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"Who are you?"

Having a conversation with someone who has dementia is like being in a perpetual rerun of the famous Abbott and Costello comedy routine "Who's On First?" except no one ever makes it to first and there is no tomorrow, only today, and that is only for the next five minutes.

"Who are you?" my grandmother asks as we walk in the door - myself and my two teenage kids. We could be ax murderers, or grifters or con artists, but no, thank goodness, we're family - at least for the next five minutes. She's a petite woman, wizened with snowy white hair, glasses, hopping about on one foot so she doesn't have to use her cane to get around. The stereotypical grandmother you'd expect to step out from the pages of a Little Red Riding Hood storybook.

"It was so nice of you to visit!" We'll hear that over and over again. It warms the heart the first time; by the fifth time it's a lukewarm reminder that though in her mid 90s and in excellent physical shape, her mind and memory only afford her five-minute intervals of lucidity.

She's obsessed with a note she has written for the home health care worker, something about cleaning fans.

"Where are the fans?"

"Over there in the living room."

"What do I mean, wipe down the two fans?"

"I don't know, Gran, I don't know how you would wipe down the fans, the blades are inside a cage." They're tabletop round, rotating fans. The blades are admittedly dusty. My grandmother, in her day, was a neatnik, to the point of obsession, and an expert housekeeper.

"Who wrote this?"

"You did, Gran." I sigh. This is one of the many rotating, repeating five-minute snippets that masquerade as conversations that we'll have today.

"Is the back door locked?"

"Yes, Gran, the back door's locked."

"Where are the keys? They're not in my pocket." She thrusts her hands into the pockets of her pink and white housecoat.

"Up there by the phone." She contemplates this for a minute.

"Is the back door locked?"

"Yes, Gran, the back door's locked."

"Where are the keys? They're not in my pocket."

"They're up there by the phone."

- - -

Sometimes, she almost fools you.

"You're Ann!" she'll say out of the blue. And then you'll remember that one of the kids called you that a minute ago, instead of Mom. Or she'll remember one of the kids' names after someone else has said it. You feel that momentary infusion of hope that she's cured, all is well, the mind can be stimulated back to health; but it's a mirage.

"It's so nice of you to visit!"

- - -

"Who's this?" She points to a picture of one of my cousins and his family.

"That's Christopher, and his wife, Kitty, and their two children, Andrew and Jade."

"I can't place them."

"They're your son Giovanni's kids. They're your grandchildren."

"The little girl is named after her other grandmother." Gran perks up as a sliver of memory pricks through. "Jade. She's dead, isn't she?"

"Yes, she's dead." My grandmother assumes everyone is dead.

"I can't place her." Her hands knit together in twists, showing mild frustration.

"Who are you?" she asks me for the fifth time.

"I'm your granddaughter."

"Who's on the porch?"

"My daughter, Destiny."

"I can't place you."

This goes on for about an hour or as long as you can listen to a rendition of "Who's on First?" where it ceases to be amusing any more and takes on the slow, stagnant turn to rancidity.

"Okay, we'll see you next week."

"What day will I see you?" She follows us out onto the porch as we peel ourselves away.

"I don't know, sometime next week." We're in the car now, pulling away. She's on the steps.

"What am I supposed to do?" she asks furtively.

"Get ready for bed. Go back in the house," I yell from the car.

We drive away.

"Who are you?"

Audrey Smith Hopkins works in the field of information technology.