Is a memory still a memory when it's gone?

The other day I was talking to my mom on the phone. My parents live in the same little bi-level house that I grew up in on a quiet cul-de-sac in a modest neighborhood in northern Indiana. I try and call once a week or so just to check in and say hi even though life sometimes gets away from me and I find myself going weeks without calling. My parents are in their mid- to late-70s now, and according to society, they are classified as ‘elderly.’ My parents, however, do not know this. Or they don’t like to think they are elderly. I’m not gonna lie, in 30 years, that’s going to be a hard pill for me to swallow too, because at age 45, I feel like I am still clinging to 29 for dear life when it comes to my actions, words and …. emoji usage.

But my sisters back in the midwest are carrying the brunt of the weight in the caretaking for my mom and dad. As the lone daughter out west here, my duties are pretty much calling in every so often to see how the weather is back there or having my kids yell “hi” or “happy birthday” into the phone at them.

As my parents age and experience what is likely a natural decline in health for anyone elderly, my mom has dealt with a gradual loss of memory. She is experiencing loss of memories and stories and sometimes cognizance of what she’s said or been told or sometimes of events that have happened. She won’t remember if I called the night before to tell her that the kids went to XYZ or that after two years, I’m still dating a guy named Chris. “Who’s he?” “You never told me about him?” I am still learning to be patient in how I react to the loss of a little piece of my mom each time we speak it seems. It makes us all sad and helpless in a way because there isn't much we can do to stop it or make it better. It’s not her fault that she can’t remember I’ve told her about this man repeatedly since early 2019. She isn’t purposely telling a story over again that she just told a few minutes ago. But I still get frustrated, I'm embarrassed to say. There aren’t any official diagnoses for her, only repeated doctor’s appointments and tests and medications—all part of getting older. Any person my age whose parents are still alive likely sees the same.

People who know me are aware that I have a really good memory. I can remember birthdays (usually) if they’ve been told to me. I recall significant dates and life happenings pretty much down to the hour. If you’ve ever sent me a birth announcement, chances are I know your kid’s birth date, middle name and weight too. I know all my friends’ wedding anniversaries. I know the exact date I started my period many, many moons ago — not that anyone’s going to fact check that one. I remember the day Matthew first said “I love you” on June 29, 1998 (which was my older sister Lisa’s 26th birthday) and that I was wearing a short red dress with spaghetti straps. I remember the date our friend Dave’s house burned down on Dec. 20, 2002 after his Christmas tree caught fire. I remember the date of every car accident I’ve ever been in (there were numerous ones, y’all). I remember the date I took my first pregnancy test on June 9, 2006 that would tell me I was going to be a mother. I am strangely able to archive a lot of frivolous information about the world around me and I don’t know why. But here’s the thing— my mom was kinda the same way. She remembered dates and stories and what people were wearing and in what city this or that happened years ago and who was in the room probably. She sent cards on birthdays and remembered obscure stories too. She had a great memory. A great memory that is now 100 percent failing her.

The kids and I got off the phone with my mom the other night and they asked why Grammy repeated the same story a couple times. I told them that sometimes when people get older they start to forget a few things and they aren’t always sure if they’ve already told you something. They don’t mean to forget but sometimes our brains just get a little fuzzy as we age. The explanation was enough I suppose, then my youngest asked, “what happens when you forget someday, mom?” And I didn’t have an answer for her. Because I couldn’t tell an 8-year-old that I’m petrified of that very thing. I am so scared of the thought that I won’t remember things in my life or the people in it. I’m terrified of losing memories and stories I have, especially of my time with their daddy and that once I’m gone, those pieces of life just won’t exist anymore. You can do your best now to eat right and exercise and do sudoku puzzles all damn day but nothing really is proven to protect you from whatever ‘elderly’ issues are predestined for you —including a failing memory.

I don’t talk much or write much about growing up. My hometown of South Bend was my parents’ hometown and the hometown of their parents before them. It was all very ordinary for sure. I have childhood diaries stashed away in the garage filled with years of thoughts about growing up stuck in the middle of four girls raised by a working class mom and dad in a fairly strict, large extended Catholic family. Nothing major happened to me. And outside of the catastrophic death of my spouse three years ago, nothing really traumatic has ever happened to me. But I still have stories to tell. I still have fun memories that I would like to share. We all do. Even if we don’t think we have something worthy enough to write about. Yes, you probably do. 

This is why I continue to write, and share out here. There are many levels as to why I do it so publicly (I’m still getting through that in regular therapy sessions) but I know I won’t ever stop. Aside from my love and attention, there aren’t many things I can give my kids that will outlive me. Except maybe my words, stories, memories— things that made me ME. Those are things my kids can take and hold onto or maybe even pass on someday. I encourage my mom every now and then to write down the stories she still remembers about her and my dad or what she remembers about when we were little. I think we can all hand down a piece of ourselves in this way. Not because we lived an extraordinary life, but because it’s ok to celebrate we had an ordinary life too.

And who knows, maybe my children’s children may someday want to know that their old grandma Andrea got her first period on Jan. 17, 1989—which also happened to be her second cousin Jim C.’s birthday— just in case anyone is checking.


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