Every day I deal with people from all walks of life and some of them are growing very old. I watch them as they talk about memory like it's a shapeshifter that can't be tamed. One minute a memory is there, the next it's changed or disappeared entirely. They can tell me they'll remember what I've just said, but moments later they'll need reminding. "Do you have a pen handy" is a phrase I repeat often.
Observing people as I do, I can't help but wonder what these seemingly forgetful people can remember from their past. They can't recall my name, but can they remember what kind of cake their mom baked for them on their birthday when they were eight? Can they remember what they wore on their first day of school or who their first crush was?
I recently watched Still Alice and felt a creeping sense of dread as the movie progressed. Starring Julianne Moore as Dr. Alice Howland, a linguistics professor who faces early-onset Alzheimer's disease, the film shows how Howland goes from forgetting a word here and there to literally getting lost. As she slowly begins to forget, she grapples with remembering things that make her who she is - a recipe, her children's names, memories of her sister and mother, words. Moore's performance is devastatingly real and it chilled me to the bone. I couldn't help but think about what I would remember, or try to remember, if I were in that character's shoes. And when trying to remember anything at all fails and chance comes into play, what memories or details of my life would involuntarily stick and what would fade?
If I close my eyes and think back the earliest thing I can remember is a concrete step. It is spring time and I am sitting on this step beside a metal bowl filled with kibble. I can smell the grass, feel the roughness of the concrete, and I have kibble crumbs on my hands. I'm keeping my best buddy, a black cocker spaniel named Baron, company as he eats. I sometimes take a piece of kibble out of his bowl and set it on the concrete, so I can see his perfectly pink tongue curl out of his furry face to lick it up. I can hear my mom's voice through a door behind me. She tells me not to stick my hand in the dog's bowl while he's eating, to give him space. I hear her, and I understand that she's trying to warn me that I might get hurt, but I look over at Baron and he looks at me and we both know that we would never hurt each other. His eyes are a warm brown and they are full of love. Even though I can't be more than two-years old in this memory, I'm aware that at that time I knew that this dog cared for me more than anything. Which is probably why he tolerated me moving his food about for my amusement.
None of us really knows how much memory we will lose as we age and whether we'll have someone ask us constantly if we have a pen handy to write things down. But if we did know and could select things to remember, what would you chose to keep?
I'd want to keep that first memory of a concrete step, the smell of spring, my mother's voice, and a dog. It's a memory that I hope sticks because it's a memory where I am loved.
A moment with Baron and my dad that I wouldn't
be able to recall if it weren't for the help of this picture.