How bad can my memory be when I’m writing this? I completed a book over the past 5 years; aced the Mini-Mental State Exam, a memory test used to see how well someone is embedded in reality; recognize and know the names of the people I love most, even though I often mix up my grandsons Kanye’s and Dante’s homonymic appellations. So what is it about my memory that stresses me, makes me anxious and sometimes depressed, and drains me of energy by noon?
Take a seat by that fly on the wall and watch how my day goes: I get up, stumble upstairs to the kitchen, switch on the kettle. My favorite coffee mug is not in the cupboard. The three-step route to the sink or dishwasher takes me past the window. The driveway is wet, the bark mulch I put down is two shades darker from the rain. Is that a green patch where I sowed the ground cover the other day? Outside the back door the quail are waiting to be fed. As I pour the seeds in the stone circle we have made to somewhat contain the mess, I get a whiff of grain. I’m hungry. Oh, yes, coffee! I go inside, look in the cupboard for my coffee mug.
Sometimes I get my coffee made by the time Peter gets out of the shower. That is, if I managed to get past the distractions: the dishwasher must be unpacked, my morning medications taken, a potplant watered. Once Peter arrives, he reboils the by-now cooled water and points me in the right direction every time I get off track. Soon the smell of coffee pervades the kitchen. We sit on the back stoep watching the quail, the ring neck doves, the Asian doves, the sparrows, the blue bird. Peter lures the squirrel onto the stoep with a nut from his pocket. While he lingers afterwards to check his iPad for mail or news, I go downstairs to shower. First, I set out my clothes. I notice an item that has to be washed. I quickly put in a load. While passing the storage room, I might as well get out more toilet paper rolls. On the craft table lie photos of the grandkids to go on the notice board. I try out different arrangements for the montage.
All this side-tracking would be fine if it weren’t for a nagging sense that I was supposed to be doing a different and more crucial task. As soon as that feeling bubbles to the top, I involuntarily do this thing with my hands while trying to remember, wringing or shaking them as I have seen people with Asperger’s do. Peter’s shout from upstairs that we have to leave for our appointment in half-an-hour solves the mystery. I hurry to the shower. Oh no, I put the towels in the wash, got to get a new one from the upstairs bathroom. And so on.
The pattern I describe is characteristic of the early stages of dementia. Suddenly you—formerly a superwoman who raised kids, had a fulltime teaching and admin job, and cooked dinner almost every night for forty-something years—have the attention span of an ant. While I was still at Gender Studies, I had senior moments at work and home: a forgotten meeting, lost keys, broccoli transformed to little black fossil trees on the stove. By the time I was diagnosed with microvascular disease, these forgettings had worsened to a point where I was no longer being able to follow my lesson plan, forgot to cook a casserole that I had made the night before for Easter brunch until we all sat down at the table, and an unmooring of my spatial orientation that caused me to get lost all the time. The last straw was when I bumped into a parked car: I voluntarily ceded my driver’s license. It was really only by my second year or retirement that an attention deficit disorder of elephantine (ha!) proportions started to bedevil my productivity and sap my emotional energy. When I am on my own—at my computer writing, for example—I can still focus as long as I stay put. As long as I don’t have to go the bathroom or get a second cup of coffee, in which case all bets are off. It seems that as soon as I go outside my own head into the realm of things and people, my thoughts lurch out of control like Plato’s chariot: “One of the horses is noble and of noble breed, but the other quite the opposite in breed and character. Therefore in our case the driving is necessarily difficult and troublesome.” (Phaedrus, 246b).
I cannot focus: not on a task, not on a conversation, sometimes not even on a beloved person.
This morning I went to breakfast with two of my BFFs, Kirstin and Susan, each of whom were only in first grade by the time I finished high school and whom I met during my belated pursuit of graduate school at the University of Utah. I was present at both their weddings, saw their children—of whom I am a godmother—when they were only hours old, and spent many cherished hours over the years with them and their families. Lately when I see them, I get into a panic because I momentarily don’t remember which of the two boys and two girls belongs to which family. For now, I still manage to rehearse the kids’ names and their familial categories before my confusion becomes evident. During breakfast this morning, I found myself lost in the conversation several times—could not remember what we were speaking about. For now, I still manage to infer the topic by listening quietly for a while. I know the day will come when I have to ask.
The memory loss I bewail is not the one we usually associate with Alzheimer’s and other dementias: I have not, so far, forgotten my name. I recognize the people I love. I remember my childhood on the farm. I still have the soft-focus memory celebrated on refrigerator magnets: “A memory is a photograph taken by the heart to make a special moment last forever.” The memory loss I bewail is of a far more ordinary kind: the ability to link one second of the day to the next in a chain that makes time comprehensible and controllable. The lack of continuity between the moments of the present leads to a sense of disconnection with my self that causes stress and anxiety. Who is this person flailing through her day?
My present me is a different me from before. I miss the me who used to be able to make things happen. The me who used to be in charge of, at the very least, my self.