Sunday, June 1, 2014

Forgetting Life


Apparently everyone born in the tropics has a story to tell about the tamarind tree. Here is mine: I once got lost in the mountains of Guayama and found myself surrounded by tamarind trees. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I hungrily devoured the bittersweet fruit, not opening the shells quite fast enough. My happiness quickly turned to disgust as I found worms in the fruit, my hand, and my mouth. I still love the tamarind. This picture is of an aged tamarind fruit that has surprisingly remained on the vine. It was taken by ©Francesco Ricci.

We first noticed something was wrong when my grandmother started getting lost during her morning walks. Shortly thereafter she forgot most of her grand children's names and faces. The disease degenerated to the point where she confused hand towels for toilet paper and couldn’t recall how to use any of the household appliances. My aunts whispered nervously of her love for baking, opened the oven and found an iron. They gossiped while she sat under her lemon tree talking to the statue of the Virgin Mary. Sometimes, while I chatted on the phone or sat by her, she would turn around and ask me who I was. I would tell her, she would smile, watch TV for awhile, and then we’d do it all over again. It would continue indefinitely until I couldn’t take it anymore, and go sit somewhere else.

They said she hadn't been the best or most loving Mom. She wasn't exactly the warmest grandmother either, but I'd always assumed she had been so to a select few of the grandchildren, if not all of them. At any rate, my aunts accepted the responsibility of caring for her because it was their cultural obligation to do so, as the daughters of the family, their job was to provide the child and elder care. They did so begrudgingly, resentfully, and quite bitterly. Of course they all had their busy lives, with jobs, families, and problems of their own. Who am I to judge?

But their impatience was displayed often. One scene I witnessed I could never forget. My aunt was scorching mad because my grandmother had wandered from the front porch. One minute she was swaying in the rocking chair, the next, gone. The police found her crossing a bridge a mile away. I now wonder whether my aunt’s rage had more to do with the embarrassment she felt at having to involve the police, or the fear of losing her mother.  In a small town, she never liked to give her neighbors something to talk about. My grandmother returned confused, sad, and so exhausted she had to lie down for the rest of the afternoon.

I’m not sure if everyone just kept expecting her to get better or there were attempts to curb the disease. Home help was hired for sure. She was allowed to spend her days in her house but couldn’t be trusted to sleep there. One day, I went to her house after school but she wasn't there. I’d assumed an appointment and that she’d be back the following day, but I never saw her again. Later, I understood she didn’t in fact die right away because discussion of a will and inheritance did not happen just yet. My guess is she was sent to a home where hopefully patient professionals allowed her to face the inevitable with more dignity.

These memories haunt me still. When I enter a room and forget what I came in for, I wonder if it's an early sign of the disease. I load up on nuts, omega 3s, and berries to offer me a sense of security albeit flimsy that it could never strike me. Alzheimer’s is a dirty word. There is no known way of preventing or curing it, and though I don’t mind aging I hope it could be done gracefully, especially when it comes to matters of the mind.

We all have our stories to tell and now as adults we see certain vulnerabilities in our own parents. They once seemed so strong and invincible but now are afflicted with aches and pains, sometimes even forgetting the oddest things. Perhaps we are starting to feel them ourselves. Sometimes we joke that our 30 or 40 year old bodies aren’t what they used to be, and while that is true we are relatively quite young still.

In a twisted game of would you rather, would you rather lose your mind or your body when you’re elderly? Is it more important for you to retain your sharp wit but ache all over, or constantly feel as if everyone around you is a stranger but be strong as an ox? Is it better for the Alzheimer’s patient to never remember, as the pain of forgetting is so much more?

Who knows? These are all rhetorical questions of course. None of us would choose any of these options willingly. We just sort of face things on as we’ve faced life.


  1. Aging is more than just wear and tear... it is an inevitable and multidimensional process of mental and physical changes during one's lifespan. No joke, I have aged - literally and figuratively - since becoming a mother. It's call momnesia. Mental fuzziness, severe memory lapses, stumbling over names of people, especially friends, I can keeping going but won't. While I do not know firsthand what it is like having a loved one who has Alzheimer's, I do feel that many of us experience "symptoms" of the disease, young and old. What is considered the normal part of the aging process? When you lose the mental game, do you lose the physical game? The aging phenomenon fascinates me and I thank you for your wonderful piece of writing.

    1. I always love your food for thought Elizabeth. Aging should be additionally categorized into before kids and ever thereafter. They take up so much of our brain power from the moment they claim our bellies to the rest of their lives. I wonder if any studies have been done on IQ increasing after having kids because though we might feel more frazzled and out of it, we also have a million more things added to our plate that we seem to handle pretty well (relatively speaking)

  2. I think what amazes me most Patricia is how they only remember up to a certain point in time. Anthing after that date is confused and mixed up. Sometimes, when they are told and they do remember, the pain and embarrassment of being in that focus of pity by family members and friends is too much to bare. My grandma had alzheimers and unfortunately she was never a kind woman to start with, so the temperament never was a shock to us as her grandchildren. However, in your case (and my sympathies for being there to witness her decline) and others where they dearly loved their family members, it is such a sad time. What is a memory if the other one doesn't share it with them. I think sometimes, maybe it's worth going along with the pretend games to ease the pain for everyone especially the one who is lost in time.
    As for forgetting things when you walk in a room. I completely empathise with the fear of being the next in line for the memory decline. Every time I call the dog, my daughters name, I have a small freakout session followed by calming understanding and appreciation of Mummy brain. Does it not skip a generation? Sorry, are you my aunt Sara? :-) x

  3. I never thought about it like that, but you're right. It does seem people with Alzheimer's remember things of long ago more easily. I wonder what that says about our brain and registering more emotional events.