A true story
I am sitting in an unlit room with my grandmother. She is reading the paper (poorly) and I am killing time while my grandfather uses the restroom. We are late for a doctor's appointment. It wasn't long ago that my grandparents were taking care of me, but we are growing accustomed to our new roles.
As she reads the paper, my grandmother subtly eyes the couch next to her. She is watching for something, a signal. I ignore her; thunderclouds are rolling in, and I am fixated with my watch. It's getting later and darker every minute.
Three years ago, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Thankfully it's slow onset - she still has good use of most her faculties. She occasionally gets a name wrong, or puts her shirt on inside-out, but she is, for the most part, still my grandmother. Her only truly quirky habit now is wrapping up large bundles of cash inside a sock. Occasionally the sock goes missing, and we put on our hardhats in a painfully intricate search for $300 and my grandmother's peace of mind.
I asked her why she does this, the sock thing. She confided in me: "They want to steal it from me." She didn't point, but nodded her head affirmatively at the couch.
There's no one there.
I watch with sadness now as the disease slowly overtakes her. Recently she acquired an aortic aneurysm which will require surgery. She fell down and got a black eye the other day. She's always nervous, shredding tissue paper and clutching her purse too tightly. Sometimes when she thinks she's alone I see her shooing phantom people from the couch. I ask her what she's doing, and she turns to me with wild eyes: "Don't you see them? They're sitting right there. They're looking at us."
For a second I turn and I can almost see them. A man and a woman, skin a sickly green, long wet hair, bulging eyes, hands folded neatly on their laps. And they are simply staring at us, dispassionate, unblinking ghosts. Then I go over and I sit on the couch, right in the lap of the woman. "Right here, grandmother?"
She gasps, and then she comes to her senses, and her eyes narrow a bit at my disrespect. But she forces a laugh and goes on about her business. I can see the wound-up sock bulging in her pants pocket.
We're late for another doctor's appointment. I wait patiently on the couch while my grandmother fixes her wig. Recent literature about Alzheimer's suggests that it is somewhat akin to living one's life in reverse: first a person loses their short-term memory, then their long-term memory, then their language skills, and finally their motor skills. A neurological Newton's Law. Just yesterday I traded stories with a friend about ghosts I have known. I neglect to mention my grandmother's visitors.
She emerges from the bathroom (her wig still in slight disarray) and makes her way towards the garage. She pauses for a moment in front of a shelf brimming with photographs of friends and family. A pained look crosses her face, and she scurries off for the car.
We arrive at the doctor's office, prepared to get an MRI. I fill out paperwork while she sits silently in her wheelchair. I start to push her towards Radiology and she stops me. "I can't find it," she says matter-of-fact.
"My moneybag." She means the sock.
I roll my eyes. It's no doubt stuffed in the silverware drawer or under a throw rug. "Well, we'll look for it when we get home."
She ignores me. "They must have taken it." Her eyes are filled with life, no longer the fading grandmother, but a woman at once fearful and protective.
I fail to comfort her, but the show must go on. On our way home, she rubs her hands raw. She does not smile. We get home, and sure enough, the sock appears, tossed in a pile of towels in the laundry room. I chide her, and she takes her medicine with grandmotherly grace.
Now I am helping her into her favorite chair, and she is staring at the couch again. I sit down on it quickly, and she smiles a relieved smile. I pause, wondering if what I'm about to say will make things worse.
"Grandma, who are 'they'?"
She knows immediately what I mean. "Oh, I don't know. They look familiar, though."
I walk over to the shelf of photos and grab a couple - a sister of hers who has passed away, and a family friend.
"Is it Joel?" I prod. She shakes her head. "Aunt Nellie?" No again.
She stands up now on wobbly legs. She waddles delicately over to the shelf, and picks up a picture. "Her."
It is a picture of my grandmother on her wedding day.