Have I Forgotten Something?

I’m one of those readers who’s yet to get a Kindle or a Nook. Like most of us who’ve avoided getting one, I say it’s because I like the tactile experience of holding a book and turning pages, but I have a few other reasons, which include collecting older editions, finding out-of-print books that are not available electronically, and the biggest reason of all: if an airline tells you to turn off your gadgets, I can keep reading and maintain the barrier with strangers on a plane during takeoff and landing.

The truth of the matter is that I’m mistrustful of “The Cloud” and take comfort that when it dissipates or electricity vanishes because of some catastrophe, I, like Burgess Meredith in that Twilight Zone episode, will be left alone with my books as long as my glasses don’t break.

Some people I know have ceased to buy books in any form, and they rely on the library or borrowing. I love the library and use it for checking out books by authors whose work I don’t know or for deciding if I want to buy a book that’s been recommended to me. I’ve rarely borrowed books from friends, and please don’t ask to borrow from me because I no longer lend. Every book or video that’s left my possession has never come back to me in the same condition, and most have never returned at all. I would let you pet sit or keep my kids (if I had any) for weeks at a time, but not my books.

Someone asked me why I wanted to hold onto all of these books, and while I’ve actually donated about 100 to the local library in the past year to help with their continuing fund-raiser, I keep the ones I want because I like to refer to them for reference or even re-read them from time to time. To be honest, I’m saving up for my old age in case I’m ever homebound. I’ll be able to escape into countless worlds from whatever dreary existence befalls me.

A few of the books that make me happy.

A few of the books that make me happy.

“But how can you get any enjoyment from something you’ve read before?” asked my friend. I’ve recently come to realize the answer to that: I don’t remember. A few weeks ago, I was moving some books around and a jacket cover in a dull gold with black lettering popped out. I remembered reading the book within a week or two of its publication, and I opened it to find that I’d purchased a first edition in 2001. I remembered exactly what was going on in my life at the time, and I recalled the plot line even if I couldn’t remember the characters’ names.

I was thrown by some of the plot points mentioned on the inside of the jacket, but I remembered enough to know that I’d enjoyed it. Since the book I’d placed on hold at the library had not yet come back, I decided to take the book with me on my upcoming trip. I read about 30 pages the first night, and it all seemed familiar. By page 60, things were not exactly as I’d remembered, but by page 175 I would swear that I’d never read this book before in my entire life.

One character that I’d completely forgotten was taking over the story, and another who seemed vaguely familiar as an incidental character that I thought had died, ended up surviving to the end with some woman that I remembered having been dropped around chapter three the first time I read it. This time, I thought the book could’ve ended 200 pages earlier, but I rather enjoyed all the plot twists and turns in spite of the fact that there were at least three and probably four nice endings if only the author could’ve forced himself to stop typing.

I put the book away when I got home, and though part of me feared the early onset of dementia, or worse—Alzheimer’s, I’ve convinced myself that I read that book at a time when I was reading several large volumes, so forgetting entire sections was only reasonable. If it is dementia, then how fortunate that I can be satisfied with my library as it is. I can simply re-read books every few years and they’ll all seem perfectly new.

Books that I recommend buying for reading and re-reading. They will bring readers years of enjoyment.

Books that I recommend buying for reading and re-reading. They will bring readers years of enjoyment.

There are a few in my family who are vigilant for signs of dementia and Alzheimer’s. We’ve experienced this with our loved ones, and every time we walk into a room and forget why we came in, we check ourselves as though we may have begun that downward spiral.

The awareness of memory loss has to be the most terrifying part. My grandmother, until her final years, had a great long-term memory, and you could sit with her and she’d tell you all about her dating life in the 1920s, her elopement with my grandfather and various funny incidents from childhood. She would speak with me, having forgotten how we were related, so she was free to spill the details she’d always kept so guarded.

Her short-term memory had started to go at least 20 years before her death, and after approximately five years of denial at the beginning, she had to admit that she was not the self-assured woman that she had once been. To keep herself on track, she labeled photographs; not on the back, but on the front. You’d see “Grace, Me, Mama” scrawled beneath faces so that she didn’t have to turn them over to figure out who they were. Honestly, if she’d had to turn them over, she might’ve forgotten what she was looking for before she turned the photo back around.

