My aunt Clara, a second cousin really, was a writer of children’s books. She loved being around children, so her book tours were a source of great joy for her. She also liked to mentor young adults. When I was newly sober, after a harrowing run in with the mental health system and drug culture, Clara came to see me in San Francisco. She bought me a computer through a catalog, and I was hooked.
A couple of years went by, and I took a train out to Minnesota to visit her. I was in my mid-twenties, still working on my bachelor’s degree. She was different. She was annoyed that i hadn’t found my way in life yet. I told her I wanted to be a writer like her.
“Duncan, you can never be a writer because you’re too self-centered.”
“Maybe I should get into science.”
“It’s too late for that. You’re too old to get started.”
Her words cut so deeply. Not only did I have to struggle to believe in myself and the validity of my gay, mentally ill, recovering drug addict voice, now I had to go against the advice of someone I trusted so much.
I never took Computer Science classes because of her remark. I learned to regret that decision.
She taught me many wonderful things. She taught me square dancing in Nevada City near the Donner Pass. She taught me how to cook. Cooking is a matter of confidence in one’s technique and the fungibility of ingredients. It was Clara who introduced me to email. At the time, email was so rare, the New York Times did an article about our family.
The older I got, the less patience Clara had with me. She didn’t believe my depression was beyond my control; I was a malingerer. She warned away potential boyfriends telling them that I was incapable of real love. She was a fireball of cool and terrible things. It was Clara who told me that my mother didn’t have the sort of cancer that people survive; she was right.
Clara passed away a couple of days ago. She had suffered with Alzheimer’s for many years. I knew something was off at her eightieth birthday. My father and I played her the Skye Boat Song as a birthday gift. She smiled, but I didn’t see delight in her eyes. That was when I figured it out.
A year later I got an urgent email from her husband asking me to call. He explained that she had dementia, but it was one of her “good days”. I spoke with Clara. I understood her rambling sentences and we shared a few laughs.
Then I did something that everyone should do in this situation. I exhaled all of my anger and drew in all the best feelings I had for her.
“Clara, you believed in me at a time when others had written me off. You gave me my first computer; I use a computer at work for everything I do. I also write and publish my blog and my novels on a computer. You changed my life for the better. So thank you.”
Clara responded, “Its good that you believe in yourself. My work is done.”
I hung up, then cried hard for as long as the body can cry. Alzheimer’s is not death, but it has a way of forcing you to grieve even when the person is still alive and relatively happy.
When she died on Thursday, I felt numb. I felt sadness. But I had already mourned losing her, so it wasn’t as intense as the moment after that last phone call.
I left out a lot of bad things Clara said and did because the good things she did were so much more important to me. So if you’re holding a grudge against someone with Alzheimer’s disease, let it go. Remember the reasons you know each other and the good times you had. It helps no one to try and air the pain and sorrow from the past.
In “Ben is Back”, Julia Roberts’s character lashes out at a doctor with Alzheimer’s whom she blames for her son’s addiction to opiates. It was meant to feel satisfying, but it made me cringe. Whatever pain and suffering you wish you could inflict on someone with Alzheimer’s is nothing compared to the torture they are experiencing. So be kind.
Clara had such an interesting life, I could hardly do it justice in a “self-centered” blog entry. She was an important guide on my twisted trail to adulthood. I have missed her terribly, and now I miss her that much more since she stepped off the mortal coil.
[names and locations may have been changed to protect privacy]