My grandmother’s apartment smelled like cigarettes, cookies, and cockroaches. I didn’t register the source of that last smell until I was an adult. As a child I only knew it as the smell particular to Grandmother’s apartment building, but because it was a smell I associated with my grandmother and the infinitely interesting place she inhabited, I was not opposed to it.
I thought my grandmother’s apartment was beautiful, despite its confusing smell. The door opened into one big, open space with a wall of windows that faced the Ashley River and its expanse of marsh. There was a dining table, round with two chairs, and a little kitchenette separated from the rest of the space by a carved rosewood screen. There was a tiny gas range that I thought was only for show since I knew my grandmother never cooked, and a pink refrigerator that almost always contained two-liter bottles of Wink soda. In the space that felt like a living room, there were two stately wing chairs, an antique pine chest that served as a coffee table, and a mahogany buffet full of old family photographs and china, linens, and, to my absolute delight, children’s books. In my grandmother’s apartment, I felt made of light.
Many years later, upon walking into the foyer of my parents’ home after months away, I was hit in the face with a singular odor from my childhood. I couldn’t in that moment identify the source of the déjà-vu smell. But then I could. Horrified, and a little nauseated, I stood under the small crystal chandelier before calling out to my mother that her (thirty-three-year-old) baby was home.
My parents had aged quickly since I’d graduated from college. I supposed they thought their work was done, finally, after so many years of raising eight children, and they could relax. On this particular December day, the house was tidy as ever, but I noticed the piles of mail were taller and stacked in odd places. Not odd to the stranger’s eye, or even to the older brothers’ eyes, but odd to mine, long-time student researcher of our parents’ ways and habits. The same oriental rugs I’d grown up with, though free of visible debris, felt waxy underfoot, as if coated with grease.
As an eight-year-old, I thought it was completely normal for a kitchen to be stocked only with two foods. They served me well, after all. I was so thrilled to go to Grandmother’s apartment because I knew exactly what I would be offered to eat and drink there. We visited Grandmother every Wednesday and would bring new bottles of Wink and three new packages of Nutter Butters. The latter would go directly into the cabinet, where any remaining cookies languished, chewy, in a tin. Though Grandmother was not cooking in her apartment, she was smoking. She and Mom would sit in the wing chairs and talk, smoking—for days it felt to me—and I would try on Grandmother’s high heels, molded permanently into the shape of her bunions.
Mom was always a fastidious housekeeper. She stayed home to raise us eight kids and spent her mornings attending to our home: doing piles and piles of laundry, scouring the bathrooms, soaking combs and brushes in bleach solution, stripping beds and changing sheets, mopping, and oh, the infernal vacuuming. She was always sweaty and never complained about the work. The living room was immaculate—polished wood, magazines fanned, philodendrons and ferns watered and robust. We knew better than to leave a backpack or football helmet on the couch. But that first day as I stood in the foyer not aware of the fact that the intense and nostalgic smell was cockroach feces, I noted other alarming changes to the house.
Those first moments in the home of someone who has begun to lose her mind are eerie enough to raise the hair on your arms. Mom’s kitchen had a fine layer of grease over every surface. There were jars of food crowding the counter, and the pantry was full of processed food of different brands that I’d never seen Mom buy. She never kept cookies or pudding cups or Cheetos in the wild abundance now exhibited. Strange brands of cake mix and potted meat lined the vaguely sticky shelves. Time compressed as I peered into her pantry, mystified, and I felt like I was staring into the inverse of my grandmother’s empty (except for the Nutter Butters) cabinet.
I knew my grandmother was senile because she came to live with us after she caught the sleeve of her bathrobe on fire trying to light a cigarette on a stove burner. And because Mom told me she was. Once Grandmother moved in, I learned the obvious signs of dementia that a weekly visitor—especially a very young one, preoccupied with trying on high heels—could easily miss. She rarely spoke, was always smiling and appeared to be intently listening. When she did speak, her words were full of worry, mostly about where her people were, who we were, and when she could go home. Her words came out in a tremulous warble.
Next I noticed my mother’s rubbing. It was like my grandmother’s constant gentle rubbing of any surface, as if she were methodically trying to work an indelible spot off the countertop. Eventually my grandmother’s rubbing and its dry-leaves sound would drive my adolescent self to madness, but on this first jarring day back in my parents’ home, now an adult, it snagged my ear only a few times. So many sounds belonging to that time can bring me to my knees today. A quavering hum, a scratching sound on a surface, a faucet’s excruciatingly slow stream. Alone, these sounds mean nothing, but together, added to the addled behavior of someone whose mind is going, they mean life will be terrifyingly different.
When I finally got my bearings in my parents’ not-right house, I dared to eat one of Mom’s nearly raw homemade lemon bars from a plate near the stove. Leaning on the counter, I tried talking myself down from the shock of realization that my mother was on the same road to dementia that her own mother had traveled twenty years earlier. I glanced over at my mother sitting on her favorite green sofa by the picture window, reading. So familiar and normal a scene comforted me deeply.
Mom’s favorite pastime always was reading and apparently she could still do it. There’s hope for a peaceful descent, I thought. Whatever it was she was reading, she was reading intently, with the serene look of someone perfectly content in the moment. Then I noticed she was holding the book upside down.
