I often bring home stories about my work -- mostly stories about how individuals and their families cope with aging and the rewards and losses that accompany it. There are stories about the rewards of family and community, about prizes won for life-long work, about friends who walk side by side on life's journey, about the wisdom that propelled some to save, to plan and to prepare and how well that now serves them. And there are stories about significant loss as well: The loss of physical vibrancy and strength, loss of clear hearing and vision, loss of dear spouses and family and friends, loss of opportunity and potential and time -- and above all, the loss of memory.
Last month, during a family dinner, I shared a story about a client with whom I had met earlier that day. The client was physically healthy, but her vast store of memory had slipped into thin air. Later that night, as I was tucking my 10-year-old daughter into bed, she suddenly cried out "Mommy, please don't ever forget me! Don't lose your memory and forget why I'm important to you. I need you to know me."
A child's despair at the thought of being forgotten is understandable, and my daughter's request not to be forgotten was palpable. This was not about my actual death, losing me entirely, but about losing the part of me that knows her in the deepest sense. It was about losing MY memories of HER life. It was about the fear of my memory dying before my body. How could I be there in body and not in mind? How could I be there, but not be myself, the mother she knows, who remembers intimate details of her life, her birth, the nuance of her cry in the middle of the night? To her and to so many others, the magnitude of this loss seemed overwhelming.
My 10-year-old astute young listener had taken careful note of the description I'd given earlier, of the visit with my client's adult son, "This was the first time my mother didn't recognize me. I'm now sure she doesn't know who I am anymore," he said. I felt caught off-guard and realized that no matter how many times I hear this statement, it always shocks me. In response, I tried to give him hope, to be reassuring (albeit unconvincingly): "Perhaps this was just a bad day for your mother," I said. "Maybe next time you see her, she'll know who you are."
Both he and I knew that there was but a grain of hope left for his mother to remember him. And indeed, on his next visit, the mother still did not know her son. Mother had lost her son in the way she once knew him, and son had only the memory of why he'd been so important to his mother. She no longer held the vast and endless store of memories of her own life, with her experiences and hopes and dreams, nor could she remember her son's life, or the hopes and dreams she had had for him. That loss touched him and touches so many others in the deepest place, regardless of where the child is, or where we are, in our own lives. This loss is disorienting and unnerving.
As children grow and develop, they experience the reality of the rewards and losses that accompany growth. Indeed, at each stage of life, we have the opportunity to create and to choose, to plan and to experience that which is rewarding and to accept the accompanying pain and loss of our decisions.
Confronting the reality of memory loss as one cares for aging loved ones demands that we prepare for their demise, prepare for a situation that potentially steals life and love as we know it. Aging is a moving vehicle towards the unknown, and the framework is ours to set out. Although we cannot choose the time or date or season that will claim our loved ones, we can choose a way to relate to them as they travel towards their end.
We can support and hope and pray for an easy passage, for minimal pain, for enjoying simple pleasures and for safeguarding dignity. We may learn to give generously, to listen to subtlety and to experience the satisfaction of caring for another, which is immeasurable. Perhaps we might learn from this new experience that living with greater care and generosity toward others, spending time listening carefully and being open to the pleasures of receiving small and quiet gifts from those around us, is a good and enduring way to way to live our lives now. We need not wait for the death of memory.