Does He Still Know You?

Quite often during the last years of my husband’s life, people would ask me, “Does Dick still know who you are?”

            What if he didn’t? What if my answer were “No”? It’s a rather cruel question, if you think about it. Imagine greeting an acquaintance in the store aisle, leaning on your grocery cart, tinny musak sifting down as you tell a person this: My beloved husband doesn’t know who I am.

            The question would rip into me. I’d collect myself. I’d tell them something true: “There have been times when he hasn’t known who I am. But he almost always recognizes me and calls me by name.”

            I was honest, to a point. This is what I’d leave unsaid: “He usually knows me. But on those few occasions when he doesn’t? I’m alarmed. Angry. Devastated.”

            One of the essential, painful mysteries behind dementia is that often the person with the disease knows and then does not; the loved one is known, then is not.

            But I was known. Until his death, my husband usually greeted me delightedly. Every time he did this, it gave me so much joy. On those few occasions when he didn’t seem to recognize me and couldn’t recall my name, it was as if he’d slapped me.

            Even in those moments, I believe that he retained a felt sense that we belonged to one another. The confounding answer to the question “Does he still know you?” would have to be both yes and no. In the final year of Dick’s life, I showed a photo of his eldest child, Jenny, to him. I asked him, “Who is this?”

            He didn’t say her name. Rather, he replied, “She’s near to me.”

            He didn’t know her, and yet he did.

Anne-Marie Erickson

Featured image: Terracotta Figure of a Man. Cypriot, 750-600 B.C.

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