The Impermanence of Memory

“Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.”

― Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore (via goodreads)


Back before the Fall

Back before the Fall

On a recent trip to the doctor my mom and sister were driving home and were stopped at a red light. Plastered on the bumper of the car in front of them was a bumper sticker declaring, Joy Comes From Within.

What do you think about that, Mom? Joy comes from within.”

I can almost hear the annoyed sigh my mom must have made. “Joy come from within, huh? Well, let me know when it comes out.”

This has become an inside joke amongst us as we battle for meaning in the face of my mom’s Alzheimer’s. We will remind ourselves that joy comes from within as we laugh in the face of the depression we feel. These are the memories I will hold on to. I don’t want to remember the tears, the confusion, the sad pleas for help. I want to remember the joy that comes from within.

I have accepted the fact that my mother is dying slowly, not unlike my father. Her path will be different, but the destination will be the same. In my father’s case his body went before the brain, while my mother’s descent will proceed in the opposite order, her mental state deteriorating until the body fails. I often wonder as I watch the Deer Hill Dinner Theatre which is preferable, to lose control of one’s mind or one’s body. When I struggled through those years watching my father battle his own body after his accident, many of his favorite things in life taken from him as a C-4 quadriplegic, I could imagine no greater tragedy than being confined to a wheelchair. But having seen my mother’s sad dive into dementia, I realize that there are so many important parts of life that stay unappreciated. How many people give thanks for the ability to walk, the ability to feed themselves, the ability to remember yesterday? How many people truly understand the significance such simple actions?

Seeing the people you love suffer is not easy, but the shock is somehow eased through the process of acceptance. In the case of Alzheimer’s, what is perhaps saddest is that my mother herself will never be able to reach this final plateau of the grief hierarchy, that she will never be able to embrace her condition and comprehend the trajectory. Not only is she unaware that she has a disease which will eventually destroy the part of her brain that controls the autonomic function of her internal organs, but she has no idea that she is even sick. Another cruel trick of fate. She still calls the disease old-timers, and considers her memory only slightly hindered. Sometimes she has a moment of lucidity and realizes that something is wrong with her, but cannot understand the implication of the reasons before the moment fades away. My father was well aware of the fate that eventually awaited him, and I’d like to think he was able to accept it and move on. I often wonder if that gave him closure.

Closure is another ambiguous term that gets thrown about when people discuss grief and loss. Is it coincidence that the fifth and final step of the standard lesson format most teachers learn in their training programs is called closure? Closure provides summary and context. Closure deepens understanding through scaffolding and connections with preexisting knowledge. Closure creates a bridge between what happened today and what will happen tomorrow. Closure is supposed to be the part where the other portions of the lesson introduced earlier come into focus, leading to deeper meaning and understanding. Closure is when everything gets wrapped up in a neat little package that students can take with them. It is considered the most important part of the lesson, and is also the hardest part to get right. Unfortunately not all lessons can be so easily wrapped up with a bow. Some lessons are open ended and ambiguous. Some lessons remain ongoing and aren’t ready to be closed. I felt that if I transcribed all these memories and saw them on paper, that meaningful closure would come to me. I am still searching for it. I know it must be here somewhere.

From all this I am reminded above all that I have lots to be thankful for, but in the tumult of daily life it is easy lose sight of this fact. It usually takes tragedy to remind us of these things we should be thankful for, which ironically is a tragedy in itself. Must we really have something taken away from us before we can appreciate it? Is it that absence makes the heart grow fonder, or can we never truly see that which is right in front of us? Are we destined to lament and covet what is missing rather than exalt and celebrate the amazing abilities and relationships we still possess?

These memories of my father and mother are the memories that have shaped me, and I hold on to these memories tight, afraid to let them go. Some even argue that our memories make us, that without our memories we would not be the same person. I’m not ready to tackle this debate, in truth. But in order to prevent forgetting I will continue to write them all down, everything that makes sense and especially everything that doesn’t. I will read it over and over and try to reach an understanding of what it means. Hopefully the act of writing it all down will prevent me from forgetting. Somewhere in this act I will find closure.