She explained to me once that she kept a calendar, and she marked half of an X across the day when she got up every morning, and on her way to bed, she marked the other half. That way she knew what day she was on. I asked her what happened if she second-guessed herself. “If you’re not careful, you’ll be on next Tuesday a week before the rest of us.”

I had to make a joke because the truth of her memory loss was too painful to bear without humor. Besides, if my remark had hurt her feelings, she was at the point that she forgot it in about an hour never to think of it again.

There came a point when the memory loss was so advanced that she forgot that she forgot, if that makes any sense. She had settled into an existence where she no longer feared her memory loss or worried that someone would discover her. She believed that she was still doing the same things that she’d always done every day; things, which she had been doing in one form or another for over 80 years.

If you brought her fresh garden produce for lunch, she would tell you how she’d grown it. If you baked bread, she’d tell you how she had always baked her own bread and had never bought it. When I would go for lunch on Fridays, I would take out her garbage. I would go out the back door, but come back in through the front. It only took a couple of minutes at that stage to forget I’d been there. I would burst through the door with the excitement of just arriving, and she would be excited to have a visitor once more. I never bothered to correct her. She wouldn’t have remembered, and why ruin a purely joyous moment?

Forgetting that she forgot things was probably a blissful stage, as she no longer worried about anything. Eventually she stopped wondering where her car was, what bills needed to be paid, what letters she’d not yet responded to, and whether or not she needed to drop off food for a bereaved family.

On her 90th birthday, it was a stormy day. I was the first visitor to arrive, and she was holding a stack of birthday cards that one of the nurses had brought to her earlier in the afternoon. We started going through them, and once we made it to the end and the rest of the family had still not arrived, she started going through the stack a second time as if she’d never seen them. I was fascinated by the fact that she started on the third round of opening cards, and all the sentiments and best wishes seemed brand new to her.

If she’d been inclined to read at that point, she might’ve only needed a single book for the rest of her life. Indeed, she might’ve only needed a single newspaper, which wouldn’t have to be replaced until it had become completely unreadable due to wear and tear.

Aging can be a hellish experience, and I’m doing everything I can to maintain my physical abilities and my mental faculties. However, genetics plays a role and if I do end up forgetting the short term, may I recall and tell about the early days with fervor. Also, let me quickly get to the place where I forget that I forget.

© 2015 by Patrick Brown

Visit my author page at http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1 to learn about my books “Moral Ambiguity” and “Tossed Off the Edge.”

9 thoughts on “Have I Forgotten Something?

  1. A most enjoyable read! I loved the way you treated your grandmother and I certainly have respect for your appreciation of books. You’re smart to take care of yourself and try to age “gracefully.” I’ve done that too but find myself kicking and screaming all the way…..nothing graceful about it. So here’s to books and here’s to growing older!

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  2. Gee, I am able to identify with everything you just wrote, Patrick. First, I am a reader, one book after another. It is a delightful way to escape from every day challenges and an opportunity to learn…for me, about people and diverse cultures. I use to read using my iPad. Just last month I said, “Enough!” There were two reasons: first, I missed holding a “book-book” in my hand and not worrying about wi-fi, etc., when leaving the house with a good read; and second, I got so-o tired of recharging the battery.

    Re memory loss…yes, it can be heart breaking to experience a loved one’s dementia. But, as you did with your grandmother, there are different means to stimulate those brain cells. Yes, it may not be the same as the stimulation of healthy cells; but there are still so many ways we can work those tired minds. It maintains a quality and dignity for the affected ones while placing ourselves on a path toward compassion and acceptance of life in all its forms.

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  3. Well, what can I say? You made me cry. But I do like the way a person’s basic personality stays intact even when they scarcely know who they are.

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  4. Great job! Granny was the best! It was truly a blessing when she could no longer remember that she was forgetful. We had to laugh to keep from crying as her mental state deteriorated, and I know we all shed a million tears or more long before she left us physically. Thankfully her memory lives on within us, and hopefully we won’t share the same fate.

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