The smell hung in the air so densely I felt like I could see it: a gray, sickly cloud that pervaded every hallway of the cheerily-named Sunnyside Manor. As I walked to the courtyard toward my Alzheimer’s-afflicted aunt, I couldn’t help the sense of dread building in my stomach. As she turned toward me, her eyes narrowed in confusion, then turned grimly polite.
“And who are you?” she asked me bluntly as I approached her, as she did every week I visited her.
“I’m your niece,” I said awkwardly. “I… I brought some pictures for us to look at.”
Over the next thirty minutes, we slowly worked through the family photographs I had fanned out on my lap. She eagerly asked who everyone was, and I explained as casually as I could. She had been the one last week who requested I bring pictures, but I could tell that was long forgotten.
As the sun began to set, everyone around the courtyard started shuffling inside for dinner. I began to stack up the photographs again and told her I would come back next week, this time with my sister. She nodded pleasantly enough, but as I turned away to leave, I felt her hand grip my shoulder.
“What about my husband?” she asked suddenly.
I felt my heart drop. I had almost made it out free.
“What about my husband?” She asked again, more insistently this time. “Will you bring my husband?”
As usual, my tongue felt stuck to the roof of my mouth as I tried to think of a gentle answer. I have had multiple family members experience Alzheimer’s, but this part never, never gets easier.
“I know I had a husband,” she said falteringly. “Where is he?”
I took her hands in mine and said lamely, “I’m sorry…”
“No,” she said instantly, as she did almost every time the subject came up. “No, don’t say that. Where is my Freddie? Where is my Freddie?”
I still held her hands in mine, but made eye contact with a nearby employee, who began to walk toward us. “He passed away eleven years ago,” I told her gently. “I’m sorry.”
“No,” she said again, loud enough to make me jump. “Don’t lie to me! Where is he?”
“I’m sorry,” I said for a third time, feeling stupid and useless as she yanked her hands away from me. The weary employee approached just in time and held her arms gently as she struggled, and whispered to me, “Go.”
I know that as horrible as it was for me to say it, it was a hundred times worse for her to hear it. I turned and said to the ground, “I’ll be back next week, Auntie,” as I hurried away from the dark toward my car.