Facebook posting, November 25, 2014:
“Hi Lauren, I wanted to let you know that Aunt Jean passed away this week. Margaret Jean Victoria Milne was 81 years old. Apparently, she never fully recovered from a choking incident. Sorry I don't have more info. From south of the 49th, Happy Thanksgiving! Love, your cousin Betty.”
This may seem like a strange way to learn of a family member’s departure, especially an Aunt but considering how little I knew her, it seemed oddly fitting. I passed a couple of moments reflecting on her life, and then it was quickly forgotten as the stream of mostly cheerful but insignificant postings filled my Facebook newsfeed.
My Aunt Jean suffered from schizophrenia and died where she lived, in a group home in Brandon, Manitoba with no family around her.
Many years ago, sometime after my parents’ divorced, I met her for the first time. This is significant because my father never allowed her to visit us when my parents were together. She was over fifty, I was nineteen. My mother hadn’t seen her in over 40 years and had finally decided it was time.
The first visit produced a lot of excitement and anxiety. Who was this forgotten sister of my mother’s who we knew so little about? How would my mom and she react to meeting after so many years? What would we talk about? One thing was for certain: it was going to be the toughest on my mother, who likely had mixed feelings about never staying in touch. My siblings and I coped with this highly- charged and emotional visit the only way we knew how – with jokes and laughter.
But the tragedy of her life was not lost on us. We knew the bare facts. My grandfather had committed his wife to a hospital due to what was assumed at the time to be a ‘paranoid’ condition, and was left to raise three daughters alone in the 1930s. Jean, the middle sister, was removed from the family home at the age of 13 and placed in a psychiatric facility after repeated comments from her about people ‘out to get her.’ I’m sure there was more to it, but that was all that was passed down.
She had a lobotomy in the 1950s, a popular treatment at the time for those with mental illness. The operation we later learned left her relatively calm but often emotionally flat. She was then treated with medication and lived for the rest of her life in a group home while her family moved on with their lives.
On that first visit, we soon discovered she was quite capable of taking care of her basic needs, and had an excellent memory for the details of her new surroundings. This became evident by her rapid-fire responses to our silly questions.
“Tell us about our cat, Aunt Jean.”
“Her name’s Jasmine she’s eight years old she has flecks of black brown beige grey white fur with green eyes pink tongue.”
In our ignorance and as a coping mechanism, we made her the butt of our jokes and snickered at her eccentricities. During the visit she decided it was a good time to go off her medication, much to my mother’s shock and trepidation. We were ill-prepared for a situation like this. She was easily angered and we didn’t understand her or her mental state well enough to know where that would lead.
A couple of times while out in public with my mother, she made some rude comments under her breath, once towards Japanese tourists passing by and loud enough for them to overhear. My poor mother, having no practice at handling this, was deeply embarrassed and apologized profusely. The strangers seemed to accept her explanation that Aunt Jean was not well. These were nerve-racking experiences for all of us.
On her second visit to Toronto, we ‘lost’ her in the big city. My sisters and I were charged with meeting her at the airport and safely bringing her home while my mother was at work. We were late arriving, and to our horror she left without us.
After racing home and discovering her luggage neatly lined up at my mother’s doorstep in downtown Toronto, we then involved the police and embarked on a frantic search to locate her before my mother found out. We scoured the neighbourhood and finally spotted her standing kitty corner to us at Bloor and Yonge in her stocking feet. Relieved, we sprinted across the busy intersection to greet her.
“Aunt Jean! Hi. Oh my God! Why aren’t you wearing your shoes?” we asked, incredulous.
“My feet hurt,” was all she would say.
Over the years she had certainly learned self-reliance. Having been ‘stood up’ at the airport, she left with my mother’s address in hand and hailed a cab. Feeling hungry upon her arrival, she dumped her luggage and went in search of something to eat in a city she had only set foot in once before.
My mother, who had put off the reunion for years, did what she was able to do for Jean at that time. And to her younger sister’s credit, my Aunt Roz flew Aunt Jean down to the States for annual visits.
But it strikes me as very sad that in all the years Jean lived apart from her family, her father visited her only once. I can’t even begin to imagine what that did to her. For generations and still today, there remains a stigma attached to anyone suffering from a mental illness. In the past if someone in your family was ‘cursed’ with something noticeable, it was a shameful secret and something to hide.
Thank God we’ve come a long way since then. The public is more educated about mental health issues and there is more understanding, acceptance and support within the community. Of course, we still have a long way to go. In its many manifestations, mental health issues affect an astounding number of families. It affects us all. Finally the secret is out, where it belongs.
(Facebook posting, July 10, 2014:
"Raise a glass to my Aunt Jean, who is now gone but never forgotten. Cheers.”
Lauren Ryan's love of writing led her to Brian Henry's workshops several years ago. She enjoys all kinds of writing and is working on her first Young Adult novel in her spare time. She published "A Boy's Best Friend," a short piece about raising her sons, in the June 2010 issue of Today's Parent and "Autumn Mauve", a memoir piece about her mother on Quick Brown Fox.
See Brian Henry’s schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Algonquin Park, Alton, Barrie, Bracebridge, Brampton, Burlington, Caledon, Collingwood, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Ingersoll, Kingston, Kitchener, London, Midland, Mississauga, Newmarket, Orillia, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Saint John, NB, Sudbury, Thessalon, Toronto, Windsor, Halton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.