Saturday, 26 February 2011


I have been thinking a lot about memory recently. In the past 14 years I have watched three close members of my family succumb to one sort of memory loss or another. The first was my mother in law, who was brought down by Alzheimer’s disease some time in the 1990’s. Then in 2005 my mother had a very bad fall, from which the essence that was her never quite recovered. A few years later her cousin, my dear Aunt Cecil had some kind of mini stroke, and is now classed as having dementia, whatever that term is supposed to mean. In each case there has been, as one effect of these afflictions, a loss of short term memory.

This loss of day to day memory affected those dear souls in a variety of ways. For my Mother-in-Law the Alzheimer’s gradually robbed her of the ability to be rational. We moved her to live with us, “us” at that time being my ex husband, my daughter and myself. By then, for her there really were “monsters under the bed”, not in the sense that she felt there were strange creatures waiting to grab her ankles as she went to her rest, but that the whole world was out to get her. She was by nature not a trustful woman, and as the disease took hold, that distrust was intensified by her profound anxiety. She would spend hours looking for her things, convinced “that bloody bitch has took it all”. Another activity would be a desperate hunt for whatever it was she was “just going to do” – her drive for hard work and useful activity hadn’t died, she simply didn’t know what it was she was supposed to be doing any more. No attempt at distraction could override this need to be useful, yet she became incapable of undertaking any activity as she could never remember what it was she was supposed to be doing. Her days were spent in restless anxiety until the disease progressed to the point when all awareness was gone and we had to place her in care.

My aunt Cecil, known to my Facebook friends as the Kidmore End Fairy since that is where she lives, also has memory problems. They started in 2007 when she was 82 and had some kind of happening in her head which left her bereft of short term memory. She finds this both frustrating and frightening, in particular since her own mother succumbed to memory problems after a bash on the head. Cecil is a tremendous character, full of stories, since her mother, like Ganna, was a writer, yet sadly bereft of children since she never married. She reminds me of the Queen, both in her manner and her way of speaking. She worked, for the majority of her adult life, for the National Trust as custodian of Grey’s Court and secretary to its owners. In place of children, Cecil has always had dogs, and I recently had to drive up to stay with her as one of her dogs was to be put to sleep. Part of my role in this was to constantly reassure her that she was doing the right thing; with no recall of the vet’s diagnosis, given the previous week, she was sure that it must be done, but not sure why. The deed was done with great kindness and delicacy by the vets, as Jamie sat in her lap. 

After they had gone, I took Cecil out to lunch to "take her mind off things". Already the fact of his absence was receding from her awareness. I had to leave that evening, and I wondered as I drove home, how often during the following days, she might start up to look for him, only to realise at some point – how long would this take? – that he was gone. I went to see her again last week, this time for a trip to the solicitors to sign her will. We drove into Henley, had a very pleasant day and were treated to a delightfully humorous vignette by said solicitor’s son, who works with her. Again, by late afternoon all memory of the trip had gone, the laughter we had shared at a young man's antics was inaccessible to her. While this means that every time I take her to Henley her delight is new, as she’s sure she’s not been there for “at least a hundred years”, that delight soon fades as the experience can’t be revisited in the fullness of time. Her days are deprived of the pleasure of recollection and also, presumably, of any sense of existing within a sequence of events.

My Mum’s memory loss seemed to be combined with a dreadful inertia. After her fall, from which she emerged with multiple skull fractures amongst other injuries, I thought we’d lose her, but her tenacious spirit won through and she sort of recovered. I moved her to be with us; by happy coincidence the flat above mine came available. However, some vital essence that was her had gone.  She stopped doing things, while having no memory that nothing had been done. This, combined with a very vivid form of daydream, resulted in such problems as convincing her to eat. She would be quite sure that she’d cooked and eaten a large meal, and so had no appetite for food. Her poor little frame got thinner and thinner, yet I could not convince her to do more than nibble at the meal I had prepared for her. She would forget that I had been with her each day until I went upstairs. I would be greeted by the blazing light of her pleasure at my arrival, shining out of her blue blue eyes, as though each appearance was utterly unexpected. Rarely aware that I was with her many times during each day, a sense of having been deserted would trouble her. She knew that there was something deeply wrong, we would talk about her condition and sometimes a deep feeling of dread would overcome her. She would look at me with a sort of hopelessness and say “I’m frightened”, yet not understand why. Friends would visit and she would enjoy their company a great deal. She had what her mother called a “gift for friendship”, her pleasure in people was intense, as sometimes was her ire if crossed! Yet in those hours she inevitably spent alone while I was at work, she could not review these visits and happy conversations to glean more pleasure from them, they were gone.

My dear little Mum died last year, and the loss of her, of whom I think daily, is also in a way a loss of memory for me. She was the repository of our family history, not in the genealogical sense, but in the form of family myth and a sense of shared experience. I can no longer ask her to remind me of what my father said on such and such occasion – nor relive the shared delight of my great grandmother’s maid, exclaiming on the “striped ass” - a zebra, shambling down Arklow High Street when the circus visited. Granted my childhood wrongs are no longer visited on me either, but the sense of a void, where family companionship was once, is profound. I am an only child, so there is no one else to recall these vignettes with, just silence.

These thoughts on memory and its function in our lives come to me often, in particular as I have read and pondered a great deal about mindfulness, in the Buddhist sense. As I understand it, it is about letting go of all distractions and living wholly in the present, which is the only time and space we can be certain of. Our past is gone, our future a mystery, the present is here and now. In placing ourselves in that present, experiencing it to the full and releasing ourselves from the endless cycle of thought that traps us elsewhere, we are advised that we can find freedom from anguish and suffering; our yearning for something other than the lives we have will abate. I can accept this intellectually, it makes perfect sense to me and I try to live my life as best I can with an awareness of the value of now. Yet watching these poor souls suffering in their forced relinquishing of thoughts of recent things, I feel that our time spent revisiting recent events, conversations, happenings is central to our sense of being. We cannot thrive, nor move logically through our lives without thoughts of who and what and where. Without them, are we not abandoned souls, crying in the darkness?

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