Living Out Loud: : The Elephant Woman

Remembering Aunt Sara

Feb 9, 2005 at 2:06 pm

Aunt Sara was one of the funniest people I've ever known. She seemed to have a certain energy; she would brighten a room when she entered it. I've missed her sense of humor all these years, her self-deprecating, slapstick and over-the-top ways. Some of the funniest times in my life are connected to her, like the infamous pool pass incident.

She had gone to renew her pass but there was apparently a problem with the laminating machine. It melted half of her face in the photo. She introduced us to this phenomenon by throwing down the pass on the table and exclaiming, "Look! I'm the Elephant Woman!" The whole family erupted in sidesplitting laughter — the kind that makes your stomach hurt and tears run down your face. I can't help but laugh about it even now, after all this time.

She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1995, when she was only 35 years old. Within two years she was in a nursing home, unable to make sense of the world around her and unable to recognize anyone except those closest to her.

By 2000 she had quit talking altogether. Right now she's unconscious and unable to swallow. The family has decided to take out the feeding tubes that are keeping her alive, no longer willing to keep the body alive when the mind has passed. So now we wait — the most agonizing wait of all.

Aunt Sara was my coolest aunt, because she didn't have any kids and therefore never treated us like one, but more like miniature people. She didn't discount our sense or reasoning just because we were young. She seemed to have such a cool, adult life — friends and boyfriends and going out for drinks — not stuff that parents do, stuff that single women do. And she read Cosmo, so I was positive that she was full of interesting information on men and sex and everything adult.

She was the queen of Halloween, and I credit my great love for the holiday to her. The woman did it up right. She was always in costume ­ always ­ whether she was at work or going out with friends or at home. Her costumes were always so creative. I loved her Uncle Fester get-up, complete with a light bulb in the mouth and her head bald as a cue ball.

One year she dressed up as Billy Idol, my favorite. She had shorter hair, so she sprayed it white and spiked it all up. She wore a white T-shirt with the sleeves cut off and wore a dog collar around one arm. She had the lip curl down pat. I was humbled in the presence of such creativity.

Aunt Sara was always a little larger than life — at least to a chubby, shy kid who wanted to be as outgoing as she was. I feel a little robbed that I didn't get to know her more as an adult. I was only 22 when she became too far gone for home care, too far gone for conversation. I like to think that maybe she and Dad would've been a lot closer as they grew older, that we might've traded notes each Halloween, that we might've discussed Cosmo together.

I'm ashamed to say I've only visited Aunt Sara a handful of times while she's been in the nursing home. I don't know if it's weakness or selfishness that keeps me away. The few times I've seen her have been devastating. Facing the reality that she is trapped in an old folks' home, unable to identify us, unable to speak is hard to take. It's such a contrast from the vibrant person I've known.

When I think of Aunt Sara, I want to think of her before 1995, before the disease consumed her. I want to think of her laugh and how she'd play board games with us. I want to think how she'd buy me art supplies each Christmas. I try not to focus on the unfairness of it all and the dread that's about to pass.

I try to think of her as the Elephant Woman.