When Grandmother came to live with us, she brought all the furniture she owned from apartment 6G as well as a whole galaxy of cockroaches that had been hiding in her drawers and pockets. It wasn’t their smell we noticed first—it takes a while, perhaps months of infestation for the smell of their excrement to build. The first signs were in the kitchen. After dinner, all the adults would retire to the den to watch Masterpiece Theatre or some such, with Grandmother seatbelted to her comfy chair so that Mom could have a moment’s peace. Somebody would go into the kitchen in the dark for a glass of water or spoonful of peanut butter, pull open a drawer, and the blackness, congealed, would bleed into the recesses of the cabinet.
German cockroaches. Tiny little innocuous-seeming bugs. Living on the coast, we were used to the thumb-sized palmetto bugs that crunched like a cracker when you accidentally stepped on one in the night. We were blasé about the tiny, non-flying, non-crunching German cockroaches, and our cavalier attitude allowed them to multiply. Their tininess, when multiplied exponentially, became galactic.
At my sister’s behest, Dad finally called an exterminator. We got rid of the roaches, but my fear of infestation lives on. I’m bothered not so much by the bugs as by the path they mark.
Our cat currently has fleas, and they’re driving him—and me—crazy. This cat, an eight-year-old Russian Blue who once was serene and dignified, more human than cat, really, has been reduced to wild-eyed biting, scratching lunacy. For me, it’s not the fleas—in fact, I’ve only seen two in six months—it’s his incessant, loud grooming. His flea-biting antics. His constant stalking of the invisible predator. These fleas have cost us nearly a thousand dollars to eradicate, and they are showing no signs of leaving. Two exterminators, six separate flea sprays, countless hours of infernal vacuuming, toxic applications of both diatomaceous earth and also borax, trips to the expensive vet, steroid shots to reduce the itching, and three different flea medicines. I have never done such extensive work for my own health.
Notably, I am the only human in our house who seems to be affected by it. As I pour almost my whole attention into eradicating the fleas, my husband doubts they even exist, and he’s somehow convinced our daughter, too. Together they refuse to believe that our house has fleas because daily vacuuming is inconvenient for everyone. Guess what people do when they don’t believe something exists? They do nothing to change their behavior. Why should they? Sadly, their coolness makes the person experiencing the “new element” that much more shrill in her efforts to convince them. And here I am, getting ready to vacuum my whole house. Again. For the third time this week, because nobody believes me, and therefore they won’t help me.
See? I’m losing my mind. This is how it begins. Or is it? Something infests, and we either live with it or we don’t. In my grandmother’s case, she lived with it. She lived with the fact that she didn’t recognize the people who showed up at her house every Wednesday, bestowed upon her packages of cookies and bottles of soda, helped themselves to her wing chairs and high heels. She lived in the companionship of generations of extended families of roaches who made themselves at home in her apartment, fed heartily on Nutter Butter crumbs. My mother—who had ample warning and personal experience—fought her own oncoming infestation with ginkgo biloba and crossword puzzles and a daily Exelon Patch until a series of small strokes stole her ability to recognize she was slipping. At a point, the infestation takes over.
These days, I find myself wondering when I will begin to show signs of slipping. A brother is showing early signs of dementia. On a recent visit, he experienced sundown syndrome, which is extreme anxiety and agitation coinciding with dusk. It’s incredible, really, that our biological clock is so deeply embedded and so finely calibrated as to work even in the midst of total mental malfunction. The powerful longing for home and the comfort of family as night comes barreling toward us remains even after we’ve forgotten where that home is and who might be our family.
I forget something important maybe three times a week now. I’m forty-three, about nine years younger than that brother when he first started seeming not quite himself.
I don’t know if my forgetfulness is normal or internet-induced mind scramble or early onset dementia. As a child, I remembered literally everything. I remember telling a friend in college that I could easily recall every minute of my life up until that moment sitting on my apartment’s front stoop. Each moment of my life was a part of a richly textured tapestry in which the colors blended harmoniously but each individual thread was still distinct. Now I am the shroud on Penelope’s loom, and each night a new thread gets picked off, leaving empty though warm space behind me. These days, each thread is fresh and taut with enjoyment and gratitude. I feel the mantle of memory and all its accompanying weight being lifted gently from my shoulders. Things I once cared about—asking a friend about her mother’s health, remembering the details of my daughter’s made-up story—no longer matter because they can’t—I simply don’t have them. There is real relief in being so unburdened by details.
I wonder if I will fight my coming infestation like I’m doing the fleas, or if I will choose to live with it. If my current choices are any indication—everything I read says daily exercise and avoiding sugar keeps Alzheimer’s at bay—I’ll live with it. I chow down on the homemade cookies my neighbor’s sons bring over to share, and in the two weeks we’ve been home for winter break, I’ve barely left this couch. Coincidentally, I am happier than I have been since those days of teetering down the hall in Grandmother’s knobby heels, leaving a trail of Nutter Butter crumbs for the roaches. But if it’s actions that seal fate, well, I refuse to be defeated by these fleas. I will vacuum again, for the umpteenthousandth time, and ignore my family’s semi-private eye-rolling. Because damn, these fleas will not be the end of me.