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  • Love in a Time of Dementia
  • Achas Burin (bio)

Evelyn was not family until she married Leslie, 11 years ago, when they were both 70-something. I am Leslie's granddaughter, but he does not know that anymore. Evelyn knows it for him. She and I became family, by increments, over the last 11 years. To Leslie's daughter from his first marriage, Evelyn will never be family. Family trees are relative in different senses of the word "relative." I want to record how someone who is not family can become family. And how someone who is family can become not-family. Here is one story of how such things come about.

When I stay at Easter, we do the Quick Crossword in the Telegraph every day, as it has always been done. It takes a pencil and eraser, a digital Crossword Assistant, a calculator, and a dictionary. It takes three of us, and we cannot get it done. Leslie is asked for an eight-letter word meaning "artillery." Evelyn says to him, "Here's one you can do, darling." He was a soldier. He proffers "gunners"; I proffer "arsenal." We have both fallen short by a letter. We do not complete the crossword.

I want to record all of these small failures, these small tragedies. These little instances of life producing trivial but insurmountable puzzles. Another puzzle: the television. We watch, on Easter Sunday, a detective show starring Rowan Atkinson. (Taking my part in this litany of failures of memory, I cannot now recall the name of the show.) Evelyn does not follow it. She falls asleep from time to time. She wanted to watch it so much. She hurried dinner so that we would be done before eight. She put two pieces of quiche on everyone's plate. By five to eight, Leslie and I have finished. Evelyn offers her food to Leslie, to me. One piece of quiche to me and a piece to Leslie: this way we [End Page 77] are ready by eight. It is a futile sacrifice for Evelyn: she is rewarded by an inability to understand the program. She quizzes me again and again during the advert breaks: "Who buys these things?" (A smartphone.) "Do you have a phone like this? Must you have a phone like this to do the things that you do?" I interpret this last as, "Must you have a phone like this to connect to the internet?" "Yes," I say. "It's also how I tell the time." Evelyn cannot imagine how I cope without a wristwatch.

Again, the next evening, Leslie and I dispatch to the living room. Evelyn is making supper. She has put on a fire, which cost her greatly. She must get down on her knees to do it. She and Leslie both have their own expressions for these efforts. "Oh oh!" is Evelyn's, and she reaches for Leslie's arm as she gets up. She does not actually take it. Leslie's arm, though always offered, is rarely taken. She does not think of her own balance, but only of him and the undue cost to him if she truly relied on the service of his arm. It is more important to her that the dignity of chivalry is offered than that it is taken, that Leslie, in his own mind, is her helper and protector.

Leslie's own expression for these physical efforts of age is a breathy "Hup two three, wheeeeee … wheeeeee." From time to time he reminds me, "Just wait 'til you get old, young lady." They are both almost 90. Leslie asks me, "I hope this isn't rude, but are you still at school?" I am wearing an old T-shirt with a university crest on it. With exactitude, he says, "So, this means … [great pause] you've learned something." I hope so. I fear losing what I have learned and what I know. What is it like to reconstruct your history based only on the signals that you see in your present? What use is the family tree that he so painstakingly researched, illustrated, framed, mounted on the living room wall? No use. Only the present...