Aunt Sarah must have absorbed all the colors in the spectrum when she opened her eyes and saw light for the first time. She was filled with certain energy that made her light up any room she entered. Her life was as colorful as the rainbows she always chased in pursuit of her dreams--dreams that often came true. Then she stopped dreaming . . .because she forgot how to.
What I admired most about Aunt Sarah was her youthful and vibrant personality, with a powerful and intellectual mind to match. Aunt Sarah's memory was so sharp, never forgetting any name or face, and always beating the contestants on Wheel of Fortune--my Mom's favorite game show. She would be walking by, stare at the TV screen for a few seconds, then deliver the answer to the question, long before the contestants could. You would not dare challenge her in Trivial Pursuit, or Scrabble, or Jeopardy-her favorite.
"Why don't you enter Jeopardy?" the family always urged her. "You could make a lot of money and become famous ...like that guy ... Ken Jennings. Why, he's almost as famous as Alex Trebek."
"I'd probably freeze once I'm on stage," she would reply with a shrug. "Wouldn't that be the most humiliating experience?"
Mom told me that Aunt Sarah once attempted to narrate Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" word for word. After more than five hundred words, her English teacher interrupted her, and said, "That's wonderful, Sarah, but I only wanted you to summarize the story and give us your review."
"I knew what I was supposed to do then," explained Aunt Sarah. "I think I was being pedantic, trying to impress my High School teacher, but it backfired. The class laughed at me. I froze. I was so traumatized that I suffered from stage fright for years."
There was no trace of any stage fright when I watched Aunt Sarah make a presentation in Roman art, history and culture to a huge audience at the Denver Art Museum. Like everyone in the crowd, I was awed by her outstanding poise and public speaking prowess. I wondered if they noticed the long and silky hair, the creamy, light complexion, and the green eyes that sparkled when she spoke. The man next to me certainly could not keep his eyes off of her fitness guru body.
She was thirty; I was fourteen at the time, and I chose to spend my school career day with Aunt Sarah. More than ever, I idolized her and wanted to be just like her in every way. We shared the same genes, so I could get as pretty as her; but forget the body ... I hated exercising, and I loved junk food too much.
It was not surprising that Aunt Sarah's organizational and interpersonal skills would land her a museum and gallery administration job right after college. Eventually, with an M.A. in art history, and museum education, she was one of the most sought after professionals in the field.
One day, she came to the house with the news that both elated and saddened me. "I got the job at the Smithsonian Institute," she exclaimed. The first thing that came to mind was that she would be moving away from Colorado. "It's an opportunity no one can refuse," she said, hardly containing her excitement. "I would be responsible for the Institution's programs of research grants, fellowships, and other scholarly appointments. Imagine ...I will be going to different museums, universities, and other research institutions around the world."
"That's great," Mom said to her younger sister. "But this means we won't be seeing you much anymore."
Aunt Sarah gave Mom a hug. "I'm only a mouse click away," she said. "And I will be planning my flight itineraries that would allow a lay over in Denver, so we'll still see each other often."
"But how about Mark? I thought you were finally considering marriage."
"We are; it's just going to be delayed a little bit. We'll sell the condo, and we'll both move to Washington, D.C. He's a writer. He can live anywhere and work at home."
* * *
The visits did not come often enough; and her emails were always short. But we collected tons of hotel postcards with brief notes from her international travels, and we often wondered where the next card would be coming from.
Three years later, I was ecstatic when Aunt Sarah called and announced she was coming back to stay. Mom and I drove to the Denver International Airport to pick her up, but she wasn't on the flight she gave us. "She missed her flight," the agent informed us. "She didn't rebook."
Aunt Sarah had flown all over the world a hundred times, and I had never heard of her missing a flight even once. We called her cellular several times, but only got her voice mail. We called Mark. No answer either. Something strange was going on, I thought.
When we got home, we found Aunt Sarah at the front door. It was winter, with six inches of snow on the ground, and she was only dressed in a warm-up suit. She had lost a lot of weight, and uncharacteristically devoid of any make-up. She was always so fashionable. I had never seen her look so plain before. I also noticed she didn't have any luggage with her; I figured they were on the flight she missed.
"I forgot my keys," she declared. I ran to her and hugged her tight. "Hello, Ariana. How are you, darling? You look so grown up ...and so beautiful." She kissed me on the cheeks. Her lips felt like ice.
Mom rushed to open the door. "Why didn't you call us once you arrived?"
"I lost my cell phone at the D. C. airport."
Aunt Sarah forgetting and losing something? Preposterous! That was Mom's department. I had never heard her ask if anyone had seen her keys, or her cell phone, or anything. Mom, on the other hand, was always looking for something: her keys, purse, glasses, phone numbers, appointment notes, driver's license, credit cards. Dad often teased Mom about it. "You spend half of your life looking for something," he said. "I swear, if your boobs weren't attached to your chest you'd forget you had them." Mom would reply jokingly, "Be kind to me, I'm having an Alzheimer's moment," without truly understanding the disease, like most of us.
"I'm tired," Aunt Sarah said softly once she got warmed up in front of the fireplace, wrapped in a blanket, with a mug of hot cocoa in hand. "It's been such a long day."
"Would you like Ariana to start a warm bath for you?" Mom looked like she had a thousand questions to ask her. I was glad she suppressed her inquisitive nature and waited for Aunt Sarah to voluntarily explain what was going on.
