by Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
July 16, 2002
GENEVIEVE, SWEET GENEVIEVE: SONG FOR A SISTER
NEW YORK, N. Y. -- My sister was named for the girl in a song written by Henry Tucker in 1869.
The sweet melody still rings in my ear.
"Oh Genevieve, sweet Genevieve,
As I begin writing, I know it's not about the beginning of anything but the ending of everything. It's about seeing my sister again and finding in the place of the once vibrant, energetic and productive woman, a slender reminder of the statuesque beauty she once was.
The physical changes were to be expected; she is over 86 now. Her health is wonderful, no dietary restrictions, sleeps well, no medications, no problems with heart or blood pressure, fully able to feed, dress, shower and attend to personal grooming unassisted.
Her manners are impeccable: "Excuse me, I didn't mean to interrupt," or, she'll ask you to please pass the ketchup. Her napkin is folded across her lap and then placed on the table when she's finished. She holds her cup with pinky extended, and, when she speaks, her voice is as it always was: melodious. She once sang on stage at Carnegie Hall.
Genevieve is not incoherent. She is not feeble, does not babble or blabber and, as a matter of fact, she is very articulate and quite coherent: She just doesn't know what she's talking about.
"This is a lovely place, we should come here again." She eats there almost every day with either her son, Billy, or Robert, who met me at LaGuardia Airport for the hour drive to her apartment in Greenwich, Connecticut. She ate a full meal followed by coffee -- which is why her sons take her there so often -- when at home, she forgets to eat, slimming down to 102 pounds from her lifelong 132.
During the meal, Robert and I chatted while she focused on the room and, of all things, a conversation at the next table. She then started giving us their words verbatim with a three-second lapse. The woman was yelling at the man and he was sitting stoically taking it all in. My sister knew exactly what was going on and was living in that moment but a moment later she would not remember a thing.
Diners at nearby tables would see three adults out to lunch on a sunny afternoon. Until, that is, we started to take our leave. She stopped at each booth and waved to the gray-haired lady, then "bye bye" to the black man; "bye bye" to the waitress, "bye bye" to the child coloring on the tray of his highchair. Everyone smiled and returned the wave. Robert had asked me to be patient. I resisted the urge to sweep her out the door while he paid the check.
Here was a woman who made her mark and fulfilled her purpose as she designed it. She was always the strong presence behind those who had to get things done. She managed the office and was the power behind a powerful man (her boss was New York's Dr. Gerald Pratt, world renowned Cardiac Surgeon who was called London to operate on King George II, father of the present monarch.)
During World War II, she worked tirelessly at boosting morale for our boys overseas with letters and sweaters, boxes of baked goods and candy. It was always something for the boys; something that smelled like home.
My sister does not suffer from Alzheimer's Disease. From what we know of that, one might assume she does. Instead, she has a form of dementia, a severe impairment and loss of intellectual capacity. We used to say "senile." She does not really know who I am. Back at her apartment, she went to a shelf and reached for a picture of her sister. It was a picture of me, not so long ago that it didn't look like me: same hair, same face.
Her son said, "That is Aunt Connie, Ma," and she said, "Oh, of course, silly me." She covered for her lapse while still being clueless.
What I found most difficult in coming to terms with losing my sister before the grand finale, is that she continues to appear as she always did. If she were to speak with strangers, they would believe she was alert and lucid. Not so.
She showed me a picture of her godfather, who happens to have been Speaker of the House John McCormack, a neighbor of our parents when he was a young lawyer and Genevieve was born. In the 60s, she visited his office, got the grand tour, went home with the autographed picture now in her hands.
"This is my dear friend. We used to visit back and forth, have dinner parties, and there are lots of good memories." It never happened. Dr. Pratt's picture is on the shelf. "He's just someone I used to know." I did not correct her; but strangers just might believe her.
Her son warned me that occasionally she gets cranky. Luckily, I didn't see that side of my dearly, not yet departed, sister, always an influence in my life as I looked sixteen years ahead of me to see how she handled life in the moments I was facing.
I was able to leave before 5:00 p.m. and catch the train to Grand Central Station where I planned to have dinner and see Cabaret on Broadway. Polly Bergen sang of what sums it all up:
"For the sun will rise"
On the one hand, I'm glad I went. I knew it would probably be the last time we'd be together but I expected a sad, tearful parting for two sisters, the last remaining siblings of the nine children in our family. I'm very sad, but it's not shared. She's blissfully living her second childhood.
I needed to see her. But, I saw only her shadow. Where I yearned to see the exceptionally self-reliant woman of her past, the one who was able to validate my memories of childhood, I saw instead the failing, diminishing person of my own future. I saw me.