I’ve had a lot of opportunity to focus on memory lately.
As of this week, my grandmother was admitted to an elder care facility. We’d seen the shift in personality a long time ago. She always had a razor sharp tongue when you got her angry, so it wasn’t uncommon for her to share her own views loudly or with a particular venom. But we saw this happen more and more, and then she just started ‘forgetting’ things. This was the first of the real signs. Soon, the forgetting turned into full-on confusion.
And then, the abuse started coming out of her.
She’d lash out with little to no provocation and say some pretty terrible things to us. She’d smack my grandfather and berate him at all hours of the day. She’d lose track of what day or even what week it was. She’d sleep for almost a full day, waking and starting the exact same day she’d had before, re-enacting the exact same abuses and arguments.
If you’ve ever had a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease, you’re likely familiar with the condition. It robs the affected person of everything, even their identity. Their personality and their memory become radically altered. The shell is there, but the occupant is not exactly who you remember.
Memory is a strange thing. The diagnosis and my grandmother’s rapid decline has given me opportunity to not only examine how her memory now operates, but also my own. Reflecting on my grandmother has made me look at how strange and fragile memory is, even for relatively healthy people.
Take for example the memories I have of my uncle. He lived quite far from my family in a place very different from Arcadia. Bill and his wife, Marilyn, lived in the midwest. Lots of open space and bitter, cruel winters. In 1986, we went to visit them for Christmas. I have a lot of memories – even at age seven, memories of that trip are still crisp and bright. Bill and my dad would play cribbage while nursing cans of Old Style beer. I would watch Pecos Bill or Darby O’Gill and the Little People. I remember the day of opening presents and playing with the GoBot Command Center which at the time also resembled the coolest of all Star Wars transports, the AT-AT. We’d drive around in Bill’s van. My uncle made a rubber band powered paddle boat in his workshop for me. We walked our Yorkshire Terrier through two-and-a-half feet of snow. Marilyn would be horrified at the ribald songs Bill would sing in front of me (I Used to Work In Chicago comes to mind) and the off-color jokes he’d pass along. We’d look out of the back window and gaze at the bluffs. It was bucolic despite the constant haze of cigarette smoke. They are some of my most cherished memories, and they are well worn and revisited often.
I can’t remember their street address for the life of me.
I spent at least twenty minutes on Google Maps trying to pinpoint it by street view. I only stopped once I realized I couldn’t remember the color of the house or even the named street it intersected with. I remember a nine in there somewhere? Maybe? While I know it wasn’t a place I got to visit often, I could count on two cards every year, one for my birthday, the other for Christmas, and there’d always be that sticker that showed the postmarked address of their home out West.
I can’t remember it. And that data is gone, as are Aunt Marylin and Uncle Bill.
I can’t remember what color Bill’s eyes were. I remember a restaurant that my aunt and uncle regularly went to, and one of the barflies they knew named Woody who met them there – I have no recollection of Woody’s face or voice though I remembered I took a shine to him the way little kids sometimes do. In a most hotly debated lack of memory I ended up having to go to the hospital for stitches on my ear after striking my head against the edge of a night stand in the hotel we stayed in for the part of the trip we spent on the road. I remember it as simply having rolled off the bed in my sleep, but my sister and parents told me I was being an obnoxious little shit that wanted to jump on the bed all night. I honestly can’t remember anything but the pain and having the audacity to hit on a nurse at age seven.
Come to think of it, I’m not even sure that last anecdote even happened on the Christmas trip – I have so many good memories of the few trips out West that after a while they begin to glom into one another.
And in that light, how is my memory any better or worse than my Grandmother’s? We both have a lot of our memories still in there, and we both get them confused. The key difference I guess is in operational memory. Gran’s wiring at this point is faulty at the foundation. Mine… I have no excuse for my poor memory. My brain tubes are clean. Ish.
I guess at the heart of it, reflection isn’t really too necessary. Just hold and cherish memory for as long as you have it – there’s no guarantee you’ll get to keep all of it forever.