Sometimes, on my way to the dog park in Brooklyn Heights, I pass an older woman who likes to sit on her stoop and give out dog treats. She is elegant, infallibly good-natured and always thanks my profusely for letting Mirabelle stop. When I say goodbye she always responds: “As they say in Memphis, hurry back now, you hear?”
Weekdays she is accompanied by a woman I think is her home aide, but today she was alone, in slacks that have become a size too large and patterned house slippers, bright rings stacked on slender fingers. She flagged me when I was a half block away. “Over here! Over here!” she cried, “I have treats!” She made Mirabelle sit, then shake, and again, every time giving her a treat—Mirabelle followed her movements with rapt attention. “How old is she?” she asked. “Five years,” I said, and this seemed to make the woman very happy. Next she remarked on my earrings, which were heart-shaped, and told me her daughter’s last name was Valentine and not only that, she was born on Valentine’s day, and everyone in the hospital made a great big deal out of it when it happened, but that was a long time ago. “How old is she?” she asked again about Mirabelle. “Five years,” I said, and again she seemed delighted by my answer and asked for Mirabelle’s paw and gave her a treat.
I hadn’t realized she had memory problems, but what my mom always told me about my grandmother, who had dementia, was that the best thing was to enter into her own experience of reality rather than to question it. Doing this felt a bit like jumping into a moving river and letting it carry you along, and was both relaxing and disorienting. With people whose minds are intact I often don’t know how to respond when our perception of events diverge. But when my grandmother asked what time my grandfather would be home, which she did often, it was obviously far kinder to tell her he was on his way rather than to remind her, over and over, that he was dead.
I said goodbye to the woman, she told me what they say in Memphis, and I headed to the dog park. On the way back I thought I would stop by again, and maybe she wouldn’t remember she’d seen Mirabelle half an hour earlier and it would make her as happy as it did the first time. I walked back down her street, but the stoop was empty. Or at least I think it was. I realized I actually couldn’t quite remember which building was hers, or even why she had mentioned the detail about her daughter being born on Valentine’s Day, although a little while later I brushed my hand against one of my earrings and it came back.