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Jane Heller Headshot

Dementia Cures Sibling Rivalry? Who Knew?

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"Any plans for this weekend?" I asked my 95-year-old mother during a recent phone conversation. She lives in New York where she has a full-time caregiver and I live in California where I am my husband's full-time caregiver, and I call her often between face-to-face visits. I worry about her. While she still goes to her book group and walks on her treadmill and makes dates with her 88-year-old boyfriend so they can pore over his stamp collection, she has cognitive impairment that involves significant memory loss.

"I do have plans," she said. "I'm going to Maxine's birthday party. She's turning 98, I think."

"Sounds great," I said, knowing it's best to just follow along wherever Mom's reality takes her these days, however implausible. The truth was that she and her older sister Maxine hadn't spoken in over 10 years. Theirs was a relationship marred by long periods of estrangement -- a sibling rivalry that stemmed from my aunt's resentment of my mother's birth. It was such a shame because they were a fun twosome when they weren't having a falling out -- laughing and shopping and sampling each other's brisket. I'd hoped there would be another reconciliation before they died. "Are you looking forward to seeing Maxine?"

"Oh, yes," said Mom. "Why wouldn't I be?"

After we said goodbye, I flashed back to their accusatory phone calls and angry letters and icy silences, not to mention the family gatherings that were fraught with stomach-churning, hand-wringing, I-wonder-if-they'll-both-show-up drama. And then I called Sandy, Mom's caregiver, to share the story about my aunt's supposed birthday party.

"No, it's really happening," she told me. "Your mom picked up the phone one morning, out of the blue, and called Maxine to say hello. They had such a nice conversation, like they were buddies. Maxine has memory problems too and they both forgot they were mad at each other."

How perfect, I thought. There really is a silver lining to not being able to remember everything.

I was thrilled for Mom and Aunt Maxine and their new-and-improved sisterhood. So what if they didn't remember names and events and where they kept their reading glasses. Also wiped out were the insults and hurt feelings and you-started-its, and good for them.

If only it were that simple for me.

I, too, have a sister who resents my existence if she thinks of me at all -- a stepsister with whom I grew up as a result of my mother marrying her father when we were both nine. There's no law that says you have to like, never mind love, the sibling that's been thrust upon you, but she and I had so much in common when we became part of a Brady Bunch household. For one thing, our birthdays were only five days apart. For another, we were enrolled in the same class at our new school. For a third, my father had died of brain cancer and her mother had died of brain cancer and the very coincidence of it all should have brought us closer and it didn't; in fact, we never had a single conversation about our missing parents and how it felt to lose them.

Over the years, she developed a genuine antipathy toward me and I responded by developing a genuine antipathy toward her. We're very different people, no question, but shouldn't we be able to do better than avert our eyes if we happen to get stuck at a family function together? In an effort to mend fences, I once asked her what I had done to earn her hostility and she reeled off my shortcomings and said our fences were just fine the way they were -- irreparably broken.

Yes, I have shortcomings and I'm sorry for each and every one of them, but do we have to suffer from dementia in order to forgive? Do we need to forget the past in order to embrace the present? Or are some sibling rivalries destined not to have a happy ending as much as we wish they would?

I'll let you know on my 95th birthday.