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memory, mom and me

by Judy
September 15, 2014

I have been reflecting on memory lately as I watch my mother’s memory fade. She is 98 years old, doesn’t have Alzheimer’s disease, but for certain her memory is getting worse. The other day when she could not remember what she had just eaten, she started to moan. When I asked her what the matter was, she said, “My memory is getting so bad.” That was the first time that I remember her expressing pain about her faulty memory. As I responded, I expressed to her that probably what she eats is not very important to her anymore. She doesn’t see, smell or taste very well and she simply isn’t hungry most of the time. So in part the lack of memory is based on lack of interest. Of course that is not the whole story and there are all sorts of studies being done on examining the brain and what happens as it ages with memory loss, but that is not my expertise or interest at this point. I am just a curious and concerned observer.

What I found very interesting and what I expressed to my mom is that she did remember for a number of days the fact that I had fallen down and hurt myself. (Luckily I did not break anything). For a few days running, she would ask me in the morning if my leg was alright. So here is a woman that can’t remember two seconds after she has eaten, what she ate and yet she did not forget that I fell down.

This whole incident got me thinking about memory in general. We often - especially when younger - have a lot of confidence in our memory. It’s almost an arrogant confidence and yet no matter how old or young we are, memory is actually such a selective process. In other words, what I remember of any particular event will be very limited and often we end up having memories of memories that most likely get even more one dimensional.

 In addition as one gets older, so much of the past seems to just fade into the woodwork. There are literally whole chunks of my life that have completely disappeared. There are other events and experiences that seem to be lost, but have only gone underground and can be retrieved at the right moment when needed. And then there are certain memories that seem to be forever engraved in consciousness. Some of them are significant, but others are totally inconsequential. For example, when I was a young student in secondary school, often we had to memorize a lot of dates. The best way I could do this was to write everything down. Somehow the act of literally writing and seeing what I wrote made memorizing very easy. So even now I remember dates like the year 1804 when Napoleon became Emperor of France.

Memory is an interesting phenomenon. Why do we remember some things and not others? My mother, who was never good at math, had an incredible memory for telephone numbers. I have no idea why. It’s probably a whole complex of reasons. She also can still describe in detail the house where she grew up in Brooklyn and certain stories about her life when young, like when she travelled to the “old country” with her mother and sister. These memories are alive like they happened yesterday.

She recently told me a story about myself when very young. She says how I was very quiet but with big eyes - wide open - and always looking at everything. Now this is not even a story that was ever told to me before, but now she has told me a few times and always laughs with delight. We both laugh.

 I can imagine how frustrating it must be for my mom when she can’t remember and realizes her memory is slipping. It’s been going on for a while and in general my mother’s ability to surrender to this new reality is very striking and yet it is still hard at times. She never forgets me, her family, caregivers and close friends. She remembers trips that she took but not in lot of detail. She surprises me at times by what she does remember.

 And in spite of the fact that some very present happenings disappear almost as soon as they arise, my mother is still intact. The fading memory does not affect that. All I can say is she’s still there – often sleepy, not knowing the day, year or time, not remembering a lot of her past and even the present slipping out of view, but she is still there - still caring, curious and funny. My mom’s life is not so easy now and she tells me many times that having me with her makes her life much easier. I know that is true and for myself, though not always easy, I am forever grateful for this time with her.



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