What are We Without Our Memories?

My mom forgot my birthday for the first time six years ago. As an almost-forty-something, I didn’t need a big birthday party or lots of attention or anything like that. But it is a stunning milestone for a mother to forget the day that she brought her baby into the world. And for said baby, it was incredibly painful the first time it happened. There are some things that seem like they would be impossible to forget.

Especially for my mom, a woman who embraced motherhood fully and in every way. Raising my brothers and I was the best job she could dream of. That’s not just me putting on rose-colored glasses and saying so – she told me that. When I say our mom was our biggest fan, I am not exaggerating. She showed up in so many ways. She was on the sidelines for all of our games, only missing them if there was a conflict with another sibling’s schedule. She attended every ballet recital (a bouquet of flowers in hand), swim meet (day-long affairs in over-hot, heavily-chlorinated air to see your kid swim for 30 seconds), soccer game (sometimes taking up entire weekends for months on end, game after game), hours and hours of shuttling us to music lessons, baseball practice, soccer, tennis – you name it, we played it. Even in the early stages of Alzheimer’s she was there on the sidelines for Kindergarten soccer and witnessed her grandson’s first goal ever. It was 28 degrees, the field was covered in frost, her memory was failing, she was frightened about the future, her world was shrinking – and there she was. She showed up time and again – for us, for everyone in her family, and for her friends.

Don’t get me wrong, we were far from perfect and I am pretty sure she had her moments when she wanted to run out of the house screaming to escape from us and the insanity we were causing her. In fact, she actually did so on at least one occasion, prompting our next-door neighbor, who had been out gardening, to come over and put his arm around her to comfort her. It kind of became neighborhood lore. So I know she thought we were royal pains in the ass sometimes – and we were – and surely she was overwhelmed keeping track of us and our schedules and our issues and, of course, the never-ending laundry. I imagine she had her moments of cursing us quietly under her breath, or venting to her friends or sisters on the phone. I am certain there were lots of things that got missed. My mom was chronically last minute in her approach to life. Her desk was a jumble of papers, binders, and – to my mind – complete and utter chaos. It looked like she didn’t sweat the small stuff, but I think the truth is that she was the world’s biggest procrastinator. You could count on her, but she’d make you sweat it out, tumbling through the door with the cake or hors d’oeuvres or whatever she had promised to bring just seconds before the start of a big event.

For my birthday, she would hang streamers in the dining room and bake a cake from scratch. She took cake-decorating classes to improve her skills, and – as cliche as it is to say it – she baked love into every morsel of every item she made. She planned epic treasure hunts in the woods for my friends and I – two-hour hikes with elaborate clues and “treasure” hidden along the way that ended at a river where we would feed the ducks with stale bread she had been collecting and freezing for months. It only occurs to me to wonder in hindsight how she got the clues placed and the treasure hidden all while baking and decorating the cake, organizing the party, and keeping up with my brothers and I. While those more elaborate birthday celebrations faded away as I got older, if I was home my mom would always bake her famous chocolate chip vanilla cake with cream cheese frosting (recipe below). If I was away, she sent a card and called. She was never extravagant, more of a simple but elegant woman. But she always acknowledged what a special day my arrival was for both of my parents and how much I meant to them. Like I said, this is the stuff that you would think you could never forget.

But forget she did, first six years ago and increasingly each year since as time for her becomes more and more of a loose construct and words and their meaning elude her. This year I baked her famous cake for my daughter’s birthday and brought her a slice to see if the taste brought back any recognition of all of these wonderful, deeply held memories. She liked the cake, smiled while she ate it, but otherwise was blank. For my birthday, I brought tea and cookies to her care home to celebrate. Because, really, my birthday is about us, maybe even more about her than it is about me if you think about it! She was happy as usual to see me, springing from her chair with delight, her hands swinging dramatically in the air to wave me over, a huge smile across her face. She loved the idea of a party, but I don’t think she really understood the birthday part. She used to break into song, part of her brain holding onto familiar tunes like Happy Birthday better than other things. But she didn’t sing this time. She just enjoyed her cookie and her tea, and I enjoyed her company. Despite all that I have lost of her, I still have that.

I am left wondering time and again as we face into Alzheimer’s ever more deeply, what is life without a memory? I read Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End and, while inspired, grateful for this new perspective, and appreciative of the recommendations for aging and dying well, I found myself wondering how one can have a meaningful, purpose-filled life and live life to the fullest until the very end if you can’t remember anything. Who are we without our past? It’s one thing to live in the moment, moment to moment. That’s enlightenment. But isn’t life, ultimately, a collection of memories? Isn’t that what we all aim for, to create wonderful memories? So many of my conversations start with, “Remember when?” What happens when you don’t? Without memories, what does it mean to be alive?

I don’t have any good answers. I just wonder. And I wonder what goes on inside my mom’s head, what she is seeing when she points to things that aren’t there, what she is trying to describe when she can’t find the words, what it feels like to entrust yourself and your well-being completely to another person.

Where is the hope in this? I don’t know. But there is definitely connection. There is some deep, biological recognition of one’s own, no matter what else has departed. And I guess there’s hope – or magic of some sort – in that. And there’s always cake.

Bethie O’s Famous Chocolate Chip Vanilla Cake

1 cup yogurt (plain or vanilla)

1 cup oil

2 cups sugar

3 cups flour

2 heaping teaspoons baking powder

3-4 eggs

1 bag mini chocolate chips

2 teaspoons vanilla

Mix. Bake at 350.

Tube cake – at least 1 hour

Flat cake – 30 – 35 minutes

Cupcakes – 20 – 25 minutes

Cream Cheese Frosting

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 ounces cream cheese

Confectioners sugar

Dab of milk

Mix to taste and consistency. And enjoy!

Just because you carry it well