“Dana, can you come here?” Alice called from the sofa, her voice high and panicked, as though a bat might be circling overhead. The blanket that I had tucked loosely around her toes at the start of her nap was now pulled taut. She gripped it from underneath. Only her eyes and the top of her head peeked out. “I think I grew hooves. Can you check?”
She let me peel back the blanket to see. “No hooves.”
I touched and counted each of her five fingers and toes for good measure. She started to relax.
“And my head? Is it OK? There’s nothing growing there?”
“Just your hair.” I stroked her head to show that it was smooth, that I wasn’t working around hard pointed horns.
“Thank you. That’s such a relief.”
It was a moment more intimate than the daily help in the bathroom. She had revealed her deepest fear—that she was no good. It was an intimacy born of Alzheimer’s, a sickness that often makes emotions tangible. Its hallucinations, assertions, and questions are like a language.
“Are you feeling bad about yourself?” I asked, my hand still resting on her hornless head.
She swallowed hard. “I wasn’t very nice. I wish I had done better.”
“You did all right.”
“How do you know?” Like a student of medicine, she wanted an algorithm, a system, proof.
“Did you know that to die in peace, everyone needs four basic things?”
“Like the food groups?” She sat up taller. “What are they?”
“To be loved.” I rattled off a list of people, leaving off the hot spots. Each name brought a nod and a fresh dreamy smile.
“To love others.” I repeated the list and her nods were emphatic.
“To forgive others.”
She paused a moment, then said, “You know I would never have gone to college if my sister didn’t pave the way.”
“And to forgive yourself.”
She took a deep breath in, then let it out. “Forgiving yourself is the hardest.”
“I know… But you were younger then. Maybe you could cut your younger self a break?”
“Where’d you learn this stuff?”
“Not from you.”
She laughed. “I know that. But it’s still good.”