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Driving Miss Mary — a sisterly bond

  • April 20, 2022

Many people know that I’m taking care of my aged mum now almost full time. What many people don’t know is that I’m also taking care of an even more aged half-sister. Her name is Mary.

My father was born on Christmas Day, 1901. Yep. You read that right. He was Jack LaLanne before Jack LaLanne: super youthful in mind, body and spirit — a health and fitness nut. He always looked and acted 20 years younger than he was. He raised a family with his first wife in the 1920s, consisting of three boys and one girl. Mary was the second oldest, a bit of a tomboy, always in perpetual motion, climbing trees and playing sports with her brothers. After his first wife died in 1950, my father was a widower for many years before marrying my Mom and raising my brother and I.

Although she has dementia now, Mary is still as spry and spunky as ever, and can have me doubled-over in laughter with her one-liners and zingers. It was because of her creeping cognitive issues that we had to relocate her to the East Coast last year from her long-time West Coast home where she had been a teacher most of her life.

It was a pretty smooth transition — except for the smoking. Yes, gentle reader, as you know, there are people who not only can get away with smoking their entire life, it also seems to be the secret of their longevity. Lovely neighbours and friends who had been taking care of Mary as she gradually declined sent me a video of her smoking at her kitchen table right before her relocation. “First I smoke…” (takes a drag) “…and then I croak.”

The excellent nursing home (I prefer “senior home”) we wanted to get her into is run by nurses. The structure was formerly run by the Little Sisters of the Poor who had a heart for the ancient career smokers, and set up a little smoking patio for them outdoors. But under these Nurse Ratcheds? NE PAS FUMER!

They are so against the puffing that they don’t even take smokers who are ready and willing to give it up (like my sister). But God finagled a bagel and somehow they let her in despite decades of half a pack a day. A friend had tucked a carton of her favourite ciggies in her suitcase, but when she arrived at the senior home, Mary solemnly handed me the carton saying: “I’m not allowed to smoke these here. So if this is the price I have to pay for this beautiful room, I’m gonna do it.”

Mary went cold turkey, and the cravings were pretty much gone in three weeks. The Burns clan have wills of steel.

Mary is extremely musical and responds to any kind of music — especially if it’s snazzy. In fact, she tends to talk in bebop slang. One of her signature expressions is: “Are you pickin’ up what I’m layin’ down?” “Not too bad for an old broad pushing a century!” “Jesus will be callin’ me pretty soon! And I won’t be comin’ back!” “I don’t care what they say aboutcha. You’re all right with me.”

Mary was born on the exact same day and year as Pope Benedict. She turned 95 with him on April 16. She calls him her “soul brother.”

The other day, I had to take Mary to a doctor. For some reason she was using her OUTDOOR voice the entire time. “IS THIS YOUR DIRTY VAN?!” Me: “Yes, princess. Hop in.” My sister’s doctor was in the middle of the LGBTQ+ neighbourhood. Rainbow signs all over the waiting room. “LGBTQ! NOW WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?” (thinks) “I USED TO KNOW.” (thinks) “I THINK IT HAS SOMETHING TO DO WITH SEX.” (thinks) “BUT I FORGET.” (Thank God!)

When we got into the doctor’s office: “THE DOCTOR HAS DIRTY WINDOWS JUST LIKE YOUR VAN!!” In an effort to distract her from the offensive panes, I pointed to the diploma on the wall. “Look, Mary, your doctor went to Yale!” “MY DOCTOR WENT TO JAIL?!” When I knocked some pencils off the reception desk on the way out: “I CAN’T TAKE YOU ANYWHERE!”

When my Mary (and my mum) aren’t humiliating me in public, they’re entertaining me, and most of all blessing me. Some people think I’m some kind of a hero for caring for these two, but they are the heroes for facing the daunting “sunset years” with such grace…and humour.

(Sr. Helena Raphael Burns, fsp, is a Daughter of St. Paul. She holds a Masters in Media Literacy Education and studied screenwriting at UCLA. HellBurns.com.   Twitter: @srhelenaburns.)

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