The furthest back I can remember was when Grandma tried washing her blouse in the sink with the dishes. It was during dinner at their house. Mom and I were living there, and Uncle Aiden was visiting.
I didn’t know much about Alzheimer’s then, didn’t even know Grandma had been diagnosed with it. It wasn’t something we talked about. Instead it was talked around in quick light steps, like crossing a frozen lake.
“Now mom, why don’t you come back to the table? We can finish that later.” Uncle Aiden was by her side. He took the dripping blouse from her hands and led her back to her seat.
Grandma kept scratching her ear throughout dinner. She’d take one manicured, pink fingernail and scraped it well into what must have been her brain. Then she’d pull it out, inspect it, and wipe the earwax on the checkered tablecloth. Papa only stopped her when she went for the knife. In one smooth motion he replaced it with his hand, and held hers on the table. He gave her a sad smile, and she beamed back at him.
“There’s something wiggling around in there, I’m sure of it,” she said, still smiling.
I looked down at my plate and suppressed a giggle. It was ridiculous, but no one else was laughing, so I mixed spoonfuls of corn into my mashed potatoes and kept quiet. I could feel my mother’s eyes on me, and knew we’d be having another conversation about being polite to my grandparents for opening up their home to us. She wouldn’t bring it up until later, once Uncle Aiden went home and we were alone together in the room we shared.
After dinner my mother took Grandma’s blouse to the laundry room, while Aiden and Papa smoked cigars together in the den. I helped Grandma with the dishes, drying as she washed. The air from the overhead fan brought a pleasant breeze to the stuffy summer night, and gently lifted the tops of my bangs.
Grandma handed me another plate, then stopped and started scratching her ear again.
“What are you doing?” I asked. There was no one to tell me I was being rude.
“There’s something in there. Here, look,” and she knelt down so I could see into her right ear. There was nothing but skin around a black hole, a circle of pink flesh.
“I don’t see anything.”
“Look closer,” she urged.
I peered into the black hole. There was still nothing there. Then she tilted her head to catch the light, and I saw something small and gray retreat further into the black. I stepped back.
“What was that?”
Grandma smiled. “I think a worm crawled in when I was trimming the roses.”
“What are you two talking about?” Papa came into the kitchen, smelling like smoke.
“There’s a worm in my ear,” Grandma said again.
Papa just gave her the saddest look, walked over and hugged her, pressing his cheek to hers. I noticed just a flutter of her shoulder length hair that could have easily been the breeze from the fan. Papa took my place at the sink, and I went up to my room to play with my Legos. As I walked up the stairs I could hear Grandma shouting hysterically.
“What are you doing here? Get out of my house!” I shut the bedroom door so I couldn’t hear anyone crying.
As I sat on the floor I remember thinking that there really was something in Grandma’s ear, but I couldn’t be completely sure. I knew your eyes could play tricks on you. I once thought I saw a quarter on the sidewalk, but it was just an old washer.
Uncle Aiden came up to say goodbye and I gave him a hug. Then it was time for bed. I brushed my teeth, and when my mother came to tuck me in she didn’t say anything about me giggling at dinner. She was acting funny and quiet, and when she crawled into bed it was on top of all the covers with her clothes and shoes still on.
The next morning Grandma was gone and there were pillows in the oven. When I asked my mom where Grandma went, she told me, “Someplace safe for a couple days, don’t worry.”
When my mom tried to move the pillows Papa snapped at her.
“You can’t move those! What are you thinking?”
“Dad, I know it’s hard, but she’ll only be gone for a few days. It’ll get better.”
I was watching from around the corner in the living room, wanting to see, but desperately trying not to be seen. I pretended to be part of the wall, and barely breathed.
She whispered something to him that I couldn’t hear, and then Papa went outside to the back yard. Mom just stood there staring at the pillows.
I went to the window in the kitchen and looked out back. Papa was in the garden trimming the rose bushes. He was cutting off all the flowers, and leaving the thorns. I told my mom and she went out to him. I could tell they were crying, and then they hugged. And this time I saw it: a quick line of gray that caught the light on its slick skin. It shot out of Papa’s ear and slid into my mother’s.
“Just stop it!” he said, pulling away from her.
My mother didn’t respond. She turned and walked back inside, then sat at the table and fixed her loose gaze on the centerpiece of glass fruit. I shook her shoulder, but she didn’t notice.
“Mom, there’s something in your ear,” I said. “I saw it.” She didn’t answer. I shook her again, harder this time. “Mom,” I pleaded, “It’s just like with Grandma. Please.” She continued to stare at the bowl of colored glass fruit.
I went back to my room and pretended to play. I was scared, and I didn’t want it to happen to me, too. I wanted school to start again. I didn’t like it there.
My mom didn’t tuck me in that last night. She stood over me as I fell asleep, eyes still glassy and distant, but I couldn’t tell so long as I kept mine closed. Then I could believe she was the same as always. Eventually, I suppose I fell asleep.
That was the last thing I remember. Then I woke up here and they say, “Calm down, everything’s fine.” But it’s getting worse now. They say I can’t trust myself, then they leave me alone to sit here and stare at them all. They don’t have Legos here—they don’t trust us enough not to choke on them.
And on top of all that, I have this stupid itching in my ear that won’t go away. It feels like there’s something in there, but I can’t be sure. They tell me it’s nothing.