Whether To Laugh


“I don’t think…the lipstick goes with the hippopotamus.”

That’s what she said. I didn’t know whether to laugh or not. In a movie you’d be able to tell based on the music. And the way the shot was framed. And whether Will Farrell was in it. It could be a moment of tragedy or a moment of farce.

But now, here, in life, I didn’t know whether or not to laugh.

This morning when I came downstairs she was already dressed. Sitting at the desk, where she sits when we’re ready to go out, in her glasses and her white shirt decorated with pictures of herbs—all labelled—and her black fuzzy culottes. She loves culottes. I didn’t even know what they were until I met her.

“Good morning,” I said in a slightly confused voice.

“Good morning!” she said.

“What are you doing?”

“Waiting for you.”

“Um…why are you dressed?” I asked.

“We have to go to Group Health and drop those things off, and we have to be there by noon.”

We didn’t have plans to go to Group Health. I had plans to go and drop off her urine sample to the lab, but I wasn’t going to take her. There was no need. And the noon deadline was something she had invented.

Somewhere during the night or the early morning her brain had fabricated this new version. She got up and got herself showered, which is something I usually help her with. Then she attempted to collect her own urine sample. It didn’t work, and as far as I can tell she discarded the equipment. I asked her if she had the sample, and she said she tried and gave up. Even if I had intended to take her to Group Health, the entire reason for going was now irrelevant without that sample, or even the possibility of collecting it.

I got her back in bed. She started to tell me about a flyer she saw about a restaurant. I think it meant she wanted to go out to breakfast. I told her we could go tomorrow. She talked about a number of things while I tested her blood sugar and prepared her insulin dose, but none of it made a lot of sense.

I can usually put together the scrambled puzzle of her communications because I know all the pieces. I’ve heard her stories. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past few years listening to how she thinks. When she starts a thought half-way through–something about a Julliard accent and South London—I can work out that she’s talking about Jeffrey Tate. But it’s getting worse. Right here, as I prepared her insulin, she said a lot of things. None of it made a lot of sense.

As she injected she started to talk about her plans for the day. She got lost in the middle.

“I don’t think…the lipstick goes with the hippopotamus.”

She is supposed to hold the insulin needle in for a count of ten. She spaces out the numbers using the word hippopotamus.

One hippopotamus.

Two hippopotamus.

During her more lucid days she sometimes had fun with it. We had fun with it.

Three ornery hippopotami.

Four hippopotami who don’t like needles.

Five increasingly frustrated hippopotami.

Six hippopotami who are getting their second wind.

Now she gets lost halfway through. This is all so new, this level of thought-scramble. It snuck up. I know she mentions the hippopotamus because of the needle. I don’t know where the lipstick comes from.

She’s been getting dressed to go out a lot lately. On days we have no plans to go out. I try to tell her that those plans were never made. That the noon deadline didn’t happen. She says it did, because she remembers it. Sometimes she realizes she is confused; sometimes she doesn’t.

That’s the way all of us think about the world. Everyone has left something somewhere only to come back and find it’s missing. You are so sure it was there and that you haven’t moved it since then. Sometimes, though, you did. You just don’t remember. We all have terrible, flawed human memories. The science is there, and it’s all solid. But we build coherent narratives and our brains tell us they are real. We all have dementia. Hers is just a little bit worse.

It doesn’t bother her. Not much. She finds it frustrating but that’s about it. We went to the doctor and she took a brain test, and he pretty much confirmed that it’s dementia. It was eye-opening for me to witness it. I knew she was confused, and I was pretty sure what the cause was. But some things you’ll never see unless you look for them. The doctor asked her to subtract seven from one hundred. She couldn’t do it.

If she was falling to pieces or wailing against the injustice it would just be tragic. I would be having a lot more trouble handling it. But she’s fine. I think she might even be a little happier than she was a few months ago. Back then she was struggling but she was aware of it. There were stressful things in her life but she knew about them. It happened so gradually that neither she nor I got it all in one blow. When things seep in you get used to them. That’s just your life, now.

So it’s hard to see it as tragic. It happens. It happens to everyone, if they live long enough. She laughs her way through a lot of it, and takes the rest in stride.

In a movie this kind of thing is sometimes played for tragedy. And sometimes for laughs. Sometimes the scatty old lady who says strange things about large semi-aquatic mammals and cosmetics is a harmless comedic figure. Sometimes she’s the ruins of a life. I’m not sure what kind of movie I’m in.

I wish there was a musical cue to help me. I wish Adam Sandler would show up so I could feel comfortable laughing at the ridiculousness. So it wouldn’t seem horrible.

None of that is going to happen. So we carry on.


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