A few years ago I saw the Canadian film, Away From Her, which followed the journey of an active sixty-something husband and wife, as the woman gradually lost her memory, sinking into dementia triggered by Alzheimer’s disease. During one of the early scenes, the wife, played by Julie Christie, goes cross-country skiing, tracing her way through the snow outside her door, as she had done a thousand times before. But this time she became confused, and couldn’t find her way home without assistance. Soon the signs piled up, and became unmistakable; soon she had entered a facility for people with dementia.
The story does not end well. After some time the wife is transferred to a ward for those with more severe Alzheimer’s; after a while she does not remember her own husband.
I’ve been thinking about memory lately, as I grow older and my own memories pile up like sediment, one layer resting on another. I rely on my memory, and use it for my stories, essays, and columns. Meanwhile my mother, whom I used to check on weekly, and now talk to daily by phone, seems to be drifting away, her short-term memories washed away soon after they form, like footprints in the sand.
My mother doesn’t have Alzheimer’s, according to her doctor and social worker. But ever since my Mom went under general anesthesia for a ruptured appendix two years ago, her memory comes and goes, her sense of time shifting, unreliable. Some days she is tuned in, attentive, able to recall what she did yesterday or the day before. Other days she’s a sieve, her mind retaining little of what happened an hour or a day before.
She is aware of her condition, though sometimes she forgets its power, or denies it. Her forgetfulness became a concern, the key factor in our (my brothers’, one or two of her friends, her social workers’) argument to convince her to go to an independent living center, where there are activities, other folks her age, and aides to remind her to take her meds, reminders she cannot do without.
Her situation, and my situation as her son, weigh on me, and cycle through my mind, day in and day out. A good day means there is no crisis. A good day means that during our brief phone chat Mom is upbeat, and can recall what we discussed yesterday, and what she did that morning. A bad day means she has little to say, and has trouble naming the places she knows, places she has visited for the past 30, 40, or 50 years.
When I was in Cleveland a few weeks ago, I introduced Mom to the man I’ve been dating, who drove down from Toronto. My normally-talkative mother had little to say, overwhelmed by her impending move, and trying to manage the tremors that make it difficult for her to cut up her food, to bring egg and bagel from plate to mouth.
My older brother visited Cleveland last week, after Mom had moved into her new apartment, his first visit in two years. A few days later he called to give me an update.
“She’s lost her memory,” he said, meaning not just short, but long-term, too. My stomach tensed, while I considered what I already knew –- that it comes and goes, that her memory gets worse when she’s under stress, dealing with illness or life changes.
In spite of all that, my mother is adjusting to her new surroundings. She has joined the center’s book club, is reading for the first time in a year, is going to lectures on John D. Rockefeller (a native Clevelander), and current events. Sometimes she seems like my old Mom, the one who kept compulsively busy, who was organized to a fault. Sometimes she is quiet, searching for words, and I feel her slipping away, caught in the undertow while I stand on the shoreline.
For now, we both try to live in the present —Mom, because the present moment requires all her concentration, and all her attention; me because I don’t want to think about what comes next, and what’s beyond the next bend.