In 2013, I racked up enough credit card points to get a ticket for a Broadway play. Most people go for big musicals like Chicago or The Lion King. But last fall I read a review of The Glass Menagerie that called it a superb “memory play.” When dementia enters your life, memory becomes a magic word.
My own memories include a dim recollection of seeing a televised film of The Glass Menagerie with Katherine Hepburn. She played the lead role of Amanda, a domineering Southern mother who yearns to recreate the glory days of her youth. But I was a kid when I saw the T.V. version and all I recalled from the play was Katherine Hepburn yelling, “Rise and shine! Rise and shine!” to wake her children. Everything else in the story seemed dark and unhappy to me. Amanda prods her children to do things she believes will lead her family to greater happiness. But her efforts set off a chain of painful events.
Seeing The Glass Menagerie on Broadway showed me that our memories, even those made by healthy brains, are often fractured. The actors in this production brought out the humor in Tennessee Williams’ lines. The stage set was full of shadows and images that constantly reminded viewers how much we read into every experience. Ben Brantley, the New York Times writer whose review made me want to see the play, observed that “memory seldom paints a complete portrait of the places you have known, but focuses instead on objects of totemic significance … or symbols. Memory turns us all into poets.”
If memory makes us poets, what happens when memory disappears? Dementia is an expert thief that can steal a whole lifetime of recollections. My mother can’t recall a thing. Most of the time, I’m not even sure if she knows who I am. But she still has an imaginative way of looking at the world. She sees people and things that are invisible to me. Her mental environment is filled with companions and events she tries to describe. She clearly wants to make sense of what she sees and wants me to confirm that her notions are correct and her jokes are funny. I don’t understand half of it; I just try to assure her that she’s safe and loved.
My sense of my mother’s identity has been shaped by things she once told me … by photos and letters I found in her home. My ideas about her have been changed by things others have said and events that occurred during our relationship. But sometimes our views rely too much on history. This prevents us from seeing the person who is there right now. It can be a great liberation to forget the past and seek the truth that is always embedded in the present moment.
During the final scene of that play last week, every emotion surged through me. I was mystified at how the actors made me feel things that were so deep and unexpected. But what stayed with me was the realization that many of our memories limit us by making us compare today’s reality with yesterday. Beyond a certain point, our loved ones live in an eternal present. If we can be brave enough to share their perspective, we can better enjoy the company of the person they are right now.