Lately, I’ve been misplacing nouns like the proverbial set of keys. Names, places, objects that were once familiar temporarily fall between the couch cushions of life.
“It’s natural,” my well-intended friends and relatives tell me, “You’re just getting…older.”
Maybe, I think. My mind shifts to my mother.
“You’re at no higher risk than the general population,” my doctor said without looking up from my genetic test report.
That result felt good at the time, but as my instances of “forgetfulness” increase, it provides little comfort.
The good news is that I eventually remember the who, where or what.
Trick one is the most basic of mnemonics. I simply repeat “aaa, bbb, ccc, ddd,” and so on until something feels right. There’s an inaudible click. That click may not be the word, but at least I realize I’m in the vicinity.
I know, it’s extremely scientific, right?
OK, OK, but did you know that mnemonic is derived from Greek mnēmōn (“mindful”), which itself comes from the Greek word meaning “to remember”? (In classical mythology, Mnemosyne, the mother of the Muses, is the goddess of memory.)
OK, where was I? Oh, yeah…
Trick two is simply to ignore the momentary memory lapse, knowing that the word will suddenly appear. It may be minutes, hours, or even days later, but the word will come to me.
Example: Just the other morning, I was out having breakfast with my friend Karen. We were talking about how travel is changing given the Coronavirus, and as an example, she was relating a story about how her son changed his travel plans to . . . She paused.
“You know,” she said somewhat embarrassed, “It’s a Canadian city. West coast. Near an island.”
Two immediate thoughts:
- Smugly: “Thank God, I’m not the only older person forgetting things.”
- Exasperated: I couldn’t remember the name of the city either.
“Happens to me all the time, Karen” I said waving a comforting hand in the air. “It will come to us.”
“Anyway,” she continued….
As she talked, I went inward and watched my cranial minions start rummaging about in dusty mental filing cabinets, muttering “aaa, bbb, ccc….” Eventually…
“Here it is, boss” one of them yelled, holding up a yellowed piece of paper.
“Vancouver,” I blurted out over Karen’s monologue.
“Yes, Vancouver! Ugh. Don’t you hate that?” she moaned.
I have come to accept that these lapses concern me for three reasons.
Solitary confinement 1 – My mother passed away from Alzheimer’s – a ten-year spiral into silence. First, forgetting nouns. Then, the immediate present. Then, the past. Then us. At the end, there appeared to be little behind her dark eyes. A prisoner in a cell without windows or doors.
Nature’s drive-by shooting in Super. Slow. Motion.
Solitary confinement 2 – Words are not just keys to expression; they’re doors to relationships and purpose. I worry that if my lapses increase, I will become less reliable, less useful. I imagine myself – even grayer and more creased than I am now – sitting at a kitchen table alone, reading the news on a very old smartphone. With a cracked screen. Or watching an endless stream of game shows on television. I see my father wasting away after little but a life of work. No friends or associates.
But not to worry; life is not all dark. There is the occasional lunch at the Big Boy diner to look forward to.
Solitary confinement 3 – This is perhaps the harshest outcome. But it’s the one I’m most curious about because it is not so much about the fear of forgetting as it is the fear of being forgotten.
There is a point in life when we all turn and look back over one shoulder and ask “What did I do that’s memorable? Whose life did I touch in a meaningful way? What did I accomplish that had any impact?”
We are all human asteroids hurtling through history, leaving craters large and small. I am but a collection of little impacts, I conclude without judgment.
“Don’t bury me,” I instructed my wife when we were completing our wills. Yes, I have severe claustrophobia — “You do realize you’ll be dead,” my brother later offered sarcastically — but that’s not the reason for not wanting to reside six feet under.
“I don’t want to be alone for eternity. I don’t want to be in a place that gradually no one visits,” I whined. I don’t want to just be a name and dates carved into stone that eventually gives way to time and seasons. An out-of-date history book shelved in the upper stacks. Or worse, left out on the remainder pile.
“Cremate me, and float me down a trout stream,” I instruct.
Let me dissolve into the waters where I can reside with the larvae and the rocks and the fish. I will become one with the water and its forest partner, I think.
People will visit me. They will wade in to cool themselves and reflect on the sounds of the water and the forest.
I will still have purpose.