A lifetime snoop I have always
looked inside other shoppers’ buggies to see if they are
buying better groceries than I am. As a consequence, I
was inadvertently trailing the woman who was now in
front of me. We stopped in the dairy section where I
heard her moan, “They don’t have my yogurt!” When
her feverish eyes caught mine, I smiled
She raised her hands, exasperated.
“They don’t have my yogurt!”
“Is there some other brand you could eat?” I prompted.
“I can’t get back here to the store. I’ve got a sitter
taking care of my husband who is crazy! Crazy! You
don’t know,” She shook her head as if clearing visions
that she wanted to forget.
right,” I agreed soothingly. She took a deep breath and
tried to read the names of the other brands of yogurt.
“I like low-fat yogurt,” she said.
“With peaches. Not this custard stuff.”
“Have you tried the custard stuff?”
I asked gently. “Because it’s pretty good.”
“I just want my yogurt.” She almost
stamped her foot. I didn’t blame her. When a
caregiver’s life has gotten way out of her control, she
wants something simple, like her flavor of yogurt, and
it doesn’t seem fair to that she can’t have it.
“I know,” I said, reaching past her
for the custard stuff.
“I don’t usually look like this,”
she said waving a red rough hand at her outfit.
It wasn’t pretty. She wore an old
jogging suit, and the top didn’t match the bottoms. Her
walking shoes were dirty, and the cuffs of her pants
were covered in red dust.
“I’ve been for a walk, and I really
needed that walk. I’m trying to live.”
I nodded, positioning my buggy to
leave, but the nervous lady stopped me. “My husband has
Alzheimer’s disease, and I’ve hired a new woman to sit
with him so I can take a walk and buy my peach low-fat
yogurt, and I won’t be able to get back until I don’t
I nodded silently.
“He’s my second husband. We haven’t
been married very long, just two years. I’ve placed
calls to his oldest son, but he doesn’t return them. I
need help!” She said the words as if she thought I’d
“You do need help. You can’t do it
alone,” I assured her. “No one can.”
She focused on me, her face pale,
the skin tight with tension, no laughter in her eyes at
all. Not even the memory of it. I knew that look. I
used to wear her expression and a version of the same
outfit she had on.
“My father had Alzheimer’s,” I said
softly. “It’s hard. Keep calling his son, and hire all
the help you can. You really can’t do it alone.”
She inched closer, as if I had
forgiven her of some trespass. “Could I ask you
“Yes,” I said.
“It’s an awful question,” she warned
“Ask it,” I said.
“My husband…..my husband,” she
repeated the words emphatically, “propositioned the lady
who was taking care of him before. I got an emergency
call on my cell phone, and she was yelling hysterically.
I hurried home and asked my husband what he had done. He
drew back and said clear as a bell, `Obviously I was
mistaken about her intentions. She was being awfully
fresh with me though.’ How could he do that? How could
he talk like that—so normal and do something so,
“Alzheimer patients can do shocking
things and sound normal too,” I agreed. “And he
has cursed people. He knows curse words I’ve never
heard! Who did I marry?” She screeched. Other shoppers
heard her and scurried away.
“You married a man who was probably
already sick and is getting sicker,” I said gently,
because I remember that it was hard to hear other people
talk to me. I didn’t think anyone understood anything at
all about the way it is to live with an Alzheimer
patient. In order to survive, one must try to
understand what it’s like in the alternative reality of
the patient: what dementiaville must be like. One must
be able to navigate it while not taking up citizenship
there. Tough duty. “My daddy had Alzheimer’s. I took
care of him,” I say.
“And your Daddy said awful, awful
things?” she asked.
“Sometimes,” I said. “It
was a stage that passed. Another stage took its place
that was shocking in a different way.” At the time it
all felt traumatic. Shocking and heartbreaking. Now,
when I remember those days I see that they were really
more messy than tragic. One more mess after another to
“That’s good to know,” she
affirmed. “It helps.”
We pushed our buggies toward the
checkout where the woman got right in front of me
without apology and reached aggressively for a couple of
packages of cigarettes. Yogurt and cigarettes. I could
see how she needed them both.
She answered the cashier’s routine
questions quickly, her eyes darting toward the door. She
was already headed home; she just wasn’t in the car
yet. I knew that focus: that sense of urgency that is
suspended and then suddenly returns like a fever that
spikes because you’ve left your patient at home and he
might need you to protect him from others—to protect him
from himself. Or herself.
When it was my turn to
check out the cashier said, ““That was nice of you to
let her go first. A lot of people come in here--they
are in such a hurry.”
“I see them,” I said, as I watched
the woman who was like the old me get in her car and
peel wildly onto the street. The caregiver thought she
was invisible—that people only saw her sick, shocking
husband, but I saw the newlywed caregiver and I could
see the future and how she would be again, and I wanted
to call after her, “You’re not the only one it’s
happening to, and you really will be all right again.”
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