She didn't respond about the bath question. "I couldn't handle the pressure anymore. I quit Smithsonian." She took a deep breath and stared down at the ceramic for a moment, then said almost in a whisper, "Mark and I broke up."
I couldn't decide which was more shocking: Aunt Sarah quitting the dream job she loved so much, or breaking up with the love of her life. I had always thought she and Mark were perfect for each other -- the yin and yang, the opposites that made relationships work, shine and last, like light and dark, AC and DC. We all adored Uncle Mark, and we were disappointed by the news. That night I overheard her talking to him on the phone; she was in tears. Something about their conversation led me to believe that the breakup was against her will.
* * *
A few months went by without any enlightenment to the mystery of Aunt Sarah's return. The initial joy of having her back was quickly replaced by worries and confusion. We kept our patience, hoping that she would voluntarily answer all the obvious questions, but they only multiplied. Why did she move to Vale--two hours away from the family? She only invited us once to her apartment, and that was during a family skiing trip a few weeks after she moved. She once worked as a weekend skiing instructor while in college, but she was not interested in skiing with us. She was always the neatest person I'd ever known, but the apartment was a total mess. There were unopened shipping boxes everywhere. The refrigerator was practically empty, and there were only paper plates and plastic utensils on the kitchen counter.
"I'm sorry for the mess," she said apologetically. "I've been busy with my consulting work."
I sneaked into her office and found only a desk, a laptop, and a printer. There were unopened mail and packages all over the floor. I ran a finger on the dust-covered laptop and opened it. I turned it on, but it wouldn't boot. What had she been doing since she returned to Colorado?
The answer would finally come several months later. Mom was convinced that Aunt Sarah was suffering from severe depression because of her breakup with Mark. She called him one night. Curiously, he would not answer any of Mom's questions; instead, he immediately flew in the following day. Unlike Aunt Sarah, he maintained his health and good looks. His eyes, however, projected extreme sadness, and his actions and words resonated continuing love for Aunt Sarah.
"It started two years after we moved to D.C.," Mark explained. "Her job was so demanding that I found all kinds of excuses to the changes in her behavior. She had become moody, suspicious, forgetful, and unaffectionate."
"That's not the Sarah we know," Mom gasped. "I can't believe it."
"I know. I couldn't believe it either. I love her, and I forgave all of it, including her untidiness around the apartment; the forgotten lunch or dinner plans with me--"
"You're describing someone alien to us," Mom said, almost in tears. "She had lost a lot of weight. Had she seen a doctor about all this?"
"I don't know; although I'd seen all kinds of cryptic reminders on the refrigerator, some with her personal physician."
"Cryptic? What do you mean?"
"Well ... they were not descriptive; some were written in acronyms, and some in language foreign to me. One day I saw an unrecognized name of a man. I began to suspect that she was being unfaithful to me; that she was having an affair. I looked up the name ..."
Overcome with emotion, Mark started shaking. Mom was agitated and grabbed him on both shoulders. "What is it, Mark? What is it?"
Mark looked Mom straight in the eye, tears now rushing down his face. I held my breath1. "Sarah was seeing a neurologist ... specializing in mental disorder."
The news came crashing down on us. I was dismayed and speechless. Mom froze in horror; her usual rosy cheeks turned white. Dad wrapped a sympathetic arm around her shoulders.
"Sarah was seeing a doctor specializing in Alzheimer's disease," Mark said after clearing his throat.
"No!" Mom screamed. "Oh, please God, no." She began to sob on Dad's shoulder.
It was too difficult for me to imagine that the woman's most powerful brain is dying. The most beautiful and incredible part of Aunt Sarah is being eaten away by an incurable disease, cell by cell.
"She told me she was going to live with you," Mark continued. "I begged her to stay. I wanted to be with her, take care of her through the end. She refused vehemently. She left me without saying goodbye. She called me periodically, and assured me each time that her illness was under control through medication, and that you've been a great help to her."
"We didn't see her often enough to suspect anything. We thought she was just depressed about your break-up."
"I'm so sorry. I've thought about coming back here, but she made me promise not to; that it would just be harder on her, so I didn't. But now, I think I might stay anyway-"
The conversation was interrupted by the ringing of the land line. No one felt like getting up to pick up the phone till the answering machine was activated.
"Hello. This is an emergency call from the Vail Police Department," the booming voice said.
Mom sprang to her feet and ran to the phone in the kitchen. We all followed and hovered nervously around her. "Hello! Hello!" She was out of breath.
"Hello, this is Sergeant Kolawski of the Vale Police Department. Do you know a Sarah Young living in Vale?" The answering machine was recording, and we could hear everything through the speaker. We hung on to every word the cop said.
"Yes, she is my sister. What about her?" Mom's voice was shaking competitively with the rest of her body. I coiled my arm around her waist to steady her, prepared for the worst.
"She is fine. But we found her wandering in the dark, dazed and confused. She can't remember where she lives. We found your name and phone number engraved on her Alzheimer's bracelet."
Aunt Sarah - the woman who used to instruct countless people what to do did not know how to call us ...the woman who had traveled the world could not find her way back home.
"We'll come and pick her up. We'll take her home," Mom said, looking strangely relieved.
The colors in the spectrum of Aunt Sarah's brain were slowly fading away. Someday, that brilliant light in her eyes would be gone, and she would no longer recognize me. She would look into my eyes, trying to decipher the countenance of the person who admired her intensely, and who wanted to be just like her. She would shake her head, as if it pained her from trying to remember me.
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