Thursday, March 19, 2009

Her Portion of Pain

My mom called from St. Lucia this morning. She said she was feeling down. I asked her what was wrong and she started talking about two of her best friends from high school, women I grew up calling aunt, two sisters, both of whom were stricken with Alzheimer's, both of whom died last month, two weeks apart. The daughter of one of the sisters, let's call her Claire, had been on the phone with my mom the evening before, aching at her motherlessness. She told my mom that she hadn't known the death of her mother would hit her so hard, given that her mother had already spent a decade in a fog of forgetting.

"Mom, you miss your friends. Sometimes you just have to let yourself feel sad," I offered. "Yes," she agreed. "I'm sad."

We talked for a while after that, until Stella, the wonderful woman who takes care of my mom when she's in St. Lucia, called her to breakfast. Before my mom hung up, she mentioned she had a date to play bridge that afternoon, and that she was hosting the whole bridge group the next day. My mother, now 87, lives to play bridge. I knew that by the time she held the first hand, she would be okay.

But after our call, I found myself brooding a lot about Claire. As a child, I was in awe of her. She was so stunningly beautiful. Tall and much too thin, with the coltish gait of a future model, she had a long graceful neck, a jawline etched to perfection, dark haunting eyes, cupid-drawn lips and small even white teeth. Her skin was the color of velvety chocolate, with a burnish that made it look lit from within. She had a big fluffy afro that stood out around her head like a halo. As if her extraordinary looks weren't enough, she was also brilliant in school and a kind soul. She was older than I was by six or so years. As a chubby 10-year-old, whose lace-edged socks were perpetually sliding down into her black patent leather mary janes, and whose dresses would forever ride up at the waist, never falling smoothly the way other girls' dresses did, I used to sit watching Claire from my corner and imagine what it would be like to be her. I just knew her life would be perfect, because she was perfect.

The script didn't go quite the way that I thought it would. To begin with, Claire's father, a brilliant scholar himself, had died in a car crash when she was just three. His loss, I would later realize, had indelibly marked his family. Much later, I came to understand that Claire's gentleness with others, with a shy clumsy girl like me, for instance, was the result of her never wanting to inflict any sort of hurt. She knew intimately what it felt like to be hurting. And there was more pain in store. In her first year of college, she was assaulted one night on the way back from the dorm's communal bathroom. She left soon after, fleeing the landscape of her pain. She went to England, and enrolled in university there. She met a man whom everyone loved. She sank into the comfort of him, and they got married. But it turned out that she had felt so sexually safe with him because he was gay, his love for her chaste. Her heart once again broken, they divorced.

In the meantime, her genius older brother was accepted to do graduate work in physics at Princeton. Two intensely troubled years later, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Despite ongoing conflicts with his professors, and his own disillusion, he finished his degree, but hardly worked a day after that. Her younger brother, the baby of the family, was an astonishing artist, but as a teenager, he became mired in drugs. Thirty years later, thin and handsome with regal silver dreadlocks that fall to his waist, he is still in the thrall of them.

As her brothers' lives unraveled, Claire's professional life moved ever forward, her trajectory sure. She entered the diplomatic service, as her mother (also a radiant beauty with an incisive mind and an abundance of social charm) had before her. She rose in the foreign service, through high-profile posts in strategic places. But the day came when she could no longer deny that her mother's forgetfulness was something more troubling, and she packed up her glamorous life abroad and moved back home to be with her.

Eventually her mother had to be moved to a nursing home. Now, Claire was back in the house of her childhood, but she wasn't alone. Her two brothers lived with her. They depended on her. At work, hundreds more relied on her leadership. She met with foreign dignitaries and made sure her nation's interests were put forward. She was elegant. She was tough-minded. She was a star.

What we can see of other people's lives is never the whole story. It may not even be part of the story of how they see themselves. But I think I understand now why my mother hurt so much this morning. Her heart was breaking for Claire, who it seemed had been so blessed in this life, but whose portion of pain had been at least equal to the extravagant portion of her gifts. And now Claire had lost her mother, the touchstone throughout her life, having already lost her once when the fog had first descended.

My mom says that Claire lives is fear of getting Alzheimer's herself. God forgive my presumption, but I wonder, would the forgetting be a mercy?

1 comment:

  1. Alzheimer's is such a tragic disease, particularly for the loved ones. My uncle, my mother's brother, was diagnosed last year with Alzheimer's disease, and it has been so heartbreaking for my mom.

    Claire sounds like a wonderful person who has been asked to endure too much, but she sounds so strong. I hope things begin to get better for her and her brothers.