by Georgette Gouveia ’77, MFA ’80
Late in the winter of 2010, I became the mother of my aunt, in the house where she had once been a mother to me.
I had brought Aunt Mary—Tiny, as I call her—home from a nightmarish three month odyssey in a nursing home. The disastrous repercussions of hip-revision surgery had greatly exacerbated her dementia, leaving her wheelchair-bound, incontinent, and mostly aphasic. Still, every now and then, she emerged from the mists.
“Everything looks so beautiful,” she said as she entered the house for the first time in a season, taking in the fresh flowers, dishes of chocolates, and cherryblossom folding screens that separate her makeshift bedroom from the living room.
As Subrina, her new full-time aide, and Luis, our longtime landscaper and handyman, helped her into bed, I retreated momentarily to the kitchen, where my sister Gina put an arm around me. We both wept.
I cried as much out of joy, relief, and vindication as out of any sorrow. There were those at the hospital and nursing home who were skeptical, or even discouraging, of my plan to bring Tiny home. But I wasn’t about to relinquish my aunt—and our house—to some nursing facility and its ravaging costs.
This was the woman who had cared for her sick husband, brother, and parents in that house.
This was the woman who had raised me and my two sisters in that house.
This was the woman, the love of my life and my sounding board, who could cut through my pretensions and anxieties like no other, with an unusual blend of toughness and grace.
Once when I, a classically trained soprano, was belting out “The Man I Love” at the piano, she called down from upstairs, “Stick to Mozart!” I would call her from work twice a day for that particular brand of tough love, but mostly just to hear the sound of her voice.
I wasn’t about to relinquish my aunt—and our house—to some nursing facility and its ravaging costs.
How strange it seems to me now—and hard, too—to recall this woman, a professional cook, who would make Belgian waffles for me and my friends on Saturday night as we sat around watching Starsky and Hutch; who treated us to Yankees games and trips to her summer home on the Jersey Shore; who took me to museums, ballets, operas, and plays until the day we came full circle and I, a cultural writer, began escorting her.
It’s as if that life were a parallel universe and she and I other selves, much as in winter you can’t imagine it was ever spring—or ever will be again. In the middle phase of her dementia she was all too frequently transformed into a wandering, paranoid, volatile wretch. But by the time she came home from the rehab center, even those passions had been spent. Fate—and a medical system that is clueless about treating the elderly in general and dementia in particular—had dealt her a devastating blow.
But I was determined—no, defiant. I would give her an end that anyone could wish for, surrounded by the things she loved and the people who loved her.
I planned everything meticulously. I had lost my job, but while Tiny was in rehab I hoarded my unemployment benefits and secured a new position so I could afford her care.
Two nights after my aunt’s homecoming, a powerful nor’easter brought down a 100-foot tree near the entrance to our driveway, lashing the roof of our 83-year-old Dutch colonial, ripping up a chunk of the asphalt and stone walkway, taking out the shutters and gutters on the left side of the house, and damaging my aunt’s bedroom and the upstairs hallway. (Had she been sleeping there, she probably would have been killed, judging from the shards of plaster that rained down on her bed.)
“A tree has fallen on the house!” I cried out to her before rushing out into the wind and the rain to assess the damage and check on the neighbors.
“Yes, I know,” she said, half asleep. “And you’ll take care of it.”
There were moments when I despaired that I could. I was faced with the prospect of not only working all day and caring for my aunt on nights and weekends (when Subrina and Eileen, the weekend aide, weren’t around), but also serving as general contractor as Luis and his assistant, George, undertook the repairs. It meant getting up at 6 each morning; going to work; coming home; making dinner; cleaning up after the workers; bathing my aunt, changing her diapers, and treating her bedsores; and then staggering into bed at midnight to begin the process again the next day. Even with a team of family, friends, doctors, nurses, aides, and workers that I consider the equal of the 1927 Yankees, the exhaustion was almost overwhelming.
So was—is—the loneliness. Tiny was the person I had turned to for insight, inspiration, comfort, love. That is no longer possible. In its stead is the realization that my aunt and I will never again be as we once were. This death-in-life will one day result in her actual death—a prospect that often hits me like a tidal wave.
One day as I returned a sweater to her closet, I started sobbing uncontrollably: “Oh, I’ve lost you.”
But I hadn’t, not really. As I restored the house, I began to see the similarities between it and my aunt. Both had suffered from circumstances beyond their control. Slowly, as I worked on our home, she came flooding back to me: in the letters, photographs, and recipes I found; in her collection of Kennedy books; in her cooking utensils and botanical prints. The house was my way back to the past, back to her.
Armed with this insight, I transformed the dust-bowl of a lawn into the kind of flower and rock gardens we had enjoyed at the New York Botanical Garden. I made seating arrangements outside like those we admired at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I turned the hall into an art gallery, festooned the kitchen with botanicals, filled the sun porch with her Yankees memorabilia and opera tapes, and reinvented her bedroom as a tribute to her, complete with her First Communion portrait, which I saw as a metaphor for what she has become: a ghostly, veiled figure, framed by the past, frozen in time.
As I restored the house, I discovered that I was not only restoring my soul; I was also revealing my essential nature. My family and friends marvel at how the self-centered girl whose nose had always been stuck in a book, the career woman who never had any time, now talks to her hydrangeas and makes turkey and ravioli with eggplant sauce for family gatherings.
But I don’t think people change. I think they become more of what they are. My passion for creativity has just found new expression.
As the house began to take shape all through the spring, I sat in the garden at night and wondered at the fireflies bubbling up from the sea of grass I never had before. From my vantage point, I could see my aunt sleeping peacefully inside.
My life, I have concluded, is hard, and I will probably never again know the giddy joy I knew when my aunt was well.
But that joy has been replaced by a deepseated satisfaction.
And that is a kind of happiness—my aunt’s final gift to me.