By Kate Whouley
We are babies, toddlers, children, teenagers. We are young people, flirting with option and opportunity. We explore, winnow, commit, arrive. We settle on an acceptable version of ourselves. For ten, or fifteen, or even twenty years, we believe: I am this person; this person is me. Then one day, we turn up middle-aged. This surprises us. We begin to make adjustments, attempt to match our inner and our outer images. We realize that we’re growing—damnit—old. Soon enough, we are really old, and—if we are lucky—ancient. And yet we don’t feel ancient inside—because all those people we have been—well, they won’t go quietly.
As a writer, I am obsessed with the rag-tag parade that lasts a person’s lifetime. I want to know and memorize all those past, present and future variations—in myself, but especially in others. I love the process of sharing stories, for in stories, we meet the selves we cannot see—lined up single-file, in the lives of new friends. Sharing stories, we remind old friends that we once were young—or at least, younger. Sharing stories, we keep the memories—and all our human variations—alive. If we are doubly blessed, there may be people in the world who can tell us stories of our childhoods, and children in our lives who will one day ask us to tell them about the day they were born.
Still, over-linking our identities to our stories has its downside. What happens when you can’t remember the stories? With the loss of memory, are those versions of ourselves disappeared?
My mother—who was diagnosed with a combination of vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease—taught me that it is possible to forget who we once were—and even to forget who we are now. But while an organic brain disease may prevent the remembering, it doesn’t halt the parade of selves. Even as her disease progressed, my mother emerged anew. For a time, her humor carried an edge. Her moods were volatile, and she was prone to angry outbursts—directed mostly at me. But she could not sustain the anger when she began to forget what—or who—was making her mad. In time, my mother emerged from a chrysalis of fear, confusion and anger to become a chatty, smiling social butterfly. She grew lighter; losing track of her old selves, she was free of bad memories and troubled times. She laughed more often--that same, full-throated, honest laugh she laughed when I was a kid. The laugh I can still hear.
My mother, at that point, could be prompted to recall her early variations, and taking a cue from her forgetting, I told her stories of good times, reminded her of former glories. She would smile, nod, express admiration for her younger self and her achievements, which were not inconsiderable. Remembering is what I did for my mother—not just the big life-event sort of remembering, but the putting-on-a-coat-because-it’s cold outside remembering, too. It’s the second kind of remembering—because of the second kind of forgetting, that is actually harder on everybody.
Early in my mother’s journey into Alzheimer’s, I fought for her memory, concerned with all those past, now-lost versions of the woman I knew. In time, I gained some altitude—a new perspective and a kind of grace. I learned to live life her way: moment to present-moment.
“It’s a blessing,” unthinking, well-meaning people told me, when my mother passed away, “that she died while she still knew you.”
I would give up recognition for a living, pain-free, forgetful mother any day. I’d be willing, every day, to spin the yarn of her own life for the woman who always loved a good story.
Like many mother-daughter relationships, ours was complicated. I did not love all the versions of my mother equally; yet I hope to honor all her selves when I remember them. But there’s something else my mother taught me—late in her life: forgetting them is okay too. I need not watch the parade. It feels great to sit with your eyes on the person in front of you. And sitting with my mother, knowing she had lost so many pieces of her life, so many memories of her former selves, I came to believe there is something permanent—or at least something transferable—that we carry with us. Something beyond the memory of our variations, beyond the sum of our experiences, beyond what we can express. Maybe, if we live with care—for ourselves and for others—we might manage to hold onto the metaphor we call our soul. May my mother’s rest in peace.
About the Author
Kate Whouley lives and writes on Cape Cod, where she also works as an independent consultant in the book industry. She is the author of Remembering the Music, Forgetting the Words: Travels With Mom in the Land of Dementia, and Cottage for Sale, Must Be Moved.