Remembering

Many years ago, before we knew much about Alzheimer’s Disease, we had a friend who was experiencing some form of age-related dementia. I was told the official diagnosis, but the name of the condition didn’t stick with me. What I do know is that she would tell the same stories and ask the same questions over and over again. We stayed in their home when our children were 2 and 4 years old and our 4-year-old noticed and was bothered by the repeated questions. He was polite, but he kept asking us why she kept repeating herself. In the years that followed, her condition became even more pronounced. At some point, it seemed like every conversation with her was the exact same conversation that we had had before. It was a repetition of the same themes, questions, and statements that we had already heard. And she began to stop telling her own personal stories. we would hear repeated questions, but very little of her story was being told. It was clear, and very sad and tragic, that she was losing her own past. She failed to recognize friends they had known for years. She failed to recognize her own children. Her husband became a stranger to her. Fortunately, her loss of memory didn’t seem to distress her. She remained cheerful and upbeat. Her husband commented that he felt free to travel with her because one place was just as good as another. Since she didn’t know where she was, she didn’t care if the place changed.

I think about her even though it has been decades since she died. In the years that have passed, I have known others who have experienced conditions that affected their memories. Some have been more self aware of their condition than others. Another friend was increasingly confused, distressed and angry about his inability to remember.

I’ve wondered whether it is better to be losing one’s memory and not know or to be aware of the tragedy of what is being lost day by day. I don’t know the answer. And I do know that we don’t get to choose all of the paths of our lives. We don’t get to choose what disease we contract or the timing of many events in our lives. I’ve watched too many people carefully plan their retirements only to have a disease or a family tragedy scuttle all of the plans.

But that is not the only thing about which I wonder. I wonder about what might be going on in my own brain as I age. Are there things that I have forgotten that are forever lost. Frequently when I struggle with a name or the details of a particular story, I will eventually recall the name or detail later. But there are names that I cannot recall. Occasionally I think of an elementary school classmate and can recall a bit about the person but the name is gone. I used to say that I had displaced the names of some people in my home town by learning the names of so many new people. Whenever we have moved from one congregation to another, I have had to work hard to learn names and my focus has been on the people coming through the doors of the church, not the people with whom I shared childhood classrooms. In this particular congregation, the turnover is not too quick, but there are a dozen or more new names to learn every year and it doesn’t get any easier for me to keep the names all sorted out. Fortunately we have a system of name tags and our newer members are pretty good about wearing their name tags, so I get their names after a while. Visitors, however, often begin with irregular attendance patterns and I don’t see them every week and getting their names fixed in my mind takes me longer than I wish were the case.

When it comes to my preaching and to my journal entries, I worry about repetition. I write an essay ever morning. What if I have already written everything that i know and all I’m doing is writing the same stories, but I’ve forgotten that I wrote them before. It could be checked, but I have over 36,500 essays available in my online archives these days. That’s a lot of reading for the purpose of looking for repetition. I could well be repeating myself and not be aware of it. I know that I have written essays that have focused on memory in the past. I know that I have told stories of the friends with whom I started this essay, but I don’t know if I have written their stories.

Then one has to ask whether or not a little repetition matters. When it comes to my preaching, if I am speaking the truth, surely the truth bears repetition. And even if the words are repeated, the context changes with each passing week and because I follow a 3-year lectionary, it is unlikely that the repetition is of something said more recently than 3 years ago.

Still, as I grow older, I wonder. Will I have fresh, new stories to tell my grandchildren or will they remember a grandpa who always tells the same stories? I’d like to be the kind of person who has something new to add to a conversation, but I realize that many of the factors that make that possible are well beyond my control.

One consolation for me in all of this speculation is that it seems to me that the practice of writing is making me a better writer. I am hoping that even if I am repeating the stories, I might be being a bit more articulate and skilled in the way I am telling the stories. I’m not sure that my spelling and grammar are getting any better, but I am more skilled at recognizing certain kinds of mistakes than used to be the case.

Another possibility, I suppose is that my readers’ memories also fade with time. Maybe by the time I get to repeating on a regular basis, they will have forgotten what they have previously read and be happy to read the story again. If that happens, we’ll never know.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!