I grew up living across the street from my grandparents and my aunt, so we saw each other almost every day. It wasn’t until we all moved in together, though, that I really began to see how important each of them was to shaping the way I’ve grown up. Friends of mine complain about their “crazy relatives” and how they could never live with them the way our family has lived together for over ten years. But I’ve definitely had my horizons broadened. That extra layers of family has combined the experiences and values of different generations, not only providing enrichment for all of us but also support during the most chaotic of times.
Nearly twenty years ago, when my aunt, Holly, was 15 years old, she was diagnosed with 1)multiple sclerosis, a disease that attacks the central nervous system. You wouldn’t have even known it to look at her. By the time she entered college, everyone in my family had nearly forgotten about her disease since she was constantly 2)on the go. What’s scary, though, is that it’s not clear what causes MS or when its symptoms will strike. I think that’s why it hit all of us so hard.
When it first struck Holly, she had just finished her political science degree and held a full-time job. Her legs had weakened, and she joked that she felt like she was three years old again, relearning the whole process of walking. Living in our 3)extended family home (with my parents, sister, grandpa-rents, aunt and great-uncle), she had plenty of support from all sides. We kept our fingers crossed that this would be the worst of it, and that with regular exercise to strengthen her legs, she would return to normal. But soon, she lost both her job and her long-time boyfriend, who couldn’t deal with her MS.
The stress began to 4)take its toll, not only on Holly but also on all of our emotions. The once 5)happy-go-lucky girl had become moody and 6)reclusive, too embarrassed to go out to public restaurants because her hands shook so much when she held anything. Out of frustration, she blamed my grandparents (though researchers have only speculated that heredity may be one of the causes of MS). She even put her sister—my mom—on a guilt trip for having been fortunate enough to be married and have two healthy children.
It’s a completely helpless feeling to watch a healthy friend or relative take a turn for the worse, especially when it’s someone you’ve virtually idolized as a little girl. But for me, living with such a large part of my immediate family strengthened bonds that could have easily 7)frayed under such emotional pressure. Keeping this close connection, we have all persevered through Holly’s illness. My grandfather could have easily gone golfing every week, as he did when he first retired. Instead, he stays and works around the house, to help Holly if she needs anything. My grandmother, almost 70, continues to work to help pay medical bills. My parents remain constantly understanding even through my aunt’s worst mood swings. Even my sister and I are there for simple, but essential, 8)comic relief. The hardest part is the feeling that Holly is unable to appreciate anything we try to do for her.
Still, 9)to her credit, Holly hasn’t just sat back and watched us. Since the earliest days of her diagnosis, she has always participated in the annual 10)MS Walkathon, and it wasn’t until this year’s walkathon that I really began to see how grateful she truly is for all of our efforts. I hadn’t participated in the walk for several years, mainly because it seemed like such a 11)futile effort. What would getting up at 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning really do to help? But at the very last minute, frozen by the wind, I joined the rest of my family. When the walk was over, I expected Holly to pass over me again for even simple gratitude. Instead, I experienced genuine thanks, as she enthusiastically introduced me and my sister to friends who had come along to support her. My grandmother reminded me afterwards how overjoyed Holly was to see that everyone had come out to join her, not only her 12)blood relatives but the “extended family” of friends she has met since she got sick. I really began to see how just a little caring can mean more than a multitude of prescriptions.
As a recent college graduate, I’m now at the same point in my life as Holly was when the effects of her MS began. I know I can not take anything for granted, especially my freedom of movement, something she only enjoyed for a brief part of her life. Through her, I also know being 13)afflicted with a disease doesn’t mean I can just give up. Even when the odds are against me, I have to keep going. But most importantly, though, I’ve learned through this whole experience with my family that, no matter what, I have a wonderful, even extraordinary, support group around me that will always catch me before I fall.