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I See You
By Daphne Simpkins

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 sympathetically.

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.

“You’re probably 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 know when.”

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 argue otherwise.

“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 something horrible?”

“Yes,” I said.

“It’s an awful question,” she warned me fiercely.

“Ask it,” I said.

“My husband… 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, shocking?!”

“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 clean up.

“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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