Lost memories take strange forms. Sometimes you don’t even know what’s missing until you find clues that have long been stashed away. In recent weeks we’ve discovered things we didn’t know were gone.
During August, we began looking for the title to my mother’s car. She bought a golden #Nissan Maxima in 2000. This purchase was her last big splurge before retirement and the car had every bell and whistle. Mom drove it with pride until we had to take her keys. Emotional alarms go off when a #dementia patient must surrender driving privileges. If they can drive, they can maintain the illusion that they’re in charge of their lives. Mom felt she’d been demoted to a lower caste when she gave up control of her fast sedan. It was a difficult transition for everyone.
Getting rid of the Maxima was like losing another piece of our mother. But years of road salt and slush damaged the car’s undercarriage so it was not going to pass inspection. No dealer or junk yard would offer any trade-in value without the car’s title. So we had to sort through boxes of Mom’s neatly organized documents which were jammed into the back of a large closet.
Pieces of our lives
We searched for hours. My sister and I sifted through piles of receipts and records Mom had labeled with care. That afternoon we discovered a trove of photos we’d never seen before. We found pictures of my mom with her mother. Both of them were wearing leather coats and looking tough in a way I don’t recall. There were tiny snapshots of my older cousins during their first years in school. They looked so sweet and innocent. Today they are grandmothers. More lost memories came surging back when we found Mom’s registration log and notary equipment. I had completely forgotten that my mother was once a notary.
Some items in the giant pile made us stop and weep. Examples of her neat, precise handwriting moved me to tears. I sat on the floor of that closet and remembered her incredible efficiency. We took a moment to grieve the loss of the tiny woman who managed payrolls and corralled CEO’s. Mom was terrific in the workplace. Each time her company was purchased, the new chief executive kept our mother on as gatekeeper.
When #dementia patients reach a certain stage, it’s easy to see them as a ‘vacant room’. But the evidence of their true character is all around them. Many lost memories are hiding in plain sight. We just have to open our eyes to them.
Caregivers lose memories, too. We don’t lose them the same way #dementia patients do. Instead, our duties make it difficult to keep track of our own lives and what makes them meaningful.
Our role as #caregivers gives us chances to transform ourselves through service to others. While doing this work, we often create new memories. But the never-ending list of duties makes it hard to enjoy special moments from other periods of our lives. Forgetting the past can erase too much of our true identity.
This loss of identity can also happen during other phases of life. When parents have their first child, most experience a tsunami of change. They know they’ll be responsible for the health and safety of a tiny vulnerable creature. But they also expect their child to be the focus of happy memories they will create together as a family.
Unfortunately, the transition to the role of #caregiver is not accompanied by so much hope and joy. We become guardians of a person in the midst of steep decline. This demanding role absorbs our full attention. It’s easy to forget we had pleasant times in the past. My sister recently accused me of forgetting a nice memory we discussed a few weeks ago. I told her candidly, “My mind seems to reject any information that is not essential. Every day I’m trying to keep track of which bills need to be paid. When I finish thinking about that, my mind fills up with a mental picture of what we need from the supermarket. Then I have to worry about who will be here to provide support each day.” This never-ending list of worries takes up room that could be dedicated to happier thoughts.
Remembering who we used to be
I want my life to be more than a to-do list. Fortunately, we’ve had a few days of fantastic weather in our slice of the Poconos. As I sit on the porch writing on my laptop, the occasional breeze makes me close my eyes for a moment. The green smell of the forest takes me back to my childhood in a small Pennsylvania town. I used to lie on our front porch swing and pretend I was asleep. To make sure no one would bother me, I’d put an open Nancy Drew book across my face. [When I added that Nancy Drew link just now, the sight of those book covers brought back ten years of my childhood.]
Thoughts of Nancy Drew take me further into the past. We had a large maple tree in front of that porch where I passed countless days reading or playing with friends. At certain times of year, the wind sent little seeds flying to the ground. Kids from my block called them pug noses. We opened them in the middle and used the maple sap to stick them to our noses. The Internet did not exist. We invented every interesting thing in our lives.
We built doll houses out of tissue boxes and played Monopoly for days. If someone was on the verge of going broke, one of the other players handed them money so they could stay in the game. Our goal was to keep the game going. No one ever felt entitled to own everything. Now our world is being managed by billionaires and corporations that won’t be satisfied until they own every resource on the planet. It’s a sad commentary on how the world has changed. But it’s also a good reason to take time to treasure your memories. No one can raise the price on the life you’ve already lived — and they can’t repossess your recollection of living it.