08 July 2013

Madness Monday - It's a Mad and Fearless Birthday!!

Happy birthday, Auntie Lou! God knows we're a tough lot, and you've shown that to us in so many ways over the years. I love you, and hope that you have many more birthdays. 
(all photos courtesy of L C Lorenzana 2013)


  My Aunt Lou is crazy. You know, the cuckoo-for-coconuts kinda wacky that used to only get whispered about when trying to figure out how to care for a relative who'd lost their mind. Of course, it's only been a few decades since people with developmental disabilities, like Down Syndrome, have been acknowledged as not being 'touched.' Menopausal women were institutionalized. The amount of misinformation regarding mental health issues is still staggering, and even today in 2013, diseases of the mind are still spoken about in many families in whispered undertones. Mental illness is truly nothing to laugh about. And yet, if my paternal aunt taught me one thing, it's to speak your mind. Whole or not. 

And, just to be clear, I have several friends with kids with Down's. They're beautiful, bright, amazing kids. Check out the National Association for Down Syndrome for more information.  And, my mom suffers from Alzheimers. There's nothing worse than watching your loved one slowly slip away. But in my family, we choose to use humor to discuss subjects that are 'uncomfortable' so if you're offended by those who do that, you're probably going to want to not read this. Because my family is nuts. Really.

My paternal aunt, Marilou Cosgrove, was born on 8 July 1929 in Chicago, IL[1]. Her mother, Flo ("Florence") Margot Leatherman, and father, James Patrick Cosgrove, were not married at the time she was born[2], though to my knowledge that was not widely known. She never married.

There is so much I’d like to say about this incredible woman, but it’s difficult to know what’s true and what’s not. The photographs capture a seemingly happy-go-lucky person, and I’ve come to believe that she was anything but that. I last saw my aunt nearly five years ago when our family had to make the decision to force her to move into a long-term healthcare facility. She had become a danger to others and herself, allowing her apartment to be emptied (we don’t know by whom or why) while she kept detailed logs of the comings and goings of certain types of people in her inner city building. She believed that several of the men in the building were conspiring against her and were going to try to kill her. She asserted that the Chicago Police had come to her door (in this case they had, but to check out one of her neighbors not her) and told her that she should not have a phone or TV because she would be watched if she did.

She had, several years earlier, vehemently refused to get a cell phone, because it would cause her to get cancer. She also steadfastly refused to use a computer because of the ‘rays’ that emanated from the screen. Without a way to communicate with her (her phone had been disconnected), it’d been weeks since anyone had been able to get in contact with her. Over the course of many years, she slipped from a self-confident, intelligent, loving woman to a paranoid shell of herself. After a call from an extremely concerned friend of hers, a cousin of mine drove into the City and found her, disoriented and living in squalid conditions. She was hospitalized with dreadful wounds in her legs and a generalized infection; she told the nursing staff she’d been poisoned by a particular group of people who lived in her building.

At the point we were all together in her hospital room discussing what was in her best interest (including her in the conversation out of respect) I voiced a concern about how she’d been doing her banking (without a phone or computer, she had always taken her checks to deposit them at the bank and conducted almost all of her business in cash.) She insisted that everything was fine and that she’d managed to get herself to the bank, something all of us had a difficult time believing considering her physical limitations. After I left, my once beautiful and loving Aunt Lou informed my uncle that she was very afraid of the lengths that I would go to find out everything I could about what she had and how she was living and that I was going to try to kill her to get her money (she only received money from her pension; she had a small amount of savings.) After discussing it with the family, I decided that it was in her best interest to simply stop going to see her and I have not seen her since. 

The last time I spoke to my cousin about Aunt Lou, she was doing “much better” and seemed a lot more herself. She has even started asking about me and my husband, who she always loved and respected. I don’t know if I’m going to go and see her; I worry doing so may cause her to once again think I want to harm her. And the last thing I want is for her to be afraid. Because, to me, she was always fearless.

[1] State of Illinois Department of Public Health, Birth Certificate, [redacted], Marilou Cosgrove; Division of Vital Statistics, Springfield, Illinois.
[2] Cook County [IL] Clerk, Marriage Certificate, No. 2251975, 21 November 1952, James Cosgrove and Florence M Leatherman; County Clerk Bureau of Vital Statistics, Chicago, Illinois.

1 comment:

  1. I have had several relatives to whom such personality changes have happened. Although It upsets everybody on one level, I agree that the best response is with low-key humor. It's just what is, at that moment, and doesn't change who these people were in the past. Some brain cells are "breaking down," and those cells are in charge at the moment.

    One of my aunts in assisted living used to clean everything in her apartment obsessively. She'd steal cleaning powders etc. from the official cleaning cart that rolled through the halls and hoard the supplies. We were concerned but also, frankly, it was amusing. She also regularly left the water running so that her sink overflowed more than once and water leaked into the apartment below. Her habits gave everyone something to talk about -- with both respect and humor.

    Paranoia can go with Alzheimers, I think. One beloved cousin in his 80s, when I arrived at his home in the South one summer, looked at me aslant and demanded, "Where have YOU been?" I replied with equanimity, "I've been putting these pictures of you into our family memoir," and showed him pictures of himself in his football days. He softened up.

    You are right that "mental illness," in all of its many so-called forms, is still stigmatized. People are just afraid. Maybe someday they'll get a grip. Just as we are unafraid of children who are "learning the ropes" of life, we can be unafraid of elders who are "dropping the ball" or "losing a step." It's easier to relax about it, and it's kinder.

    Your Aunt Lou sounds like a live wire who led an exciting life! Good for her. "Speak your mind. Whole or not." I love that.


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