Understanding now that the persistence of memory is never guaranteed, I don’t want to lose these memories, no matter how painful, because if we don’t have our memories, what is left?


Written for the DP Weekly Writing Challenge: Memoir Madness

I had been working on this piece to publish this Wednesday, but decided to publish a little early for the Weekly Writing Challenge.

What do you think? Any feedback, advice, or constructive criticism is always welcome.

The Next Big Thing

I was on to something big, huge, immense. Probably the biggest and best idea of my entire life. It was almost too big to contain. It was such a good idea I decided I must be careful. There were thieves everywhere, pirates of creativity scouring the information super highway for such a tasty morsel. I was afraid to even write it down on paper, in case the pages fell into the wrong hands. It was so great that I didn’t dare tell anyone, not a soul. Not even you gentle reader, you’ve just got to trust me on this one. It was a fucking great idea.

Now if only I could remember what it was.

Finger face having an idea (by Tsahi Levent-Levi)

When Yesterday’s Gone

A DP Weekly Writing Challenge about Emptiness

repetition into darkness — — — Fort Point Arches (by Cheri Lucas Rowlands)

Yesterday  my mom called me and asked me to buy her cigarettes. I told her no and hung up. Five minutes later she called me back and asked me to buy her cigarettes again. This time I told her that she didn’t need cigarettes because she had quit smoking. This upset her, as if quitting smoking was awful news. She told me that she didn’t believe me. She called me a liar and hung up. It took her ten minutes before she called back again.

Screen shot 2014-02-04 at 8.55.37 PM

“Hello, this is your mom,” she said.

“Hello mom, this is your son.”

“I need you to take me to the store.”

“We went to the store yesterday. What do you need now?”

“Well, your not going to like it.”

“Is it cigarettes?”

There is silence on the end of the line, as she tries to think up something else she needs besides cigarettes. “I got this letter from the DMV,” she tells me. “You know I can’t drive anymore.”

“I know mom. You tell me about it every time you ask for a ride to the store.”

“I just need some things and if you can’t take me I don’t know what I’ll do.”

“You could take the bus.” We’ve been trying to convince her to take the bus for months now. The bus stop is about 20 feet from her front door and the bus comes once an hour. We want her to be able to go to the store by herself, but the bus schedule confuses her, and she says the bus is so bouncy it makes her hip hurt.

Her sigh is so heavy I could feel it through the phone line, a sigh so deep it has transcended time and space and travelled through the wires with the electrons. “So will you take me or not?”

I calculate what will be the least time consuming option, if actually taking an hour or so to drive through traffic and take her to the store would require less time than answering her phone calls as she repeatedly calls up and asks the same question over and over, having forgotten that she just called five minutes before. How distracting will it be to listen to phone ring all day? How upset will she be when I don’t answer?

“Okay mom, I’ll take you to the store. Write it down so you don’t forget.”

“Thank you,” she says.

“Write it down, please.”

“Okay, okay, let me find a pen.”

“Write down that I’m going to take you to the store. Today, in like half an hour.”

“Okay, I got it.”

“Put the note near the phone, and I’ll see you in a little bit.”

“Okay. Thank you.”

We hang up, and I try to finish up my kitchen chores, loading the dishwasher and taking out the compost. After about five minutes the phone rings again.

“Hello, this is your mom. Are you taking me to the store today? I found this note that said Store Today, but I’m not sure when today is. Is it today right now?”

Sometimes her dementia seems so deep and existential, so enlightened. There are heady lessons hidden there. Don’t take today for granted, and remember that it is today right now. Today is a privilege. It is today right now. How unlikely to find such revelations in an existence where time is measured in cigarettes. I try to cherish these small morsels of wisdom buried in such a dark and scary place.

Of course this all happened back when yesterday was still today, and I wonder if the today happening now is at all different than the yesterday I remember.

Is today the tomorrow I expected?