In the grand scheme of things, I am not very old. I was born in 1961, during the presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. I have no memories of him while he was still alive; Lyndon Johnson was the first president that I can recall reading about (or perhaps seeing on TV). One of my early memories is of a funeral of a cousin who was killed in Vietnam.
Memories are what ties me to the past; I have too many memories, and I sometimes feel that I lose more than I gain with each passing year. I can recall with some precision the role I played in our kindergarten class’s production of “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.” This is perhaps because I still own the costume I wore during the play, but, in fact, I remember this event even before I discovered the costume. For some reason, some events stick in the memory, while others fade into obscurity and odd recollection (“Did I ever go to Disneyland? Perhaps.”)
I live in a family afflicted by Alzheimer’s. My maternal grandmother died of the disease, and all seven of her children suffered from it (one of them is still alive). Forgetfulness is the great pain of Alzheimer’s, especially with the short-term memory. When my father died, we had to tell my mother repeatedly, every few minutes, because she would forget about it in the mean time and ask where he was. I share with my cousins a deep fear that we, too, will somehow be afflicted with this soul-stripping disease, and we share with one another articles we find about neurological research and possible treatments.
I tend to have a somewhat morbid sense of humor about the whole thing, though that does not actually erase the fear. A joke:
The doctor tells the patient: “I have bad news, and I have worse news. The bad news is that you have Alzheimer’s, and the worse news is that you have cancer.” “Oh,” says the patient, “at least I don’t have Alzheimer’s.”
It’s not really very funny, but it always gets a laugh.
As I grow older, I note with some consternation that my mental faculties are not what they used to be. It’s probably (really? how can you be sure?) the normal course of aging, but I can no longer think through complex issues as rapidly as I used to. A decade or so ago, I had great self-confidence in my own ability to learn and understand; these days I sometimes feel that I can barely keep up. My memory does not seem to be failing (or does it? how would I tell?). For many years, I prided myself on an uncanny ability to examine and rapidly understand large, complex computer systems. These days, it’s hard, hard work, and I’m often mistaken. Perhaps the makers of newer computer systems are using techniques with which I am unfamiliar, but it simply seems as if I’m just not as quick on the uptake as I used to be (could you measure that? what’s a good metric for “clever?”).1
The lapses in short-term memory are becoming more and more frequent, as is the bouts of random aphasia (I can remember words like aphasia, but I often forget words like glove or kitchen). It’s frustrating for me as well as for my partners in conversation (most usually my long-suffering wife) when I beat my head against the wall trying to find the word I just had in mind.
Mark Knopfler has a song, “A Place Where We Used To Live,” that sums up this experience:
But time has been a little cruel here
Time has no shame
The cruellest part of memory loss is that you don’t know what you’ve lost. My uncle, in the last stages of Alzheimer’s, would weep because, as he said, “I don’t want to forget everyone.” My accidental namesake, the country-western singer and guitarist Glen Campbell, wrote the song, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” about just this fact. It’s a heart- and gut-wrenching acknowledgement of facing up to this terrible disease.
You’re never gonna see it in my eyes
It’s not gonna hurt me when you cry
Now, if I could only recall where I left my keys….
I don’t think you’re supposed to ever use four consecutive pieces of punctuation at once, but it seems to work in this instance. ↩ ↩︎