Imagine Adele Singing, "Don't You Remember?"
Today began as a continuation of yesterday since I was up most of the night perseverating about the name of a girl my daughter danced with as a little girl and because my kitten could only be comforted by laying across my face. Not my belly. Not even my neck. My FACE. And she still hasn’t learned how to knead without her claws, so I have some feline marks from this suffocating non-restful “sleep.” It didn’t matter where she lay, I was annoyingly consumed with trying to figure out the girl’s name. I knew her mother’s name, and I even knew her two older sisters’ (who didn’t dance with my daughter) names, but I couldn’t remember the girl’s name. When I started to drift off to sleep, I (subconsciously?) jolted myself back into the reality of not remembering something I would never have forgotten in the past.
When was that anyway? Pre-50? Pre-Covid? Pre-pregnancy? Did the lemon drop shots from college finally take their toll on my brain cells? Did the tanning beds of the early 90s fry my insides?
I can’t remember.
My mother-in law is cognitively impaired. No one is using terms like dementia or Alzheimer’s; she’s been tested, and the results have always been negative with the doctors saying it’s memory loss that comes with age. She won’t remember asking you about plans for dinner (at least six or seven times before noon), but she can tell you all about the dress she made when she worked in her mother’s shop in the Garment District in the 1950s. She remembers being only seven years old when her father—whom she recalls in loving detail—died of a heart attack. She remembers what matters, I suppose. The meaningful stuff. The kind of memories that are lost to those with Alzheimer’s. Our family is lucky to have her like this if short term memory loss is our most worrisome issue.
My stepfather suffered from dementia. By the last time I saw him (we were estranged after he and my mother divorced when I was in my thirties), he was nowhere near the hulking, funny man who raised me. He was small and frail, and his eyes were cloudy with confusion. My daughter was with me when we visited—she was seven at the time—and when he saw her, his face lit up, and his eyes danced, and he belted out, “Niecey!” (that’s the nickname he gave me as a young girl, and it stuck long beyond my wedding day). We didn’t correct him. We wanted to remember his smile. Our visit was brief, but it was long enough to realize that he was mostly tortured by his thoughts, and the memories that were the clearest were those where he was frightened in the Korean War, worried about his plane plunging into the ocean. “The sharks were back,” is one of the last things he said to me.
I’ve always been the one in the family and group of friends who remembered everyone’s birthdays. I remembered any little detail about their likes and dislikes, and remembered who was related to whom at various gatherings. I remembered nightmarish details of my childhood, and fleeting friendships that ended because we were on the move once again. I remembered promises made and promises broken, and I remembered being loved and being left. My memory was vast. It was something others knew about me, too—that I remembered mostly everything—and it was something I took pride in.
But recently I was sitting around the dinner table with the girls, who are grown now, and they reminisced about playing with bugs and dead birds, and living though car trips when one of them threw up and we kept driving, and all the minutiae that makes up a childhood, I became the quiet observer of the conversation. Of course, I remember the big moments in their lives, but some of those extraordinary ordinary moments are unreliable.
Luckily, those moments can be evoked through the bazillions of pictures I took during years of just about every moment of every thing. Maybe somehow in the deep recesses of my brain, I was already aware that my memories would become foggy down the metaphorical road, and I should capture it all on film (because it was mostly film then). So often I heard, “Just watch. Just look. Not through a camera,” and I would try, and I would panic as though I were an oracle aware that if I didn’t capture it in my camera, it wouldn’t exist. Maybe I had that intuition long before my memory started eluding me.
These days, I am trying to be more proactive, for instance, after 20 years of living in my house, I don’t spend 20 minutes in the morning looking for my keys; they have a permanent home near the fridge, if I remember to put them there. I make lists, and I can’t remember where they are. Or remember to look at them. Just today my husband mentioned a car he had a few years ago, and I looked at him blankly. Huh? No recollection at all of the silver car he described. My students think I’m the scatter-brained English teacher you see in movies because I can’t find their papers, or I don’t remember a meeting we have scheduled, and I am genuinely surprised when they show up at my office door.
I don’t think I’m on the path to Alzheimer’s or dementia—I hope. I do think that I am overwhelmed, overextended, overstimulated, and overanxious, and all of these “overs” make me feel that I am losing a grip on the moments that make up life.
More than ever, I try to practice mindfulness—being in the here and now. It reminds me of the episode when Jim and Pam get married on the best comedy ever written, “The Office,” and Jim tells Pam to take pictures of the moments she wants to remember forever—pretend camera, pretend pictures—real moments. Or maybe Pam says it to Jim. Honestly, I just don’t remember.
So, I live the moments—good and bad, happy and painful—as they are happening-- because I might not have a reliable memory to remind me. And like my mother-in-law, I don’t think I will forget the indelible moments like the days both of my daughters were born, or the time when my best friend and I circled the Beltway outside of Washington DC seven or eight times before knowing how to exit, or when I was dancing at my wedding with the man who made me feel safe; I think those are the memories that I get to relive always if I am lucky.
Paying attention to those extraordinary ordinary moments is even more important because they become the mortar to the foundation that is my memory.
Accepting that all my memories won’t be outlined in thick black marker to keep forever, and that some of them will instead be watercolors, makes getting older a little easier to accept. It’s all about treating yourself with the grace you deserve at the age when life is a little fuzzier but no less magical.
Elena. My daughter’s dance friend is named Elena.