No children to mourn her

Mary Medland

November 09, 1992|By Mary Medland

MY husband's 78-year old aunt died recently. There were no children to mourn her passing; there wasn't an obituary, a funeral, nor a memorial service. There wasn't a house to sell, furniture to divide up, a will to read, or legal matters to settle. All her worldly possessions -- Goodwill clothes and romance paperbacks -- have been stored in plastic bags in our basement for the past several years. There wasn't even a body to cremate -- it was donated to science.

Gladys Gwynne -- nee Gladys Smullyan -- had spent a good deal of the past 40 years, and probably closer to 50 or 60 years, in and out of mental hospitals. She was a victim of bi-polar disorder, better known as manic depression.

Because of this, many of her friend and relatives kept their distance from her over the years, burned out from dealing with her illness. Some were weary, others were lazy; few were there in the end. When she was taking her medication, lithium, she was bright, funny and shrewd. But when she wasn't taking her lithium, and frequently she would stop taking the drug because of its side effects, she was unbearable.

She managed to ruin more than one celebration over the years. I remember one Easter dinner, when Gladys was manic. She talked on and on, making endless inappropriate comments to everyone present, until finally her nephew, in desperation, took her back to her apartment.

One Thanksgiving weekend, my husband and I unexpectedly had to help her move. She had been sharing a house with a woman she had met during a recent hospital stay. Relations between the two had disintegrated, and as we moved her material effects -- all in plastic bags -- out of the house, we were continually harassed by her mentally ill, drunk, vulgar and screaming roommate.

We became adept at predicting just when Gladys needed to be hospitalized. She also knew when it was time and would behave in a style guaranteed to get her committed by the state. Once she directed traffic on Greenmount Avenue at 3 a.m. Saturday, until the police took her to the hospital.

But in spite of the difficulties of having her as a friend -- or as relative -- she did have a good number of friends. Many were people she knew from her various stays in mental hospitals: Spring Grove, Saint Elizabeth, Francis Scott Key, Haverford State Hospital, Bellevue and others. And in her last years in Baltimore she also put together a pretty good support system from the congregation of a Unitarian church she attended.

One wonders what she might have accomplished had she not been so ill. All her relatives -- people now in their late 70s and early 80s -- remember that she was beautiful. Indeed, that is the first thing everyone says when we ask what she was like 60 years ago: She was stunning.

And she was. This woman who died with few of her original teeth and no dentures and a face and body ravaged by years of inadequate health care once had been stunning. In the 1930s she had left New York and set out for Hollywood, managing to find bit parts in several movies. For those of us too young to remember her as a young woman, there are Hollywood studio photos.

In spite of that glimmer of promise, though, her life was pretty much shaped by mental illness. And in a few weeks, when her meager possessions are donated to charity, there won't be much tangible evidence of her life: no tombstone to visit with flowers, no jewelry to wear, no pets to find homes for.

Maybe in 100 years, care for the mentally ill won't be the art it seems to be today. Perhaps it will be more of a science and, as a result, there may be fewer lives devastated by mental illness. But for now, it touches many of us, and we muddle along doing the best we can. After all the difficulties of Gladys' life, one hopes that she has found some long-overdue peace, some place where there is no need for mental hospitals, no need for lithium.

Mary Medland writes from Baltimore.

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