A Conversation with My Cousin – Edited
My NY cousin made contact yesterday. He liked something I’d posted on Facebook, and wanted to check in. I was relieved to learn he and his girlfriend have retreated to upstate NY. Our conversation naturally turned towards family.
I am terribly saddened, and not at all surprised, to learn that my uncle is showing solid symptoms of dementia. This is, of course, my mother’s brother. My uncle and I have never talked enough for me to have worried about this until the last year (when he shared that he needed to have surgery, but couldn’t recall what for). But you receive news of this nature and suddenly things click into place… He’s been working on the same projects for years, pursuing getting his once thriving photography business back onto its tracks, not understanding why this or that museum contact wouldn’t call him back, rehashing childhood stories (which sound rather opposite from the stories his sister told), and always promising to stay in better touch, to come out and visit more often and never doing either. All symptoms of a distracted high-anxiety kind of person, also symptoms of someone starting to lose their compensatory coping skills, and probably not remembering who he’s told what story to.
The last time I saw my aunt and uncle (and first time I’d ever met my cousin and his girlfriend!) was almost 3-years ago. They came out our way from NY to visit. I planned a few things to do that I thought would be of interest to folks. While it was lovely to see everyone, it was exhausting. My aunt and uncle were at odds with my cousin, who was clearly suffering from care-giver burnout. Watching my uncle all but come unhinged at lunch over an open patio door letting in cool June air into our restaurant of choice led me to shelter in the bathroom more than once. At a regional botanical garden, I thought the family of three was going to come to blows when my cousin needed to go to the local pharmacy for some allergy meds. Watching my uncle tell his AIRBNB host that the shower caddy in their beautiful accommodation was cheap and should be replaced left my jaw on the floor. His filters were already thinning. Unbeknownst to me, I was on multiple field trips with TWO dementia patients, and TWO, no THREE burnt out care givers, all working well beyond our capacity. No wonder it was exhausting.
My cousin shared that his dad is having classic money management problems, and that his mom is in denial. I feel terrible for him as I know what the view is from his trail head. Like me, he is his parent’s only child. There will be no disagreements with siblings over the best care choices, only his parents. He has one obstacle I did not. My father, while not doing anything about it, at least acknowledged to me that my mother was ill. Until my aunt is ready to accept that my uncle is ill, my cousin is going to be walking a steep path in trying to help them.
The last time my aunt and uncle called me, my aunt asked if my mom had actually been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I was taken aback, but answered her question including how, and why it was important. At the conclusion of our call she made sure I had her cell phone and asked me to call her should there be any news of my mom. She reiterated this two more times. My uncle didn’t object to her insisting that any news should go to through her. This all makes so much more sense now. And I have to wonder, just a little, if her denial to her son, my cousin, is about making him feel safe and protected from what is a harsh and stark reality. While this is what mom’s do, it a problem… My aunt is trying to protect my cousin, so she loses him as an ally. My cousin thinks his mom is in denial and he’s afraid to further upset her… So he loses her as an ally. So they’re both alone. I pray they can find a way to each other in all of this.