The Geography of Memory

A pilgrimage through Alzheimer's

A New Way to Think About Dementia

Finding new ways to connect.

We carry our past selves within us. They can emerge and speak in the present. When my mother’s dementia increased, I had to learn to listen in new ways.

I found myself sitting in a darkened living room on yet another brilliant fall afternoon in Dallas. My mother napped under a green coverlet on the couch across from me. I was sewing buttons back on several of her shirts. I flew from Philadelphia four or five times a year to take her to doctors, clean and repair her clothes, rally her friends to help her. She was happy when I came. Still, she tuckered out easily, and increasingly she was losing her memory.

But it’s not quite accurate to say she was losing her memory. Yes, she misplaced things and she couldn’t keep up her checkbook any more. She sometimes groped for a word (though she was quick to rephrase her sentence, if necessary, and substitute another.) True enough, she was losing her ability to recall certain facts and perform some operations. But she was more in touch with her distant past than she ever had been.

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My Mother’s Past Selves

In fact, my mother relived many of her pasts. It was impossible to predict which of mother’s former selves would emerge during our conversations.

Sometimes she sounded wistful as a child. “I’m really scared of bulls. And if you’re afraid of them, they pick that up. Our bull really has it in for me.” I recalled how, when I was a kid, she told me the story of being pursued across her father’s pasture by an angry bull.

Then again, sometimes my mother sounded like her former self as a school nurse. After years of retirement, she announced out of the blue, “You can’t let kids get by with too much. I love them, but they’re getting smarter every year about how to duck out of school.” And I was transported back to mornings when mother drove off to work at Irving Junior High School in her navy blue uniform.

Or she might look right at me with her watchful mother look and say, “Good grief, isn’t that skirt a little short?” And there were are again. She’s got a mouth full of straight pins and a yardstick and she’s pinning up my new pink skirt so she can hem it. I’m in junior high and I’m pitching a tantrum because I want my skirts to be exactly the same length as Glenda’s and Nancy’s skirts. Which my mother believes are way too short.

Insisting on Living in the Present vs. Allowing Past Selves to Emerge

As my mother verged more deeply into what my sister and I guessed must be Alzheimer’s—though she has managed to resist a diagnosis-- I spent more and more time caring for her. The more time I spent with her, the more I noticed that she had trouble focusing on the present. She so vividly inhabited her past selves.

My mother wasn’t losing the past. She was losing her ability to ride herd on her various past selves.

We all carry our past selves with us. I can put myself right back at the camp away from home where I went for the first time at the age of ten, for example. But I don’t allow myself to speak from that point of view. I monitor my past selves. We all do. We don’t permit them to talk out of turn, because we foreground what’s happening in the present. It is what we think of as “reality”.

We have a habit of thinking of the past as memory. And memory is supposed to be static, like a snapshot. But mother’s past selves began to come and go like characters in a movie over which the director has lost control.

Responding to Mother’s Past Selves

This coming and going of my mother’s past selves was alarming to me at first. I quite literally had no idea how to reply to her haphazard comments. Which, in turn, spooked Mother out. Our conversations would bang to a halt and we would stare at one another in uncomfortable silence.

My first impulse was to contradict her. What bull? There’s no bull here. What kids are you talking about? Mom, we’re here in a restaurant.

That led to misery. We began quarreling. Her reality and mine were at terrible odds with one another.

Then I began to recognize some of my mother’s former selves. After all, I had lived with her for 20 years. So I could often pinpoint which of her past selves was talking. As I slowly sorted that out, I became aware that her strange comments were not random or meaningless. Their meaning was rooted in the past.

In fact, deciphering what mother said during the last years of her life turned out to be very significant to me. I have come to believe that caring for my mother as she veered into Alzheimer’s brought me one of the great gifts of my life. I'll talk about that in the next blog.

This is Part 1 of a 2 Part Post. Tune into the next blog post: Gifts I Gained from Caring For My Mother with Alzheimer’s

Jeanne Murray Walker is the author of THE GEOGRAPHY OF MEMORY: A Pilgrimage Through Alzheimer’s, which tells the story of caring for her mother during her last decade. 

Find GEOGRAPHY at: http://amzn.to/1kHNpgN

Jeanne's web site:  www.JeanneMurrayWalker.com

 

Jeanne Murray Walker, Ph.D., is a professor of English at the University of Delaware.

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