Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Finding out about the death of an old acquaintance...

Back in the summer of 1980, my parents moved our family to a small town in Virginia.  My dad had gotten out of the Air Force and decided to open his own business, which he ran out of our home.  I was eight years old and our new town was quite a culture shock for me.  It was a lot smaller and more rural than the place in suburban Washington, DC that we'd left.  The truth was, I pretty much hated our new place.  I got picked on a lot.

Across the dirt road from us lived a woman, her daughter, and son.  The woman came with my dad's new business.  She had worked for the man who owned our house before my parents bought it.  Her daughter was a year older than me, while her son was three or four years older.  The woman was married, but her husband had Huntington's Disease, and was so ill that he lived at a mental hospital.  The woman's son also had the disease and was really sick too.  He couldn't communicate very well, was extremely thin and frail, and drooled a lot.  I remember they had a nurse who visited several times a week to help take care of him.

The daughter was normal and used to attend school with me.  She was a year ahead of me, very bright, and quite nice.  I remember one morning we were waiting for the school bus and she talked about the disease that had made her dad and her brother so sick.  She told me quite matter-of-factly that she had a fifty percent chance of developing Huntington's Disease.  Not long after that talk, my neighbor's brother died.  I remember her mother had a yard sale and sold my parents a red dirt bike that used to belong to him.  It was mine for a few years, until I outgrew it.

A few years after my neighbor's brother died, her father passed away.  We were in high school and she was doing a lot of dating.  She got her driver's license the year before I did, so sometimes she'd drive me to school.  She and her mom came on a couple of family trips with us and I used to housesit for her and her mom when they went on vacation. After we were both out of high school, her mom sold the house across the street from us and opened her own business, which later failed.

On May 23, 1995, I was a college graduate about to leave the country for a stint in the Peace Corps.  My neighbor was a young mother of two, a boy, age 3, and a girl, age 2.  On that May day, the young family was at Wal-Mart and my former neighbor had driven to the front of the store.  They had decided to get some drinks from a drink machine, but the machine was empty.  Instead of putting the kids in their car seats, my neighbor decided to coast to some other drink machines on the other side of the Wal-Mart's entrance.  The two year old was apparently standing in the back seat behind her mother, while the three year old was in the front seat.  My neighbor's foot slipped off the brake and hit the gas.  The little girl lost her balance and fell into the seatbelt, got tangled, and fell out of the car, where she was run over by her mother's rear tire.  The little girl died en route to the hospital.  Given the fact that she would have a significant chance of developing Huntington's Disease, I almost wonder if that was an act of grace.

The other day, I decided to go looking for my old neighbor.  I entered her name in a search and found her obituary.  She died last fall, leaving behind two sons.  The Huntington's Disease had indeed claimed her, like it did her father and her brother.  Her mother had written a nice obituary and included a picture that must have been taken when we were in high school.  She was just 39 when she died, a few months shy of her 40th birthday.

I couldn't help but feel kind of sorry for my old neighbor's mom, who had lost so many people in her lifetime... both children, a granddaughter, and her husband...  I only hope that my old friend's boys didn't inherit the defective gene that causes Huntington's Disease.  It truly is a cruel disease that takes people when they are far too young.

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