Today is my sister's birthday. She lives out west and we don't get to see each other very often. I wanted to wish her a happy birthday and have a chat.
My brother-in-law, Dave, answered the phone and advised me she was sleeping. I told him not to wake her or disturb her. I asked if she had received the gift I had sent.
"Yes she got it and she really appreciated it."
"Did she remember me?" I asked.
"Well, she's not having a very good day today, so her memory is not very good," he responded hesitantly as if not wanting to hurt my feelings.
Up until this past year, I had no idea how fast dementia could hit a person and rip apart someone's spirit while taking away precious memories, even of the people closest to them.
Dave began phoning us last year saying that my sister was becoming incoherent, not making any sense and he was really worried about her. I suggested he take her to the hospital immediately. She was kept there for observation, and in the month that followed we all had our ups and downs as the medical staff tested her for physical deficiencies, Alzheimer's and a lengthy list of illnesses, some which could be treated and others which... well, we didn't want to think about it at the time.
There were days when they thought they isolated the cause and began treatment and there would be momentary successes only to relapse back into a state of leaving this world, at least mentally if not physically. After several months of trial and error, they identified the illness as Korsakoff Syndrome, a form of dementia which causes loss of memory. The cruelty of the illness is how fast it changes a person's life. From the time the symptoms first appeared, she was hospitalized and subject to a battery of tests and they kept her there until a spot opened up in a care home where she will spend the remainder of her days. She never got a chance to return home.
This dementia is often caused by alcoholism. That's my sister all right. She and I are only fifteen months apart and because of our close age we were always together, getting into trouble together in our younger days. We went to the same concerts, hung out with the same friends, listened to the same music, and partied together. We partied hard, her more so than I. We were both drinking underage by the time I was thirteen. She could drink me under the table any day of the week. She was also my protector when I needed one. Even before I reached my teen years, there was little doubt I was gay, and subject to being harassed and bullied in school. My sister, on the other hand was a real scrapper, a tomboy who would often fight off my tormentors. Years later I managed to get off the booze, but she couldn't shake it off..She was a supervising nurse in a special care hospital but eventually she was fired because of how the alcoholism affected her work. She managed to keep the drinking under moderate control in later years but couldn't really leave it completely behind. Dave was always a positive influence in supporting her and getting her to AA meetings. Unfortunately, she had just done too much damage to her body and this illness was the result.
In some ways she is more at peace now than before the time when the illness claimed her. Her memories are distorted and she often believes that she is still living in happier times, wondering where our old family cat is, and when our father was coming to visit, both of whom have been deceased for many years. The irony is that she is at her happiest when she is living in the past, when the illness is at its worst. Her hardest days are actually when she experiences moments of clarity, when she becomes lucid enough to be aware of her surroundings, that the horror and reality sets in and she recoils in fear of what will become of her. She deals with it by hiding and remaining in the past with the good memories.
So today is not a good day for her.. Tomorrow is a whole new day with possibilities of recollections of people forgotten today, the people who were part of her life for many years. In the darkness of dementia, I can only hope that somewhere in there she can remember that there is someone who loves her.