all the focus of someone trying to faithfully record a dying person’s last words, yet I could not make any sense of the quiet noises. She had already said her last words before that point. I’m not even sure if anything in her mind registered when we told her her brother was dead. But now I feel like I am focusing on the symptoms of the disease too much. She was a kind, reasonable, intelligent person for her whole life before she became afflicted with Alzheimer’s, and I wouldn’t want anyone to form any impressions of who she was just going on the unavoidable final symptoms of her ailment.
So now that I hear the final news that her body has gone off to join her mind, how do I grieve? I feel nothing. I’ve already felt everything I was going to feel in the years prior. This final part was inevitable and inexorable. How does someone in this situation bring themselves to feel sad? I already spent my time feeling sad when I first heard of her diagnosis, and then I experienced much more sorrow as I personally saw her progress through the stages of the disease. I hadn’t even seen her in the last three years, so I have no idea how bad it was at the very end, but I’m confident that the person she really was had already slowly evaporated into the ether, leaving just the flesh behind.
It is a twisted fate for a neurologist to meet, to be felled by one of the very diseases they studied and treated in other patients. In her will, written before she ever knew of her diagnosis, she indicated her desire to donate her body to science. It is only fitting then that she may have some small role in curing that which ailed her, so that others do not have to experience the slow insidious dying that renders family members unable to grieve upon the moment that final death arrives.
Rest In Peace, Muriel McGlamery