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Dementia Will Never Truly Take Away My Aunt Claire

12/15/2015 02:29 EST | Updated 12/15/2016 05:12 EST
Betsie Van der Meer via Getty Images
Present with pink ribbon.

As a little girl, Aunt Claire was always my favourite. The oldest of my mother's siblings she was, to me, the picture of elegance. With her manicured nails, flawless make-up and effortless-looking hair, she could have put the ladies behind Holt Renfrew's cosmetics counter to shame.

My own mother, something of a tomboy and a hippie during her formative years, could not fathom the depths of my fascination with her sister. She was mortified when, at six years old, I took an interest in porcelain dolls and began to insist on wearing frilly, pink dresses adorned with miniature fake pearls.

"You couldn't possibly be my daughter," she said, shaking her head, confused. "You must be Aunt Claire's."

Aunt Claire and her family lived a short drive away from our house and we often exchanged visits. Her house was decorated in shades of pink, taupe and white and adorned with friendly-looking, bespectacled waterfowl wearing tiny bonnets; our house was made of wood, decorated with wood and located in a swamp.

Her house contained a dining room that nobody was allowed to enter; our house was covered in dog hair and woolly decorative adornments. The possibility that my fascination was born of pure astonishment is not unfathomable.

As I grew older, I began to spend less time with Aunt Claire and her ilk. I moved out west, returning home only for brief annual visits, and Aunt Claire moved further east. Our most recent visit was seven years ago when I squeezed in a trip to see her new house. It looked very much like a modern reiteration of her old house: less pink and more beige, but the same friendly waterfowl.

So it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to the chance to see Aunt Claire again this autumn. My husband and I had married at a small ceremony in the foothills of the Rockies and had arranged with my parents to host a family lunch back in Ontario. The occasion provided a welcome opportunity to reconnect with my extended family and we wagered that we could draw a bigger crowd if we minimized the inconvenience and cost of attending.

As the event drew near and I eagerly inquired about our guests, my mother reluctantly cautioned me about what to expect. Nearly a year ago, she confided, Aunt Claire had been diagnosed with mild dementia. Her speech is most affected -- she frequently searches for words or mixes them up.

"You will notice the difference in her," my mother warned. I resolved to be mindful of her difficulties and handle them however they manifested.

We arrived on the big day and were immediately swept up in the chaos of introductions and story-swapping. It wasn't until nearly an hour into lunch that I finally spotted the back of Aunt Claire's unmistakable blonde bob across the room. I grabbed my new husband's sleeve and dragged him over to meet her.

"Hello!" she exclaimed and beamed broadly at my husband before giving him a hug.

Almost 70 years old, she still wore her signature pumps and a tailored skirt, but she used her words sparingly. We took our cue to occupy the conversation and told her all about our recent adventures, while she nodded emphatically.

"So, when did you decide to do it all?" she asked at one point.

"All of what?" I responded.

"With the... chairs... on the ceiling," she prodded, then looked at us inquiringly.

My husband and I stared blankly back at her, searching her expression for clues about what decision we may have endeavored.

"You mean, our trip?" I volunteered weakly.

"No, this!" she laughed as she gestured toward the room full of people.

"Oh, get married!" I answered, relieved, and dived back into the conversation.

Back at my parents' house that evening, my husband and I sat down at the wooden kitchen table of my childhood and opened the gifts we had received that day. Despite our protestations that gifts were not necessary, a few of our friends and family could not bear the idea of showing up without one. Aunt Claire was among them.

Years of experience have taught me to recognize Aunt Claire's unmistakable gift-wrapping style. The elegantly-patterned pink-and-grey paper had been neatly fitted, trimmed and taped. The finishing touch: a smart-looking pink satin ribbon, folded delicately into a double bow.

I picked up the gift and turned it over, admiring its signature precision and detail. My mother had been right. I had noticed a difference in Aunt Claire. But her essential nature -- poised, particular and attentive to detail -- remained utterly unchanged. It is these things, I reminded myself, that are truly Aunt Claire.

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