Here is the instruction: six miniature bottles of Pinot Grigio (the kind they serve in pubs) to be lined up side by side, like tiny soldiers. Each lemon-yellow label faced forward, with the label of the last bottle touching the other – each one touching the next – in shop-shelf formation, a straight queue next to the Yoplait yoghurt pots and the solitary milk carton in the front, plastic shelf of the fridge.
If every part of you started to disappear, which characteristic, what singular trait would remain? This is what has been plaguing me. Alzheimer’s comes along like the tide, it seems – very slowly and sometimes in waves.
So gradual it is almost unnoticeable until it has somehow arrived at your feet. It is something to see.
I suppose much of it is old age, a body and mind tired from years of thinking and thoughts and questions and details. But some of it is another thing; a soft, brutal erasure of a life lived. A watercolour painting version of a person you love, a little unclear and blurred in places.
It’s odd to see my aunty this way. She has always been a devotee of routine. Everything has a place. Her impeccable townhouse has clocked years of gleaming parquet floors, a freshly painted banister, and never an ornament or picture frame out of place. Her chemist shop on the main street – her father’s before her –would best be described as ordered; a retail instruction book example of how a pharmacy should look. Polished pill bottles and boxes of Chanel No. 5 stacked to the ceiling on dark oak shelves, doubled up by mirrors and reflected in the old bay window overlooking the street. Her daily routine that never varied: Up at 6 AM in time for mass at 7 AM, from there, straight to the chemist shop, then home again, save for a removal in the evening at the funeral home at the end of the street. And she loved it that way – meeting customers with a sympathetic ear every day, counting their ailments and woes with attention to details, counting out prescriptions against the gentle, solemn ticking of the clock on the wall. Her reputation of a generous hand – no one was ever left without – for decades. A life timed to the second, like clockwork, but better. Anne’s time.
Now that the things that bound us together with memory have started to erode, what remains in the midst of the lucid thought and dreamy vagueness is the part of her personality that stays unwavering; her routine, her sense of time and place and order. No matter what else slips her mind, she plays out her day with precise compulsion, and obsessive placing. The last link of control.
On Sundays, when I return home from Dublin, I call over. On the way, I collect the goods and then let myself in to the big old house. It smells of wood and polish and every time I climb the four small steps to the front door, I imagine my granny climbing them before me, laden down with shopping bags and a bunch of flowers. And when I push open the door, I close my eyes and see my grandfather, standing in the doorway, fixing his tie in the mirror.
I go straight to the kitchen, she meets me there. I line up six miniature bottles of Pinot Grigio, just so, just as I know. She directs me gently, orders me politely, just in case I were to become careless in my execution. I can’t remember when this routine started, or when she decided it was a job that needed to be done, but now it feels as natural and inevitable as the rain. Her concentration never breaks – not even when I mention the weather or ask her who’s winning the match I can hear blaring away on the radio. And when it’s all done and the shelf is stocked, I stand back and we admire the tableau together, a perfect placement, the care and time it took to fulfil the ritual. Just for a second we admire it with satisfaction, before I close the fridge and conclude the ceremony. Each time, the act is met with grateful thanks and a satisfied nod. A job well done.
Before, my visit was a welcome detour in the day. I was quizzed and questioned, every achievement and travel noted, she garnering every detail of my life’s developments, mentally bookmarking them to relay to customers and townspeople later, “My niece Jo …” Now, that wonder never passes her small, straight lips.
I still let the silence between us linger, just in case, but she doesn’t think to ask. And I wonder if she finds conversation pointless. Now that the details no longer stay filed away in that brilliant brain.
Nowadays, the wheres and whos float from my lips to her mind and then up, up, out from the top of her head and into the ceiling, up into the sky like a balloon until it is has become nothing more than a red little dot, disappearing without trace, without proof it was ever there to begin with. I know sometimes she longs to ask, the questions pushed hard against the back of her teeth, but I see her choke them down, swallow them whole. I long to tell, so sometimes I ramble away, a breathless monologue that falls flat in the thick, hot air, just so that the conversation can exist in that minute.
We have our small routine. And when it’s all done and there is nothing else to say, I go, let myself out of the townhouse, close the black painted gate at the bottom of the four, small steps behind me, leave her place and go back to Dublin, where I choose to be.
Whether we consciously know it or not, leaving the place you’ve been born to – where family and history – every day, is a separation. The daily details and small nuances of the lives of your flesh and blood get forgotten. Instead, you settle for general pointers, large events and bigger picture conversations. You miss the small comedy in the kitchen, the soreness of the flu, the daily tedium that connects you so deeply with someone. You choose to forget the detail, to be in a different place.
When I go, I leave her, along with the silence and the ritual, and responsibility to fulfil her wish. It flies past me as I sit on the train, in a whirr of trees and green fields and pondering cows and telephone poles. It stays with me all the journey long, a gentle throbbing in the pit of my stomach and the back of my mind. Gradually the clack of the tracks changes into tram bells and taxi horns and Croke Park fans and ambulance vans and as they fill my ears, the throbbing simmers and fades. I choose to forget. Because where you are now, nobody knows about the way the key should turn in the lock, or why the chemist shop is gathering dust. None of those things exist here.
On Sundays, when I return home from Dublin, I visit her. I let myself in to the townhouse with the goods. Sometimes she calls my name when she sees my face in the doorway. Sometimes she welcomes the kind stranger decent enough to come with her ritual. Either way, I make my way to the kitchen and open the fridge door.