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Sally Thorner Headshot

She Did It Her Way

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The woman I once called my Auntie Mame is 84 years old, suffers from end stage Parkinson's, and has forgotten that the disease is her enemy and not me.

Aunt Gloria is single and childless, but not exactly an old maid. She has boasted all my life that she "did it her way." A wealthy boyfriend 'took care of her' in life and in death. She also outlived her best friend -- her brother, my dad. Most of her social circle has passed on. My siblings and I are her only link to a life that is fading fast. And that's her reality.

Unlike many baby boomers faced with aging parents, we are unrehearsed with the issue. Our father died of a heart attack at 60. Mom fought Parkinsons for 20 years before succumbing at the age of 70. After a fair amount of discussion with and without the patient, Gloria would move near my brother and me, to an upscale retirement home in Maryland. Not.

Our aunt has always prided herself in being a rebel and her waning years would be no different. Several family meetings later could not make a dent in her defiance. She would remain in her posh east side apartment in the city that never sleeps. New York has always been home and she loves it to this day. Gloria is determined in her isolation. Her fists are permanently clenched (contractures are part of the Parkinson's package.) They almost say "I'm not going anywhere without a fight."

Today her once glamorous bachelorette pad is a dark, depressing, shabby shell. There is a constant leak, make that gush of water in her bathtub. Her bed is stripped and there are plastic bags of junk strewn about her former sleeping chamber. A sleek Italian sofa in her living room has been transformed into a hospital bed, lined with chuck pads after too many accidents. That sofa and the off- white carpet resemble a Rohrshak. Instead of ink, there are blood stains from several falls that ended with trips to the emergency room. Her pill bottles occupy the butcher block table that used to serve up Peter Luger style- steaks. Mercifully these details are dimmed by the fact that all of her lamps are without light bulbs. She claims her dad, and mine, used to steal bulbs from hospital rooms. Is she implying they've stolen hers?

Other bizarre stories emerge the night of what I always think will be my last visit ... involving paranoid tales of her nurses (she now has round-the-clock care.) But I keep going back. Because as much as she makes me crazy, she is my last link to my father and part of my childhood.

Is there any truth to these claims of mistreatment? My doctor husband listens carefully to what he calls sundowning rants just in case there's any validity to the charges. When he asks her if she has anything positive to say she answers "yes, about you." "How about Sally?" he teases. She shakes her head no.

He laughs. She would, save the mask of Parkinson's. I am hurt and infuriated. My charmed life is seemingly a source of resentment for her.

My mom (her sister-in-law) died of this god- awful affliction knowing she was loved by her children, extended family, and many friends.

My Aunt Gloria will die alone and she will certainly be allowed to say "I did it my way."

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