My sister, Velda, celebrated her 65 birthday at her assisted living facility on Tuesday, January 10. My daughter, Hope, and I took her a cupcake (and one for each of us) from Dewey’s, her crown from winning a beauty pageant in 1966, and new clothes. I took pictures of the “Queen for the Day” with our favorite staff members as she donned her tiara, bejeweled with tired-looking rhinestones. I thought of how her life had seemed so glamorous to me when I was a child. In 1962, when I was only 5, Sister (what I’ve always called her because I couldn’t say Velda as a young child) was crowned Miss Davie County. She was so beautiful—dark eyes; gorgeous, glowing complexion; warm, brown hair. And her figure, truly she had to have been 36-24-36! And now, I see a woman whose mind and body is being robbed of knowledge, memories, movement, even the simplicity of sticking on her fake nails. (I lie not—she wore glue-on nails for over 20 years).
But, in spite of this thief called dementia, she is happy. Truly, I think she has been happier since she became ill. She no longer fights long bouts of depression, feels defeated because she had two failed marriages, feels cheated because she never had a family. I see her with that crown perched on her beautiful, salt-and-pepper hair and think, my goodness, she is even more beautiful to me now than she was in 1966, because in these last 5 ½ years, I have seen her spirit. It is much more beautiful than any physical attribute. And that’s the one thing that dementia can never rob her of!
Every time I visit I ask her this: “What have you been doing Sister?”
She usually says, “Nothing.” But I won’t let it go.
“Now come on, you must have done something today,” I tell her.
In October she told me this. “Well, I went to help Mama get ready for church. She needs help you know.”
I commented back, “That’s nice of you. Who’s the preacher now?”
She snipped at me: “Now, Beverly! You know he’s my husband! He’s so good to me.”
I thought, my, she married the preacher and he’s good to her. I’m so glad her life turned out so well.
My sister was a resident at The Elms for 3 ½ years. While there, she was called Queen Velda not only because the staff members knew that she had been a beauty queen, but because was so beautiful in spirit—so kind and so grateful to everyone who helped her. Everyone who knew her there loved and cared for her so well. Sister is my only sibling and with the exception of me, Hope, and handful of cousins and friends, she had few, if any, visitors on a week-to-week basis. The administrators, office staff, activity coordinators, nurses, CNAs, maintenance, custodial staff, and dining hall staff became her family…and mine. Hope, who was 2 ½ when Sister became a resident and is now 6, worked her first 100-piece puzzle there last summer. We were there for almost 3 hours! Hope became so comfortable with the environment at the Elms that she would go to the ice-cream parlor and get a treat for herself and her Aunt V.B.! Or Hope would watch the cooking channel on the living room TV while I put things away in Sister’s room. Hope never felt uncomfortable or unsafe there and most importantly, I would like to think that she learned empathy.
Even more important, during her last year there, my sister called The Elms her home.
Sister left on January 13 to move into a skilled nursing facility as she can now only feed herself. She rode in her wheelchair, safely tethered in, head held high and proud, as if she were a queen riding on the back of a convertible. I decided that her satin sash should read, “My Sister Velda, Queen of the Elms.”