BY GEORGE STOIA, JMC3023

My aunt always gave the best Christmas presents.

Each year, I always anticipated something special, but I’ll never forget what she got me in 2007. I was 11, and my excitement grew every second, wondering what was coming this time around. I finished opening my presents from my parents and siblings and prepared to make my favorite trip of the year — the 45-minute drive from Tulsa to Bartlesville to see my aunt, and 20 other relatives.

I passed the time in the car listening to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” while playing the guessing game with my little brother, a game we played every year, about what our aunt got us. As we arrived at our grandma’s small red house on Fleetwood Place, a sudden warmth came over my body as I saw my aunt’s red Mazda CX7 sitting in the driveway. I walked in the door of my father’s old home, hearing a familiar voice yell my least favorite nickname from across the room.

“Georgie!” my aunt yelled as she ran to give me a hug.

For a split second, I didn’t care about what she got me for Christmas or that she added an “i” to my name. I didn’t care because I was back with my best friend — my Aunt Tooter.

That evening I unwrapped an oddly shaped present from her to find a lime green skateboard with black stripes, which could also transform into a scooter. I immediately attempted to ride the skateboard, failing miserably. I never learned how to ride, nor did I care to learn, but man that thing was cool.

Now 10 years later, and three years after her diagnosis of Frontotemporal Degeneration Dementia (FTD), I can bear to be with the woman I once adored for only five minutes. She’s no longer the woman I once knew. In fact sometimes I don’t even recognize her.

***

FTD is a rare form of Alzheimer’s usually diagnosed to middle age men and women, slowly taking over the victim’s brain. The average victim has a life expectancy of 7-8 years.

Before, Tooter could make an empty room feel cramped with her contagious laugh. She was the voice of every family discussion, usually validating her dislike for Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones. She always had something to say, no matter the topic.

Today, we consider it a good day if she mutters a word.

Working as a marketing executive for AT&T in San Antonio for the majority of her life, she was a massive Spurs fan, and loved her Sooners. A former softball player at OU, she bought football season tickets each year, making sure she made the trip to Norman six Saturdays each fall.

Today, she sometimes doesn’t even get out of bed.

Buying my older sister her first cellphone in fifth grade without my dad’s knowledge, Tooter was the cool uncle my siblings and I never had. She was the first person I called when my parents wouldn’t buy me a phone in middle school, telling her I was buying the first ticket to San Antonio to live with her instead.

Today, I can barely build up the courage to drive 45 minutes to visit her.

***

I wish she could see the man I’ve become today. I’ll never forget not being able to tell her when I was accepted to OU or when I covered the softball national championship or when I attended the OU-Ohio State game. She’s missed so much of my life — a life she cared dearly about.

When I see her today, I don’t see the woman that I so admired. I don’t see the woman who surprised me at my junior high football game. I don’t see the woman who dared me to ride the “Steel Eel” roller coaster at SeaWorld when I was barely tall enough. I don’t see the woman who convinced my dad to buy me my first phone. I don’t see the woman who promised to take me to New York when I graduated from high school.

I don’t see the woman who bought me that lime green skateboard in 2007.

I see a woman who doesn’t know who I am. A woman who can’t speak. A woman who needs help going to the bathroom. A woman who has gone through depression. A woman who has been diagnosed with one of the rarest forms of Alzheimer’s known to man.

A woman who I still love.

I used to ignore the fact that my aunt would never be the same. I’d brush it off like it was no big deal. I’ve watched my family be torn apart about what to do with everyone’s favorite relative. I’ve watched my dad struggle day-in and day-out, trying to find a solution to why his little sister is the way she is.

There was a point where I didn’t want to see her — I didn’t want to face reality.

But that woman is still my hero: the person I aspire to be. I can no longer ignore my aunt or the obstacles she faces because I know if we were to switch places, she would make that 45-minute drive to see me.

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