I went to see “Still Alice” this week. It is the sobering story of a woman’s swift decline because
of early onset Alzheimer disease.
I read the book for my book club. As usual, the book tells more. One of the main differences involves what memory loss means to identity. Am I more than my memories make me?
It is not an easy question to address. We all know that memory is more than the experience. It fuses perception and response to shape expectation, fears, and knowledge. Without memory, do we become less of who we are? Or more? It isn’t always one or the other.'
I sat with my mother who could remember me, her childhood, our growing up, but couldn’t remember that her legs were no longer reliable. She forgot that she couldn’t walk. I saw the “mask” she wore that communicated her memory loss to her family. A vacancy, a gap where memory once lived. Memory loss brought changes but she was still my mother.
Still the same-but-different person.
That’s the message of the book and hopefully those who see the movie will understand this powerful message. Alice, with all the changes, was still Alice. By DNA, personhood, heart-beating life, she was still Alice. She answered to her name. Knew her children, except when one of them reminded her of the sister she lost. Was that just a memory lapse or the overlapping process where a surfaced memory repressed another?
In the movie/book, lead character Alice worked hard to retain memory by playing memory games. Did it slow the sure decline or only provide false confidence? Does it matter? We all do what we can to prevent what we pretend we can control. Perhaps the effort itself is a memory fight to preserve more identity than simply a collection of experiences.
I have memories I have never shared. Not because they’re bad. Just because they never connected to something.
There it is. Memories connect us. To a time. To people. And yes, even to ourselves. Who are we without those connections? Less? The same? Someone different?
I raise questions I cannot answer, not even for myself.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway, and certainly what we discussed in our book club, is how will we share our memories while we can. How will we tell our stories? How will we preserve what should not be lost to neural transmission failure.
We are all memory keepers. But we can lose what we thought we could keep.
We need to be memory sharers, not to just to protect who we are or to engage in some useless fight to keep from losing something we might not be able to stop. We need to share them for their lessons, their love, their humor, their turning point significance.
One day when someone else reminds me how
to put on my shoes or brush my teeth, the
memories I have shared with others will still be there to remind everyone that I am still Debbie, still Texas-born, still a writer at heart, still mother and wife. Remembering less doesn’t make me less. Remembering more won’t make me more. I will always be who I am.
The bigger challenge is to know that today.