“Hi, Mrs. Schwartz. Do you have time for a cup of tea?” I ask. Mrs. Schwartz stares blankly back at me.

“It’s Debby, from downstairs,” I begin again. “Do you have time for a visit?”

“Oh Debby,” she answers in delight, recognition sparking. “Please come in. I didn’t recognize you with these new glasses.” The lie stands between us. We both know she could not remember who I was. My heart aches. Her fading memory is getting worse and worse with each of my visits. She is a shadow of her former self.

For as long as I can remember, Mrs. Schwartz had lived upstairs from us. With her trademark red-framed glasses and her cheery greeting, Mrs. Schwartz was loved by all the children in our building. Even though the Schwartzes had no children of their own, we were all her children and often spent afternoons playing Rummy Q or cards in her apartment. But it wasn’t just the children. I would often come home from school and find Mrs. Schwartz leaning against the lobby wall engrossed in a long conversation with one neighbor or another.

She is a shadow of her former selfEven after I grew up and left home, I would be sure to knock on Mrs. Schwarz’s door when visiting my parents and share my own children’s antics with her. She had become my children’s third grandmother.

“You go sit in the living room,” I instruct firmly. “I know where the tea cups are. I’ll quickly make us some tea and come and sit with you.”

“Thank you, D.D. dear. You sure you don’t want me to help?”

I assure her I am fine and watch her shuffle down the hall. The strained sounds of the BBC’s radio commentator waft down the hall making me smile. The BBC is Mrs. Schwartz’s constant companion and has been for many years.

She called me D.D., I think. I haven’t been called that since I was ten years old. My father nicknamed me D.D. for Deborah Dina when I was very young, but when I turned ten I declared I had outgrown that dumb nickname and stubbornly refused to respond when people called me anything other than Debby. The mind is an incredible thing. I know Mrs. Schwarz will not remember me by the time I bring her the tea. Yet, from the deep recesses of her mind, the old memory of D.D. escaped for a brief moment.

“Can you make a cup for Mr. Schwartz, too, dear?” she calls down the hall. “He’ll be coming home from Minchah [afternoon prayers] in a few minutes and always loves a cup of tea.” Sadness engulfs me. Mr. Schwartz died three years prior.

Mr. Schwartz died three years priorCarefully putting the two cups of tea on a tray, I walk down the hall and enter the living room. Mrs. Schwartz startles. She narrows her panic-stricken, swampy eyes, straining to recall if she knows me.

“It’s Debby,” I say quickly. “I thought you might like a cup of tea.”

The lines of wrinkles crisscrossing her face deepen into rivers over her thin delicate skin as she smiles in relief. “It’s so nice of you to visit. Do you have children? Children are a wonderful gift. They bring so much joy into one’s life. You know, Mr. Schwartz and I have been trying to have children for years. We went to a top specialist last week and he said he’s hopeful that this time we will be blessed. I pray he is right.”

“That’s wonderful,” I respond. Her mind was like a boiling pot of soup made up of constantly changing ingredients; sometimes so clear and focused and sometimes so random. I wonder how her mind conjured up the various memories to make up its concoctions.

“Yes. I have four children. They are indeed wonderful but they keep me very busy.”

I run down the list of names and ages for her. I know she will ask me again in five minutes. The buzzer on the washing machine sounds.

“Can I hang some laundry for you while I am here?” I offer.

“That would be so nice, but let me help you.” Bewilderedly she looks around. “My glasses! Have you seen my glasses, dear?”

“You’re wearing them,” I say gently.

Swallowing a deep hiccup, Mrs. Schwarz’s delicate shoulders shake as her eyes water. “I don’t know what’s become of me,” she says, her voice breaking. “Some days I wake up and I don’t even remember my own name!” These moments of lucidity cast a long shadow. The self-awareness is excruciating.

I quickly come and sit next to her and encircle her small frame with my arms, comforting her as she has done for me so many times. I breathe in her familiar perfume scent deeply; a scent that leaves a trail of her travels, like bread crumbs. We always knew when she was near. I comfort her as best as I can but I know my words are inadequate. How can they be otherwise? What words of comfort can one offer to those trapped in an unfamiliar labyrinth within their heads? Not knowing is frightening and disorienting. Knowing is agonizing.

I know she is completely in the moment we are sharing“Come, let’s go hang the laundry,” I say — trying to distract Mrs. Schwartz from her distress. Dabbing her eyes, she smiles sweetly, and we walk arm-in-arm down the hall. Before every visit, I ask myself why I persist in coming back when I know my visits will not be remembered. Now as Mrs. Schwartz and I stand side-by-side hanging her laundry in the warm spring sun, I know she is completely in the moment we are sharing. While she might not remember me or my visit five minutes from now, at this very instant her mind is completely clear and she treasures my company. And even more importantly, although Mrs. Schwartz is often confused during our visits, she still manages to teach me profound lessons in life, as she has always done.

Perhaps, I think, after leaving Mrs. Schwartz that day, the lesson to those of us observing and traveling with our loved ones suffering from Alzheimer’s, is to live in the moment and treasure the memories we create. Today is sandwiched between yesterday and tomorrow. Too often, we forget to embrace the present and, instead, take it for granted. We might not be able to hold on to it later. Placing my hand on the door knob, I pause momentarily. The noise of my boisterous household reverberates through the door. Sighing deeply, I smile as I open the door to face the memories we are crafting today.