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
“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
“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, 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
“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
“That’s good to know,” she affirmed. “It
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.”