I remember where my students sat in classes I taught more than thirty years ago, but I have forgotten why I came downstairs.
I remember that my Uncle Laurent was born on New Year’s Eve, but I have to reread sections of an article several times if I hope to retrieve the facts and statistics in an article I have just read.
I can describe plays and recall statistics from a Rider game, but I have to think about where I might have put a fallen earring after I snatched it from the floor.
At such times, I worry about my memory and what might lie ahead for me in fifteen or twenty years, if not sooner. A CBC report on December 5 citing a 17% increase in dementia since 2010 only exacerbates my concerns. I have been up close and personal with dementia. My mother suffered from it in the last years of her life, and, as she and my father lived with us, her illness touched us daily.
Her memory loss imprisoned her in the moment. But which moment? When she was alone, she was never sure whether she had been by herself for a few seconds, five minutes, two hours, or a day. As a result, she needed the constant reassurance of the presence of another person. Any filters she had ever possessed disowned her. Such familarity with dementia, then, breeds vigilance and awareness. What do I remember, and what don’t I recall? Are there any commonalities in either category? What impact, if any, might these conclusions have on my present life?
So I try to pin down the commonalities among the things I remember, both in the present and the past. I remember the birthdays and various anniversaries of people I care about. I even remember birthdays and anniversaries once removed if they are associated with events that touch those I love. For example, I remember the day of my godmother’s death, the births of my godchild’s daughter and my daughter-in-law’s niece because they fall on my husband’s birthday. My neighbor died on the wedding anniversary of close friends. My mother and a friend’s father share the same day of death, years apart. So, strong emotional ties are important.
Emotion also plays a role in flashes of still or video I screen in my mind, periodically: classrooms and students imprinted on my memory for the fun we had together; classy and kind gestures; loving, odd or even painful words (“Now, that’s big!” a stranger at a craft party said, pointing to a nine-month pregnant Yvette as I entered the room!); the hushed reverence of the Verdun war memorial and the JFK Museum on the sixth floor of the Book Depository Building. In all those cases, strong feelings helped to file the memories in the library of my mind.
Compounding the senses also helps. If I write things down after I have heard them, or while I read them, I am much more likely to cement the information, given that two or more senses are involved. For example, I might make a grocery list, and then forget it at home. The very act of having written it, however, helps me to remmber the items I must pick up. I rely on that tool when my memory is most vulnerable—in times of stress.
My memory suffers the most when it’s overloaded. When my mind is juggling many projects, some often disparate, it won’t have byte space for trivia, just like a memory stick that can’t accept any more information. I might remember the gist of an important article, but I will need to consult it again to verify any supporting information. Awareness helps me mitigate any forgetfulness.
It occurs to me that we might perceive the absence of memory as an absolution for inaction. So sorry, I missed your birthday, or, I forgot . . . might be euphemistic expressions for, I didn’t bother to make note of your birthday, or, I didn’t take the time to . . . . I might rationalize my inaction because I forgot. As long as my memory is in tact, forgetfulness can be an excuse. Should the time ever come when I can no longer control my memory, and I forget how to perform even the most basic of functions, then someone will help me along, I trust, and my inaction will no longer be merely rationalization.
While I am graced with memory, however, I have responsibility. Memory incites action. If I remember someone’s birthday, I need to act on that knowledge—make a phone call, write an email, visit, or send a gift or a card. If I carry around relevant facts or statistics in my head, I am also compelled to action. I can congratulate, compliment, or publicize positive sets of information, and even use them as a springboard to personal action. What about facts or statistics that are disturbing? Well, now I am accountable. If I know, for example, that almost 44% of foodbank users in Saskatchewan are children, how can I not do something to help? Memory, then, creates accountability.
For now, aware of the factors that support my memory as well as my vulnerabilities, I try to protect my memory as much as one ever can. Keeping in mind the recommendations for prevention of dementia from the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation (I wrote the acronym in my journal, and then had to go back to the site to recall the words!), I exercise regularly, and I watch my diet, although I could drink less red wine and more green tea. I take vitamins, I don’t smoke, and I get plenty of mental stimulation. I manage stress much better than I used to, the result of a deliberate and calibrated strategy to project equanimity, even when I might not be feeling it. As for an active social life, another suggested avenue for the prevention of dementia, mine works for me. In the end, however, these practices might help to manage the odds a little; they are certainly no guarantee.
I am reconciled. What’s important, once again, is to live in the present moment, fully and completely. Taking Mitch Albom’s words in The Five People You Meet in Heaven a little out of context, I might say that memory is my partner—I nurture it; I dance with it. And, with some luck, I might get to keep it.