My father couldn’t remember where I was born. He was there, he even passed out in the delivery room. He was overcome by the scene, his firstborn breathing his first outside his wife’s body. When he asked me where I was born, as though he was asking me what today was, I hoped he couldn’t hear the incredulity in my voice when I told him. I hoped I had a “poker voice” and I was glad we were talking on the phone, not face to face. I hoped he hadn’t realized in that moment how much he had lost. I gave him space to recall things about Denver, the restaurant he owned and managed, his colorful staff and customers. We moved onto other topics.
I just watched Still Alice, a movie about a woman with early onset Alzheimer’s and her family. My father and grandmother don’t have Alzheimer’s, but they do have dementia, specifically acute memory loss. Short term memories are especially elusive, but medium and long term memories can be difficult to recall as well, as the story above illustrates. I’m not so narcissistic that I think he should have remembered where I was born because I’m an important person in his life. He forgot where his first child was born, and my heart broke for him in that moment. Hopefully he’s not acutely aware of how much he’s lost. It would be merciful for him if the magnitude of what he’s lost is greatly diminished. It would mean those who love him and can empathize don’t need to mourn the loss for him. But of course we do. I did. And do. Especially after watching Still Alice today.
The dramatic and inconsistent depletion of his memory banks has changed him, from gregarious and outgoing to withdrawn, circumspect, especially with strangers. Previously, his personality drove his profession as a journalist and visa versa. He would approach anyone, regardless of the obvious differences, and perhaps because of them, but not so much anymore. He’s dialed down his level of happiness for everyone, family included, unless he forgets himself, lets down his guard, forgets his shame or embarrassment of not being able to remember answers to a question he’s asked them two minutes earlier. Their quizzical look and halting repetition. Feeling and being stupid can be very tiresome.
I don’t have to deal with it everyday or even every week. And I rarely have to deal with it in person, probably 15 days in the last 3 years since I’ve been living far away from him and my mother for the last 24 years, more than half of my life. So Still Alice has helped deepen my empathy for what mother goes through every single day with my father and my father goes through nearly every day with his own mother, who lives at Arden Wood on one of the nursing floors, whose memory is much worse than his, but she’s not in her 70’s, she in her mid-90’s.
Hopefully this thing won’t make a whispering ghost of me or my sisters as well. Or you. But mostly I hope that whoever has to deal with it, both the victims and those around them, handle it with love, patience, and empathy.