Reflected Glory

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my Auntie Rose. She owned a small, second-hand clothing store in Laguna Beach, where my mother shopped and worked part-time. I would get off the school bus early, walk down the hill to the shop, and stay there until closing time, when sometimes I was allowed to push around the fascinating, self-propelled Hoover. We went there often to visit with Rose. She and my mother would sit and chat, look at the new arrivals. At the age of ten I drew up adoption papers, illustrated and sealed with gold stars, to let Rose know that I was hereby adopting her as my aunt. She accepted.

We moved away when I was thirteen, returning to Laguna for monthly medical or orthodontic check-ups. Before heading back home, we’d cap off the day in Rose’s shop. While the adults chatted I would investigate the “Funky Closet,” a wardrobe bursting with lavish or eccentric clothes, feather boas, hats, ludicrously high heeled shoes and funky boots. On one occasion Aunt Rose held back a beaded sweater for me. I was fourteen and quite smitten with vintage clothing. On a knit field of navy blue, reflective and luminous strawberries were arranged in clusters, attached to yellow ribbon stems. Yellow ribbon trimmed the cuffs and collar, and the buttons were tight balls of rhinestone. Rose said I could keep it, no charge.

Three years after Auntie Rose gave me that insanely cool gift, my left hand and side went numb. I had an MRI—new technology at the time—and was soon diagnosed with MS.

“Rose has MS, too, you know, and she does fine,” my mother offered. I had never taken any interest in Rose’s health before. I knew she had a disease, and I knew she didn’t look very sick, whatever that would look like. “She had one attack and has been fine ever since,” my mother told me. My childhood adoption of Aunt Rose was now reinforced by our new bond, living with this disease. I hoped my future would be like hers, with just the initial symptom and nothing major for the rest of my life. And so it was for about eight years.

This was before any disease-modifying therapy existed, so people with MS turned to vitamins and supplements, or changed their lifestyles. Rose, I learned, had run a major department store in Los Angeles. One day, she suddenly lost vision. It returned after a week, I remember being told. There may have been other symptoms, too, which I have since forgotten. It was enough for her doctor to suggest that she cut stress out of her life. She quit the job and opened her own shop in Laguna, where she could (and did) decide what inventory she wanted to carry, and where she could (and did) kick customers out if she didn’t like their attitude.

As my physical and mental strength dims with recurrent stress and labor, and a sense of too-muchness ultimately seizes me with the return of symptoms, I think about Auntie Rose’s cutting back and flourishing. An avid gardener, she knew what pruning meant, both in her garden and in her own life. I learned from this. Most of my 27 years with MS have been spent monitoring my energy capacity, resting, and trying to slow down my speed of life to something more manageable. Nowadays, when faced with particularly demanding days, I take fatigue medication prescribed by my neurologist. Essentially, it keeps my brain from falling asleep on the job. But sometimes, surging with energy, I go beyond my limits and crash. At such moments, the oft-favored nap is no longer an option. The medication drives me charging forward all day, while another part of me falls behind, not sure where we’re going, saying, “wait for me!” (I’m beginning to sound like an old geezer yearning for the good old days when we had no medicine, hobbled thirty feet to the next park bench, and we liked it that way.)

Aunt Rose drove a great distance to come to my wedding, radiant as one of her flowers.  And now, suddenly, my eyes are hot with tears. She gave me the greatest gifts. Her outlook and strength, and of course the sweater.

I still have that sweater.

On certain days when I wear it, in just the right light, its beads cast bright flecks of rainbowed light on every wall.
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Laurie Clements Lambeth, Author

Laurie Clements Lambeth’s MS diagnosis at the age of seventeen brought her to poetry. Her first book Veil and Burn (University of Illinois Press, 2008) was selected for the 2006 National Poetry Series. Currently at work on her second poetry collection and a book of creative nonfiction about MS, she also teaches in the Medicine and Society program at the University of Houston, where she earned MFA and PhD degrees in Creative Writing. To learn more about her work, please visit