The power of memory may seem puny if you’re caring for someone with #dementia, Words, plans, and even regrets just disappear. Yet there are moments when a song, a smell or a taste can quickly spark some hint of the past. Smell an #Easter#lily or a hyacinth and you’ll know what I mean.
I attended church every Sunday as a child. We were not allowed to skip a service unless we had mumps, measles or some other serious disease. Our town was small, but it was filled with places of worship. There were Slovak, Lithuanian, Polish, and Russian churches. A tiny Jewish synagogue sat next to my elementary school. A large Roman Catholic parish, with its own school, was just one block away. My parents took us to church so we’d develop a strong moral compass. They also made us feel that membership in a faith community was part of our identity.
We belonged to a Lutheran church, which had no ethnic affiliation. The congregation included families with German, English, Irish, Welsh and Dutch roots. Our lives were tied together by the belief that religious commitment is an active matter. Faith wasn’t something proclaimed from a pulpit. It was something we did by donating food for the homeless or visiting elders who couldn’t get out.
Our church was built from hewn blocks of grey granite. Every Sunday the altar was decorated with tall bouquets of flowers. Families donated additional plants to fill the front of the church on holidays. Easter was special. Dozens of lilies filled the air with a mesmerizing scent.
Easter was always a big holiday for us because we each got a new spring dress. We wore our pastel clothes to church with a fresh pair of shoes. Often they squeezed our feet because they were stiff and new. We had to scuff them on the sidewalk to add a little friction to the soles.
I’m sure I’ve forgotten many details of childhood, but those memories are still magnetic. When I try to think of ways to engage my mother, I often fall back to songs we sang in church. I don’t have a great voice but I can still sing a few verses. Her eyes tell me the tunes are familiar.
The power of Memory = the sense of smell
I picture my mother wearing a short pink dress with a scalloped neckline. Her dress matched my sister’s and mine. We all carried small purses. My father, who had a tremendous voice, sang solos from the front of the church. The smell of lilies buoyed each musical note like a fragrant mist. That scent is imprinted in our minds. It’s an invisible code that time hasn’t erased.
At this point, language has deserted my mother. She can’t tell me what she remembers or enjoys. But when I push her wheelchair close to the white flowers that proclaim the arrival of spring, her eyes open wide. Scientists say that smell is the first sense developed by humans. Judging from my mother’s reaction, it may also be the last to go.
When I hold a lily close to my mother’s nose, the power of memory seems even stronger than #dementia. Our brains are mysterious enough to baffle the greatest scientific minds. At times I feel my mother’s brain has betrayed her. Yet in these odd moments when a smell sparks the light in her eyes, I’m amazed at what her mind can still do.
If I’m lucky enough to grow old, I hope these intense sense memories don’t desert me. I hated wearing those stiff new shoes, but I can’t feel them at all when I close my eyes and remember all the lilies.