From Normal to Nightmare
My aunt Anna was born on March 1, 1923, the first of my Italian grandparents’ four children. She was apparently a happy, healthy child until she began to experience epileptic seizures at a young age. My grandmother traveled by train with Anna from her home in New Bedford, Massachusetts, to Boston and then New York to seek the advice of some of the country’s experts on epilepsy, but ultimately Anna suffered permanent brain damage as a result of her seizures.
Anna was never able to attend school. Unable to express herself clearly in words, she often exploded in violent outbursts. When she was about sixteen, her parents committed her to a facility for mentally disabled people in Palmer, Massachusetts, one hundred miles from their home. By then, they had three more children, all under the age of five, to care for. My mom remembers the many long road trips to visit Anna.
The Palmer facility was a nightmare for Anna. I’m not privy to the details, but I do know that she wasn’t treated well there. When she was fifty-one, Anna was moved to another facility in my grandparents’ hometown. It wasn’t much better than the first place, but at least she was closer to her family.
A “New” Family Member
Before this, I had neither met Anna nor even knew she existed. I was ten years old when I was introduced to a family member to whom no reference had ever been made. At first, she scared me. I couldn’t understand her when she spoke, and I didn’t know how to relate to her. When we visited Anna at her “home,” I was terrified that the other residents would hurt me somehow. They seemed so unpredictable.
I slowly learned about Anna’s quirks. She loved aprons and wore a different one every day. She was thrilled when someone gave her a new one at Christmas. She also loved candy and other sweets. I’m pretty sure I inherited my sweet-tooth gene from her.
Anna’s life didn’t improve at her new home. I often heard my mother, aunt, and uncle refer to mysterious injuries, including black eyes and broken bones, that were always the result of the same explanation: Anna “fell.” It’s quite possible that this was true. Anna wasn’t steady on her feet. But it’s no secret that abuse is rampant in nursing homes, psychiatric hospitals, and group homes, and Anna seemed to be a constant victim.
A New Life
After my grandmother passed away (twenty years after her beloved husband), our family was approached by the director of a state-run program that allowed mentally disabled people who were not a danger to themselves or others to live in mainstream society. Everyone was on board except my uncle Frank, Anna’s brother and legal guardian. He thought the whole thing was too good to be true and that Anna would be victimized further. Fortunately, some heart-to-heart chats with his sisters and the director finally convinced Frank that this would be a good move for Anna.
Now in her seventies, Anna first moved into an apartment in an old, renovated school in Fall River, Massachusetts, and a couple of years later into another one in a renovated mill in the same city. The setup was ingenious. Anna’s friend Sandy lived in the apartment next door, and they had round-the-clock nursing care. At night, their nurse slept in the connecting room between their apartments.
Anna’s life had officially begun. She picked out all of the furniture and artwork for her new digs. She had a social life that included swimming, dancing, and bowling with Sandy and her friend Paul. She often went out to lunch and to social gatherings with her peers. She spent Sundays and holidays with various family members, to whom she referred as “my people.”
Anna’s nurses, most of whom lovingly referred to her as Anna Banana, limited her intake of sweets to keep a check on her weight and overall health. They cooked her meals, ensured that she bathed regularly, washed her clothes and bedding, and ferried her to doctors’ appointments and outings. They made her favorite treat of a cup of coffee, which she would sip, steaming hot, through a straw.
Anna loved jewelry and would dress to the nines every time she got to go anywhere. Every outfit was color coordinated and highlighted by earrings, necklaces, and a ring on every finger. Her once-straggly hair was now clean and professionally coifed. She finally gave up her apron collection when her real life began.
Nothing fazed my remarkable aunt. She endured two mastectomies as well as brain surgery to repair a subdural hematoma that resulted from a fall in the bathroom of her apartment. (This one was a legitimate accident.) When we visited her in the hospital during this latter trial and asked how she was feeling, she replied simply, “My head hurts.”
When Anna passed away in the spring of 2005 at the age of 82, her nurses were heartbroken. They truly loved her, probably more than anyone in her family ever did. To be fair to my grandparents, they were simply a product of their generation, unenlightened about the proper way to treat people who don’t fit the mold of what we consider “normal.” They grew up in an era when people with mental or emotional disabilities were shunned, locked away and hidden, and regarded as damaged goods rather than unique and valuable human beings.
I’m grateful that God blessed Anna, at least for a few precious years, with genuine happiness, joy, friendship, and true “care” givers. I’m grateful that God taught me, through the gift of Anna, that all people, regardless of their limited intellect or potential, have innate value and deserve to be treated with respect, kindness, and dignity.
Anna, you were a blessing.