Two old women

During the summer of 2019, I got to visit my great-aunt, the twin sister of my late grandmother, my biggest fan as I grew into being a musician.

Whenever I go back east, I make sure to visit Aunt Ellen. I learned on my last visit that she’s in an assisted living facility now—against her will—and lives about an hour away from where she used to live.

When we were young, Mom-mom was my grandmom and Aunt Ellen was The Other Mom-mom. When they reached a certain age, they had different updos and dyed their hair different shades of their former color, but otherwise, they looked the same.

My last visit to her house, I stopped by unannounced. I let myself into the back yard—she never used the front door, probably because the garage was at the far end of the back yard. She didn’t drive—neither did her twin—but her late husband did, and after years of going in and out the back, why change?

It was autumn. The weather was still pleasant, and the screen door allowed fresh air into the house.

I knocked on the door. No answer. I looked through the screen and could barely see the old familiar dining room, with the living room beyond. The same furniture had been in the same places for as long as I could remember.

I knocked again, hoping that my pop-in wasn’t going to give me the honor of finding she had passed. We were just past her 90th birthday.

Still no answer.

The yard wrapped around the far side of the house. A few large walnut trees stood in that space, as well as the totem pole her husband had carved at least a decade earlier. 

Rustling came from around that corner, so I went to investigate. Aunt Ellen was decidedly not deceased. She was raking up the walnuts and leaves that coated the ground; she had three garbage bags done.

We went in the house immediately and she fixed tea and cookies. We visited for hours, eventually taking the visit to one of her favorite restaurants for dinner.

She has fairly advanced macular degeneration and can’t see very well as a result. As is often the case with people in their 90s, she has some hearing loss and wears hearing aids.

While we talked, she said that everything was fine until she turned 90. Now, not so much.

On our most recent visit, Aunt Ellen was 92 or 93 and generally unhappy. The dissatisfaction she found in turning 90 hadn’t reversed—not that I expected it would—and being forced to move out of the house she had lived in for 70 years didn’t make life better.

She lamented her sensory shortcomings and life’s insistence that she remain a part of it. 

For Christmas, my ex-mother-in-law had dinner with us (along with The Tall Daddy, The Climbing Daddy, and The Kid). Grammy is 93.

She has some hearing loss but not as much as Aunt Ellen and doesn’t wear hearing aids. Although we were sitting at a distance, when we didn’t have masks on for the meal, she seemed to be able to hear everyone without issue. Masks made it more difficult. Masks make it more difficult for everyone.

She has her vision. She plays cards and Rummikub, reads books and writes letters.

When we visited Aunt Ellen, The Kid tried to show her a LEGO thing he had with him. She was happy to talk with him about it but didn’t really follow the conversation and couldn’t see the pieces very well.

After dinner with Grammy, The Kid brought out his new LEGO lunar lander and, masked up, gave Grammy a detailed tour. She followed, engaged in the conversation, and told him at the end that she had learned a lot from him.

Both were delighted to have this moment with The Kid.

It was striking to me, as I watched him interact with Grammy, how different it was than it had been interacting with Aunt Ellen. 

So many factors play into people’s dispositions as they age, but I wonder, in her position, how Aunt Ellen could be happier. She can’t see or hear very well and is displaced. Displaced I can see how to manage, but not without critical senses.

I’ve often thought about what life would be like if I lost my hearing. My right ear went deaf in a matter of hours, and I’m acutely aware that at any moment, the other could go and that would be that.

But I could still see. I could read and write and take pictures and watch my boy and see my husband and friends.

What would I do if I couldn’t see?

So much has happened in my life, and I’ve come through all of it. Losing my vision? I don’t know how well I would come through that. Compounded by losing hearing. Especially if I was 93 and displaced.

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