Poppy Reid is a New Zealand-born journalist and author of short fiction.

I stand silent at the apartment building door before buzzing, staring through my reflection and letting my eyes glaze over. I had heard he was regressing more every day and was becoming more difficult to communicate with.

I stall; fixing my fringe, running surface-level conversation starters in my head… anything to keep the weight of what was ahead of me from crushing my frontal lobe.

My grandmother’s sing-song voice told me to “push the door” and “come up to level three”, as if I hadn’t been there many times before.

This time is different. I walk up the carpeted steps, the soft brown shag cupping my boots like bread dough, and I try to remember the last time I was here, what he was like and how he made me feel.

Before I could recall my trigger questions for shower-shallow conversations, my grandmother is way ahead of me, detailing what she’s making for lunch, and when and where she’d bought the ingredients.

“I’ve got fish for the vegan.” She never did quite fully understand the vegan diet, and she pronounced it ‘vaygan’ as if it was so foreign to her she’d never even heard the word being spoken.

The apartment is exactly as I’d remembered it, before he changed. The walls are lined with shiny porcelain trinkets from their travels together: bowls with nothing in them, glasses not meant for drinking from, and delicate, utterly breakable garnishments that would have made me nervous if I was 10 years younger.

The apartment is exactly as I’d remembered it, before he changed.

The table is set for three, and knowing my grandmother it had probably looked like this since yesterday. She had been known to wake up at 3am Christmas morning, dressed and waiting in the dark. On one occasion, while overseas for a wedding, she left seven hours before her flight without saying goodbye to any of the eight family members staying at the same hotel. We received a group text: “Sorry I didn’t get to say goodbye family. I didn’t want to miss my flight. X.”

He’s in a wheelchair, sat in the corner of the room at a small table, just staring out the window. His gaze is locked across the motorway at a yacht in the harbour. He hasn’t noticed me yet, perhaps he is daydreaming, perhaps he’s afraid to open to his mouth.

“How has he been?” I ask, not wanting to know the answer but wanting to show her I think of him often, even if I suppress most thoughts before the little baths fill up behind my eyes.

The thing about Alzheimer’s is that it progresses slowly, then it arrives all at once. One moment you’re finding it hard to recall the right word or the place you left your keys, the next you’ve lost your ability to walk, to talk, to even eat without assistance. It’s a right cunt of a disease; it slowly removes you from the picture, inch by inch, at such a cumbersome rate that when it’s reached its most severe, the suffering is almost unbearable for everyone in its path.

I sit in front of him at the table. “Hey,” I manage.

He turns to face me.

“You really are beautiful,” his eyes are grey now, even when they smile.

My grandmother’s birthday is next week so I place a card and a pen in front of him and tell him what it’s for. He fumbles with the pen and adjusts the card a few times, biding his time to latch on to thoughts, the slipping balloon strings just out of reach.

When he finally puts pen to paper it’s illegible, like a toddler’s hallway wall etching, not reminiscent of anything but a decaying mind. He looks at me sadly from under his silver tangle of eyebrows; he’s embarrassed. Sitting before me is a man who used his hands to work almost every day of his adult life; a man whose childhood home had a dirt floor. He forwent higher education for long days of hard labour to support his family – and still built an empire from it.

I swiftly write in the card for him, making sure it’s loving but not too personal, and excuse myself.

In the bathroom I slump to the floor and stifle my cries with the back of my hand. I reach for the toilet paper as dollops of salty liquid slice through my makeup, leaving my cheeks streaked with differing degrees of beige. I had no idea it would be this hard, that it would be this far along, that he himself could see he was slipping out of view.

‘This isn’t about you’, I tell my reflection in the mirror and dab away the wayward spots of mascara.

I had no idea it would be this hard, that it would be this far along, that he himself could see he was slipping out of view.

“That smells amazing”. I sail back into the living room with my chin held high. My grandparents can see I’m trying and seem grateful that I’ve come to play a minor part in the chin-up charade they’ve been forced to live in.

After lunch I give my grandmother a pedicure. Her bunions jut out at right angles and her nails have yellowed, but her feet are surprisingly silken, as if the years of wearing medical grade footwear has paid off. I look over at my grandfather’s toenails and ask if I can do his next.

He chuckles in the way someone does when they don’t quite hear what you’ve said, praying it wasn’t a question.

I choose a thermal colour-changing polish, one that’s clear in the cold and purple when heated. He looks on amusedly as I slowly trace the edges of the nail, the air conditioning making it paint on clear; the act seems like a mime. It’s something I would have done when I was younger, when I forced him to play with my dolls or wear my hair clips. He always obliged, no request was ever denied, no want was ever too much.

He chuckles in the way someone does when they don’t quite hear what you’ve said, praying it wasn’t a question.

It was my grandmother’s idea to take him outside for a wheel around the marina. We are perhaps ten steps out of the building when the polish catches our eye. Gone was the clear camouflaging sheen and in its place is the brightest most conspicuous purple I’ve ever seen; ten stumpy used paintbrushes jutting out from his sandals. He looks up at me and lets his head fall backwards as he breaks into a wide corrugated smile. His laughter is a waterfall, flowing merrily and full.

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