Like relatives who’ve been part of your life for – well, all of your life – make their exit from it. My prickly, cantankerous, hilarious aunt, who has been in my charge as her POA for Health Care and Trustee for nearly ten years, is in her final decline at 87. We’d planned a family trip to see her next week – it’s a six hour drive. Things swirl very quickly at the end, though, and although we’ll still make the trip, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to talk to her by then. Both her sisters will be there, and both of mine. Two sets of three sisters – in their eighties and sixties – will have a final visit.
My aunt traveled a long and quirky path. She went to college in the late 40s – early 50s in Madison, WI, but we’re not sure she graduated. At any rate, sometime later she drove with her youngest sister to southern California, and a year or so after that shipped herself out to Fairbanks, Alaska, where she worked for Wien Alaska, a search and rescue outfit. A while later, she slipped on the ice and broke her ankle so badly she came home to California to heal. She got a call one day from the same air rescue outfit, offering her a job as a dispatcher in Point Barrow, above the Arctic Circle. “When?’ she said. “Five minutes ago.” So she was off again up North. She wanted to be a writer, and I know of at least one article she wrote (never published, I don’t think) about her life there: how she washed clothes and hung them out to alternately freeze and thaw until they were finally dry. She had huskies – at least two or three.
She came back to California in 1960 with a sealskin coat and a baby on the way. To support herself and her son, she became a social worker for Los Angeles County. After her retirement, she was functioning in her own unique fashion when a post-surgical infection took her away from her beloved little shack of a house in La Habra Heights. Real estate was hot in 2006, and after the house sold, she had money for the first time in her life. I invested it for her, and she began a series of board and care stays interspersed with ER visits. She was now in a wheelchair. Her son disappeared that year, and we didn’t know for at least eighteen months that he’d died. He was 46. I set up a trust for her and found a great assisted living place in Moreno Valley, in the desert near Riverside, on the way to Palm Springs.
For the most part, she thrived there. She bounced back at least once or twice a year from infections, complications from having only one kidney, surgeries and frequent falls that left her with sutures in her forehead and bruises all over her body. She never complained. In the meantime, she gardened, ordered constantly from catalogs, bought books on sale from the Library and took daily “walks” in her wheelchair, propelling herself with her feet. She never spent less than a hundred dollars at the Dollar Store. She read avidly at night in her “office” – her bathroom, and surrounded herself with stacks and stacks of treasured possessions in her private suite. She’s a hoarder, I realized. I rented a huge storage unit to hold what was left from her house, and when her room became unnavigable and she knew we were coming to visit, she had workers clear a space so we could join her there. Piles of things were taken to storage by patient workmen. A while ago, she told me – although she hadn’t been there in years – she thought the time had come to rent a second unit.
She was haughty, stubborn. Hell on wheels, really. Her laugh was deep and throaty. Until late last year, she told me repeatedly that she was getting out (of assisted living), buying a house and getting a German Shepherd. It took me way too long to stop arguing with her. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and on tons of meds. It got harder and harder to make the trip down to see her. We were all getting older.
She went into hospice at the assisted living place this month, and stopped eating and drinking two days ago. Her dementia had already progressed to the point that it was difficult for the staff to communicate with her. But they love her cantankerous soul, and they’ve taken amazing care of her for nearly eight years.
Bon Voyage, Mildred Gretchen.