Life Advice From My Aunt With Advanced Alzheimer's
October 14, 2022
This Saturday started as most other weekend days: Tillie was playing in her room and I had just put Sunny down for her first nap. I knew my mother would take my Aunt to their weekly lunch. She doesn’t ask me to come anymore because I always say no. It’s tough for me to spend time with my Aunt Hinda because she has advanced Alzheimer’s disease. She is losing her mind, and it’s gut-wrenching to watch.
I have the most vivid and happy memories of my relationship with her growing up. She was the most intelligent person I knew, so well-read and not only brilliant but the type of person that learned about everything. We would go on walks during holidays together, and she would ask me the most amazing questions. She would give me her undivided attention and engage me in conversation that would make me feel so special and loved. I loved learning things from her; I thought she was beautiful, strong, and smart.
Over the past year, every time I see her, it feels like another big chunk of her slips away. It’s selfish, I know, but knowing my parents see her each week helps me feel like I can turn down the lunches and protect myself from the grief I feel for losing someone that’s still standing right in front of me.
My mom stopped by my house to grab something before lunch and asked Tillie if she wanted to join her. “Yes, I want to go to the ‘rester-naut,’ but I want Mommy to come with us too.” I felt guilty about putting the responsibility on my mom to visit Hinda. For whatever reason, I felt like today was the day to say yes to lunch.
“Go in love, be love, show her love,” I said to myself as we drove. We picked her up and took her to lunch across the street from her senior living complex. Tillie, in true fashion, was the star of the lunch. Tillie told jokes and asked Hinda to draw pictures so she could guess what it was, and gathered a bouquet of leaves for her. I haven’t seen my Aunt so happy in months. She engaged Tillie in conversation the way she did with me when I was a little girl. We all had the best time together, just being present with love.
Toward the end of the lunch, Tillie caught sight of this lonely little cricket and wouldn’t stop talking about it. She drew it on paper, asked Aunt Hinda to look with her, and even asked the waiter to look at it. I didn’t think anything of it, this is Tillie’s world, and we’re all just living in it!
As we dropped Hinda off at her facility, I went around to open the door for her and hug her goodbye. Her blue eyes fixated on me when we let go of the embrace. For a moment, I thought, “Her eyes look the same. She’s still in there.” She held my arms in her hands and, with complete clarity, said, “You have such a terrific life. Give it everything you got!”
You have such a terrific life. Give it everything you got.
Then my mother walked her in, and within a moment, they were gone. I stood there for a moment, the sun warming my skin and tears rolling down my face. I wondered if she felt like she gave it all she got; I believe she did. Now her life is winding down, and this lunch, a small part of my day and the most significant part of hers, highlight our drastically different life stages.
Life has so many twists and turns; how do we ensure that no matter what experience we encounter, we give it everything we have?
I thought about it for a while and realized I could look at this from two perspectives. The more obvious meaning is that to “give it everything you got” means to live life to the fullest, to say yes to the things that scare us, and to push ourselves beyond the limit of what’s safe. A more subtle and challenging part is the mindset (not the action). Giving it everything means to me that I commit to living my life through the lens of gratitude, despite whether or not what I’m experiencing on the surface is “good or bad.” I decided to make it my morning mantra to wake up and say, “Thank you. Today, I will give it everything I got”.
I got back into the car and picked up my phone to write down her words so I wouldn’t forget exactly how she said them. As I went to put my phone in the cup holder, a cricket jumped out onto the passenger seat and scared the shit out of me. I immediately got out of the car and opened the passenger side door so that he could jump out, but I couldn’t find him anywhere. Not in the car or on the sidewalk. Call me crazy, but I knew it was my Uncle Kenny (Hinda’s husband) saying thank you, I love you, and hello.
No matter what is going on in your life, this message tells you that you have a terrific life filled with highs and lows; they are all temporary. Make sure you give it all you got.