"Memories Light the corners of my mind ..."
-- Bergman/Hamlisch, "The Way We Were"
My husband and I are at the age when every time we can't remember something, we worry that we are in the early stage of Alzheimer's disease. It comes with the territory. In my mid-50s, I am not an old lady, but if I were to go, no one would say, "How sad: She had her whole life ahead of her. " Much of my life has already been lived.
Memory is a strange and quirky thing. While much of my past is blurred, some of my memories are as clear as if they happened yesterday. What isn't clear is if they can they be trusted for accuracy. I once saw a segment of "60 Minutes" about how a woman who had been raped in her own bed positively identified her rapist. His brutal face above her during her horror was permanently etched in her mind. She was without doubt. The convicted rapist served many years of his term before DNA evidence acquitted him. On "60 Minutes," the woman and the wrongly convicted man appeared together. In an emotional interview, she related how she'd admitted that her memory had been wrong and had apologized profusely. He not only forgave her; they became friends and colleagues in the cause of reforming the way the law views eyewitness testimony. It was a moving report, and I was struck by what an extremely rattling feeling that must have been for that woman, to learn that such a certain and seemingly imperviously correct memory had deceived her own mind.
I have had smaller, less consequential glimmers of that feeling, that something I thought I remembered vividly turned out to be imaginary, as proved by the corroboration of others or old photographs. I was so sure that something had been the way I remembered it, but hard evidence proved me mistaken. Since I have never had a very good memory, it is usually easy for me to accept that my memory was incorrect. My mother, on the other hand, who has always prided herself on her detail-rich memory, is not so accepting.
As my mother's Parkinson's disease has progressed, her memory is ever more absent or faded or skewed. Her hard Irish head, however, compels her to insist that she is right, no matter the documentation to the contrary. I used to try to set her right, but I have learned to let the argument go, to let the moment pass. My mother's sister died from Pick's disease, a rare form of dementia that is similar to Alzheimer's disease, and her brother is now in the heartbreaking throes of Alzheimer's, so I suppose it is not surprising that the dementia of Parkinson's has affected her brain in this way. My mother's generation is forgetting itself, and there is nothing to be done about it. It's just that our memories make us who we are. They form us, for better or for worse, and make us uniquely ourselves. When we lose them, we lose more than our history: We lose the very past that grounds us in the present.
And this is frightening.
My husband and I sometimes joke that when we are both old and forgetful, we will be able to own just one movie, and watch it over and over, because we won't remember that we've already seen it. Not to sound like a bad Nicholas Sparks novel, but after we laugh, we look at each other furtively, wondering: What will it be like to care for this person whom I love more than life itself when he or she no longer remembers who I am?
"Has Time rewritten every line?" asks the song from "The Way We Were". It's an excellent question, especially as the science of memory continues to reveal, in study after study, that even believing we clearly remember the way we were at a certain point in the past is suspect, that the very memory we may cherish is cloudy and unreliable, that memory itself can be a creative act. We remember selectively. We can also be suggestible as to what we remember, which has prompted the New Jersey Supreme Court to rule that jurors must be instructed that "human memory is not foolproof." It certainly isn't.
The science of memory fascinates me; the reality scares me. But the facts of aging are inescapable. A diminished memory arrives along with the AARP card in the mail. My husband and I can only hope to have the grace and humor to accept our limitations, to accommodate the way we are , rather than mourn the way we were, and to continue to love each other as we watch our only movie again.
These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her at email@example.com.