I rose from my bed in a depressed mood this morning. I kicked myself for that because when I looked outside, I beheld a glorious spring morning. It isn’t raining today! Well, that realization didn’t have a long lasting impact on my mood. As we ate our breakfast together, Anne and I discussed the fact that we were both emotionally ‘down’ today. We’re both worried about Anne’s aunt, Agnes Ellert – our Aggie.
Aggie is just four weeks away from her 100th birthday – June 8th – but we have serious doubts that she’ll make it. For the past several months we have been spending three mornings a week with her at her long term care residence in Kitchener, The Westmount. Aggie suffers from Alzheimer’s and we are now seeing her slip into the final stage of that awful disease. Miraculously, she still knows us when we visit – after we introduce ourselves. This past week we witnessed Aggie deteriorate noticeably. Yesterday morning she sat up with us enjoying a cup of coffee we brought her for about a half hour. Then she asked us to let her go back to bed because she was tired.
It is readily apparent that Aggie is well loved by the staff at The Westmount. We have noticed that they have been subdued when talking to us about Aggie’s well being. They realize her deterioration means she’s getting close to the end – especially given the fact that her appetite is very poor. A few days ago, Aggie started hallucinating – seeing people who aren’t there.
Aggie came from a family of five children – four girls and a boy. Aggie was born second and is the last sibling left alive. She and her older sister, Bernadette, did not marry. Bern died in 1969, a year after their mother. That left Aggie to look after her father. Anne’s father built a house next door to the Ellerts. As Anne grew up, Bern and Aggie were like additional mothers for her. When I met the family in 1971, I realized very quickly that there was a very strong bond between Anne and Aggie. Anne was the child Aggie never had.
When Anne and I married in 1973, we bought the house Anne grew up in from her parents. So I would go over to Ag’s house each day to help her with the lawns or other household tasks – like chasing down bats! Just picture big John running through Aggie’s bungalow chasing down an elusive bat with a corn broom. But chase it down, I did! Then I bludgeoned it to death on her living room carpet. There was a dead bat there when I was done – but no mess. The relief was obvious in Aggie’s eyes. Every spring I’d go over and ‘dig her garden’ for her so the planting could begin. Of course I could have rented a roto-tiller for the job, but I was too cheap. The hours of shoveling dirt didn’t do my back any favours; but I was happy to do that for Aggie.
Aggie used to joke with me that I was the husband she never had. It became our standard joke. She’d always giggle a bit when I came through her side door shouting the famous line from the I Love Lucy show: “Honey, I’m home!” Anne shared with me once that Aggie really liked me. I replied that I like her a lot too. Anne just smiled and said that Ag told her once that if Anne ever left me, Aggie would marry me. When we had our own kids, Aggie was retired and looked after them during the day so Anne could continue working. So she became a very real mother to a new generation.
Aggie has always been a special part of our family. I often referred to her as the family matriarch. So we are the ones who care for her in her final days and we’re happy to do that. At the end of each visit, I bend down to kiss her goodbye. She always grabs me and whispers her thanks in my ear. She tells us that she’s grateful for all that we do for her and doesn’t understand why we bother. How do you explain that to a woman whose memories are badly fragmented?
During one visit, she started to remember some things from the time when we lived side by side on Roslin Ave. I reminded her of our standing joke back then about being her pretend husband. She grinned at me across the table, “I’ll plant Anne in the garden somewhere and you and I can go inside and have some fun!” Then she laughed and laughed. Anne missed that exchange, so I repeated it. Then both of them started to laugh all over again. Ag’s parting comment: “I won’t get to heaven that way!”
During our visits over the past few months, we get out the Crokinole board and play several games before lunch. Aggie loves this game that she played as a child. In January she was pretty adept on the Crokinole board for a lady of 99. Now she looks at the board in total bewilderment. “What do I do?” she asks. So we position her hands and demonstrate how to shoot the checker to knock off an opposing checker. “What checker?” she asks again. She’s almost blind at this point.
Last Saturday, Anne pulled her rosary out of her purse and asked Aggie if she’d like to pray the rosary. Ag’s face split into a wide smile, “I’d like that. Can I lead?” So we let her lead. She led us through five complete decades – she never missed a prayer nor made a mistake! We were astonished. She can’t remember the names of departed family members, but she has the rosary down pat!
For the past number of decades, Aggie’s life journey has been ours too. I started my day feeling depressed, but in remembering some of the good times with Aggie, I feel uplifted. She’s always been there to serve her family, to listen, and to advise. Aggie always had the knack of making us feel better… and she’s still doing it.