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Connections | Magazine

Once my great-aunt descended into dementia, the only way to reach her was through a phone call

“When I call Birdy, we meet wherever she is in time, reliving lush memories of the life she lived.”

The writer and her great-aunt at Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire in 2016.
The writer and her great-aunt at Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire in 2016.From Samantha Shanley

After my parents divorced, my mother stayed friendly with my father’s aunt, Elaine. Her ancestors were the Hubbards, silversmiths who settled in New England in the 1700s. She might’ve become just another relative my mother had gathered into our sprawling family. But Elaine was determined to be more than that.

On holidays, when I wondered whether I ought to reach for another piece of cake, Elaine would push the plate closer toward me. “Oh, sure!” she’d say, “You go right ahead!” Then, we’d lean toward each other and chuckle, having quashed any show of meekness together.

It was easy for me to get lost in the chaos — I was the fourth of five children in my blended family, and naturally bent on pleasing others. In Elaine’s mind, however, I was her late brother’s only biological granddaughter. As we drew closer, I began to call her Lany Bird — Birdy, for short.

In 1945, at age 18, Elaine already knew she wanted to become a nurse, but my great-grandfather insisted she get a college degree. At the time, few programs existed where she could accomplish both. Elaine chose Bates College in Maine — a five-hour bus ride from her home in Western Massachusetts — far enough away to make it harder for her to give up and go home.

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By the time I attended college in Vermont, Birdy — better known as Dr. Hubbard, having earned her PhD in nursing — had retired as associate dean of a nursing school at the University of Rochester, where a center for nursing research on aging was named in honor of her life’s work. We e-mailed regularly. She flew me down to Florida each winter for a visit. Each morning she’d squeeze two glasses of fresh juice for us from the bowl of oranges she kept on the counter.

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Once, after returning from a trip to Ecuador where I’d gone to learn Spanish, I stopped to see her. We floated in the ocean near a nature preserve, both of us giggling when I unhooked my bikini top, casting it off with relish, if only for a moment of freedom. When I lived in Germany, she met me there and we flew to Mallorca, Spain, with my first two children. We navigated the rocky hills and sought the quietest beaches, the plumpest apricots, the loveliest wine. Birdy had always been willing to reach me wherever I was.

After I returned to Boston, I had my third child and not long thereafter, divorced. By then, Birdy was 90 years old. As I was gaining the independence I’d always admired in her, she was beginning to lose hers. Still, when we talked over the phone, she had a way of making everything in our lives sound grand.

Then, she had a bad fall. Within 18 months, she’d moved to a nursing home. Obscured by dementia, she lay in bed in the dark, the last of that generation in my father’s family; lost, but not entirely gone. Still, I needed to reach her somehow. I arranged for an old-fashioned telephone line to be installed in her room.

The first time I called, she answered dreamily. “Gladys?” She was searching for her mother, who was long gone. Another time, she asked about my children. One of them had a dozen warts on his knee, I explained, and another hadn’t cut his hair in nine months. How she laughed.

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When we talk now, I ask her to tell me about the lifelong friendships she made in nursing school. I ask about her parents. Does she remember that dinner we had on a roof deck in Mallorca? “I do!” she says brightly, and I hope it’s true.

When I call Birdy, we meet wherever she is in time, reliving lush memories of the life she lived. As we move closer to the end of her life, I begin to embrace the turn coming in mine. It’s an honest, simple, and bitter thing, but it sweetens whatever I have left.


Samantha Shanley is a writer in Boston. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Tell your story. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to connections@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.