Memories of Mom’s Memories

Weekly Photo Challenge – Family (a photo with words)


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Is she still my mom if she doesn’t remember I’m her son?

My mom stepped on a crack and broke her own back. This is not a silly nursery rhyme or outdated superstition, but rather a sad and true accident. Between her osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis, taking her little dog for a walk can prove challenging. And the fact that she was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s hasn’t simplified matters. She is a creature of habit and very stubborn, and she doesn’t even believe us when we tell her she has Alzheimer’s. She believes the doctors when we take her for an appointment, but she forgets all about the appointment soon after, and then when we try to explain again that her memory is faulty because she has a disease, she laughs like its a joke. A horrible, horrible joke. She can’t even remember that her memory is shot. It’s like denial, except it you can’t really deny something you have no recollection of. It’s more like plausible deniability, like she is withholding information from herself to protect herself from the consequences of knowing the truth.

When we took her to the neurology department for cognitive testing, the doctor explained that memory is like a table where you keep your stuff. People with really excellent memories have large tables, maybe even entire storage units with shelves and cubbies and labeled tiers. As we grow older the size of our memory tables shrink, and we are able to remember less and less. This is an unfortunate and entirely natural side-effect of aging, and even the most cognitively gifted can expect their memories to fade somewhat over time. For people with dementia (defined as a significant cognitive deficit that impedes one’s ability to perform simple daily tasks) the table has almost disappeared. When you don’t have a table to put your memories on they fade into the ether, gone forever into the dark, cluttered recesses of the brain. Sometimes they resurface at unexpected moments, but most simply evaporate, disintegrate, get lost to the inevitable entropy of space.

My mom’s table is getting smaller everyday, and it is getting harder and harder for her live by herself and maintain her independence, which she tells us is all she wants in life. She lost her drivers license on her last birthday, and for many months after that it seemed her will to live had also been suspended. She lives in her little apartment and her entire day seems to revolve around a cycle of walking her little dog, rereading the days newspaper again, and smoking cigarettes (which she insists on smoking despite our insisting that she already quit–its amazing the things she refuses to forget) until its time to walk the dog again. Sometimes she forgets to eat, or forgets that she already fed the dog. She wakes up and forgets what time it is and has a wine cooler instead of breakfast. Sometimes she calls us every two minutes for an hour straight asking us to go buy her toilet paper and cigarettes. We realize her days of living independently are spiraling to a sad conclusion, but I guess we are experiencing some throes of denial ourselves, and our denial is far from plausible.

She was walking her dog and stepped on a uneven crack in the sidewalk, causing her to fall backward. The impact caused a compression fracture on her L-1 vertebra, nothing too serious, but definitely painful. She remembers falling but can’t associate the fall with her back pain. She forgets that she is supposed to stay in bed and will pace around the house complaining how much her back hurts, due mainly to the fact that she is on her feet walking.  When she is in pain her confusion increases, like the pain is taking up the entire  depleted real estate of her little table, and any pain reliever stronger than Tylenol sends her into wonderland. She is her own worst enemy, but the strength of her stubborn will doesn’t allow her to stop and realize this.

We know her days of independence are limited, but bringing this up leads to problems. We tell her she’s going to have to sell her apartment and live in an assisted living facility. She asks why. We tell her it is because she has Alzheimers and isn’t taking care of herself. She denies it of course, and then two minutes later asks, what is wrong with me again. She is stuck in a repeating loop and has drawn all of us into her own personal Ground Hog Day. What do we have when our memories are gone and we aren’t even sure about the present moment? When we can’t remember yesterday and have lost touch with today, what is left? Tomorrow? Is it our memories that make us who we are, or is there something else? Perhaps tomorrow I’ll have an answer, but right now all I have are questions, and memories of my mom’s missing memories.

And as important as memory is, some things we wish we could forget.

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