My aunt Flora used to live on the 9th floor of my building. Flora is an aunt by marriage, my great-uncle Milty was her third husband and when they found themselves in love in their 50’s (and having known each other for much of their lives, Milty’s first wife was Flora’s childhood best friend), they married and forever tied their families together. Flora and my grandmother, already close friends, relished their newly minted sister status.
Uncle Milty died unexpectly about nine years into their marriage and left Flora broken hearted and and tramatized.
Several years ago, Flora started to actively decline, having been plagued for many years by a heart weakened by TB (contracted in a hospital wards during her med school years). For a long time we didn’t see it, as she was stubborn and smart, and able to cover with a veneer of irascibility. But last summer it became completely clear that Flora couldn’t live in her own apartment anymore (even with aides) and her daughter, my cousin Betsy, ran out of options and moved Flora up to New York and into a nursing home.
This weekend, I went up there to spend the weekend with Betsy and her family and visit Flora for the first time since she left Philadelphia. I didn’t expect her to remember who I was (and she didn’t really). I didn’t expect to feel so sad either. I used to be envious of Flora’s aging progress when compared to my grandmother’s. My Tutu (Hawaiian for grandmother) lost most of her ability to converse during a stroke the day after Christmas in 1990. Tutu’s communication was limited to a few words, hand gestures and snuggling. Flora was always able to talk and seemed very clear and I wanted to be able to interact with my grandma in the same way I could interact with Flora.
Flora is still able to talk, but her memory is now increasinly shot full of holes. In a series of moments I shifted from stranger to distant family and back to stranger again. We went out to lunch and I would smile and speak to Flora, and she constantly struggled to place who I was and what I was doing there at the table with her daughter, son-in-law and grandson.
I’ve really missed my Tutu over the last couple of years, but having seen Flora (who recently turned 90) in her wheelchair, sitting quiet and confused on the third floor of a Manhattan nursing home, I can’t help but wish she finds a way to make her exit from the bounds of that body and this life.