I lost another family member this week.
This is the latest in a string of losses that’s been going on for more than ten years now. It seems that almost every year there’s another death.
This week it was one of my two remaining aunts, both sisters-in-law of my mother. Aunt Rita had been ill for a while but just made it to her ninetieth birthday before she was taken.
This is my mother’s generation, the slew of aunts and uncles I grew up with and loved. My mother’s five siblings and their spouses. Now there are only two left: my mother and her youngest sister-in-law.
My mother (second from left) with her sister Rita (far left) and her sisters-in-law Rita and Virginia
Of course, for the most part these were not unexpected as they all grew older. But a few of the losses were a shock, those in my generation, the ones supposed to be too young to die. A cousin. And, several years afterward, my brother. They were both fifty-five when they passed. And neither my aunt nor my mother ever really recovered from those losses. My mother’s sister lived only a year after losing her son; my mother’s descent into dementia accelerated.
We never lived very close to my mother’s extended family. They were all in New York and New Jersey; I was born in Illinois and then moved to Rhode Island. From here we were able to see our family more often, at least once a year, sometimes more. Yet that was enough to allow me to feel close to them. I was a terribly shy adolescent and didn’t have many friends, so my cousins meant a lot to me. I looked forward to family gatherings and enjoyed the company of aunts and uncles as much as of my cousins. And I learned a lot from them all.
Rita was an outgoing, happy person. I remember her enthusiasm, especially for the arts. She loved theater and music, loved New York City, having lived in the Bronx for many years. At parties she would always ask me if I had seen any plays, if my husband and I had been to New York City recently. She would talk about plays she had seen, in the city or in local theater. She spent many happy summers going to classical concerts at Tanglewood in the Berkshires. It was always fun to hear her talk about them. My aunts and uncles, whether blood relatives or by marriage, were all intelligent, interesting, and young at heart. I’m lucky to have had such a great family.
Now I have the dilemma of how to handle this latest loss with my mother. I visited her on Sunday, the day Aunt Rita died, and deliberately didn’t say anything. I know that she doesn’t remember that all her siblings have passed away, and she wouldn’t remember this, either, after the fact.
So do I need to tell her something that will upset her in the moment but that she’ll forget a moment later? Do I have the right to keep it from her, or am I obligated to spare her? Somehow it doesn’t seem right not to say something to her, but this is no ordinary case. This is a time when I need to think like dementia, a completely different state of mind. Is it really important that she know? At this point in her life, probably not.
Thinking like dementia is what finally taught me not to keep reminding her about my brother’s death when she would ask about him, trading truth for the relief of not having to see her face crumple and hear her heartbroken question, “why?” I learned to go along, to tell her what will keep her calm and contented. When she says she has to get home to fix David’s dinner, I tell her that his wife will do that. When she asks where he is, I tell her he’s working.
This situation is really no different.
Yet I’m planning a family party for her one hundredth birthday in August. She may well ask my cousin how her mother is doing. That’s a difficult spot for my cousin to be in. And we’re heading off to a family funeral for the first time without her. That will be difficult for me.
In the end I suppose the problem is really more mine than my mother’s. It’s about how I feel to be withholding such important information from her. It’s about the awkwardness of knowing what she doesn’t know. If it’s being dishonest, then maybe the answer is just that dementia has its own sense of honesty. Just as it has its own reality, which the rest of us have to accept. Maybe there is no choice.