Lest we forget

April 06, 1994|By Ellen Kirvin Dudis

AN 83-year-old woman I know is losing her memory.

After a brain scan, after blood tests for vitamin deficiencies and metabolic abnormalities, the doctor offers his best guess for her dementia: Alzheimer's disease.

Everyone who knows this woman reacts with the same disbelief and dismay -- "but she was always so sharp, so assured, so independent!" Now, repeating the same questions over and over, she no longer is certain where she is or the events of her life for the last 25 years. And it is very hard for us to accept. We don't want to lose this decisive individual who, half a century before anyone talked about burnout or stress management, announced her husband that he could look after their two small children for the next couple of days because she was going to Philadelphia for the weekend!

In a way, the woman's hallmark independence was forced on her from the beginning. Her mother died weeks after she was born, and for five years she was passed back and forth among relatives. Then her father remarried, and her stepmother was so wonderful that the woman never told her own children about her real mother, until one of the kids discovered the name and dates in an old book.

As the child of Swedish immigrants, the woman was first in her family to go to college. After graduating, during the depths of the Depression, she took the only job available -- teaching at a reform school in a small town miles from home. The first thing she bought with her earnings was a little gray Chevy with red upholstery.

She was off to see the world. When I was growing up, she was the only person I knew who had been to Europe. And she had plenty of anecdotes about her adventures. She told me the Louvre wasn't all it was cracked up to be. She didn't think Proust was, either. Everyone was reading Proust back then, she said; but why would anyone want to wade through those endless pages of narcissistic reminiscences? She liked a good story!

Today, aware that her own remembrance is "not what it should be," but not aware how much of it is gone, she suffers the doubts that erupt into the same questions over and over.

And those of us who must take her back over the same territory again and again begin to have as little patience as she had with Proust.

Dealing with serious memory loss is a frustrating business. It is also a constant reminder of memory's ever-present significance in our own lives. After all, no matter what we think or do at any given moment, it is related to past experience. So while we can't predict one another's behavior, we always expect each other to remember.

Furthermore, we can't seem to bear the denial or effacement of our personal versions of things past. There are times when the temptation to insist on another's recall, to force the recognition, can be overwhelming. Perhaps because our relationships depend so much on mutual corroboration, we hold each other responsible for our mental processes -- while our bodily functions are for the most part free from such accountability. Do we turn on the physically suffering with bitter exasperation? Blame a woman for her breast cancer? Demand the victim of kidney failure make an effort?

A certain amount of memory loss comes to us all, of course, a normal part of aging. Who hasn't raced upstairs for something, reached the top step and forgotten what she was after? It's common enough to be the birthday card joke among middle-aged women. And all of us have our excuses: We break stride so many times a day, we haven't time or continuity in our lives for perfect recollection. But now and again, there are those frightening moments when one draws a complete blank, stares helplessly into her husband's or children's eyes and hears the devastating retort:

"You're worse than your mother!"

Ellen Kirvin Dudis is a writer in Pocomoke City.

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