In August, my sister and I took my mother on a trip to Galveston Island on the Texas Gulf Coast. It’s a special place for my mom. She and my late father honeymooned there over five decades ago, and she’s been back many times since. There is a particular restaurant where she likes to get shrimp bisque. She loves the cheerful sea wall and the chocolate shop in the center. But most of all she wants to watch the waves and the children playing along the coast.
It was a good trip, but Mom probably won’t remember it. Even now, just a few weeks later, she may have already forgotten it happened. Mother is in the middle stage of Alzheimer’s disease. She knows who we are and remembers everyone’s names. She can tell you who her third grade teacher was, but not what happened a week ago or a month ago or 10 minutes ago.
To me, being with her is like looking through a camera coming in and out of focus. Sometimes things fade, become soft and blurry. She is quiet and distant and seems to fade. And then, boom, moments later she looks like the mother I once knew. Smiling, stubborn, witty. She was an incredibly competent, talented and driven woman. She started a small business and became mayor of her town, and I wonder what she will remember in the coming months and years about her life, about who she used to be.
I never thought of taking Mom on a trip. In tragic circumstances, I tend to dwell on the practicalities, like doctor visits. But my sister has a knack for making things special, delicious and festive. “We’ll make memories,” she said, when she first brought up the idea to me. “You and I will make memories,” I told my sister. “Mom can’t.”
Memory, for all of us, speaks to our inherent limitations. Forgetting is part of what it is to be human. That becomes more apparent when we are confronted with Alzheimer’s disease. But even for those of us who don’t have dementia, almost all of our days are out of sight.
What was I doing today three years ago? Or five? Or ten? What conversations have I had? Who was I with? Did I find joy or discouragement that day? I have no idea. I can only tell you the big picture: where I lived, where I worked, how old I was. The details – those priceless and ordinary conversations, coincidences and choices that make up every day of our lives – are lost in time.
There are, of course, beautiful memories that we hold onto, moments that glow amber in our minds. And dark moments we’d rather erase. But even our most precious days can eventually be forgotten.
My husband and I were shocked to discover that our best friend has absolutely no memory of a weekend we spent together at his parents’ Kentucky home decades ago. I remember it as one of our best times together, and my boyfriend, who tends to remember everything, somehow completely deleted that file.
Nor will my 2-year-old son remember anything from these toddler years. He won’t remember how we celebrated his first birthday or how I took care of him when he was sick. He won’t remember any family outings or sleepless nights when we rocked and comforted him. He doesn’t remember the songs we sang to him or the crazy nicknames we used to call him. But all that is still part of who he is. And all her forgotten moments are part of who my mother is. They are part of my relationship with her.
Last Christmas my older sister and I decorated my mother’s apartment. My sister made it a party with wine and Christmas music and huge boxes of Christmas balls and ribbons. The next day my brother told me that he had asked my mother if I was there. “No,” she said. Just my sister. I joked, “Well, I think we know who her favorite is.” It’s strange to make memories that you carry alone, to have holiday celebrations, birthday parties and vacations that you will instantly forget. Still, my mother enjoyed it. She didn’t want our time together to end.
We as humans can never really steal a phrase from one of my favorite writers, Annie Dillard, a “net for catching days.” Not a reliable one anyway. The nets of memory are all full of holes, and most of our days will go right through them. But while they won’t be caught, those days will still be lived. They are still important. What my mother reminds me of in the midst of all her forgotten moments is that the only moment we can capture is the moment we are in right now. But this moment, however painful or joyful or ordinary, comes with an invitation to notice. This second is a gift to receive, a blessing offered in love that we have not earned and cannot cling to.
In his book on dementia, Scottish clergyman and theologian John Swinton wrote that we as a culture have a preference for what he called “cortextualism”—a preference for fusing our understanding of personality with higher-order thinking and reasoning that leads to we downgrade. the humanity of those incapable of typical cognition, including patients with dementia.
But dementia cannot erase our inherent dignity or worth. It did not erase the image of God in us. Cortextualism fails to see the intrinsic glory and beauty in every human life. It also strikes me as deeply arrogant and self-deceiving, rooted in the idea that with enough privilege, health, and power we can make ourselves strong; we can make our way to the good life. But all of us, and all of our strengths, are made of thin material.
Many of the Bible writers seem to understand that humans are forgetful creatures by nature, so they constantly remind us of the hard work of memory. In Deuteronomy, Moses exhorts his people, “Never forget the day that you stood before the Lord your God on Mount Sinai,” and later says, “Beware that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of slavery into the land of Egypt has saved.”
Even now, believers come together to worship and collectively remember the stories we live in. Every Sunday in my church, when I take the Eucharist, the priest repeats the words of Jesus: “Do this in remembrance of me.” But each week we acknowledge by confession that we have all, in the words of Isaiah, “forgot the God” of our salvation.
But Isaiah also tells us that while we may be forgetful, God is not. Isaiah 49 contains perhaps the most poignant statement about God’s memory. In it, God speaks: “Can a mother forget her nursing child?” The verse continues: “But even if that were possible, I would not forget you! Behold, I have written your name in my palms.”
My mother may eventually forget about me, her daughter whom she loves very much. But God will not forget my mother. “At the heart of God’s intimate knowledge of man,” Swinton writes, “is in God’s memory of us.” He explains that the scriptures suggest that all things are eternally present before God, who is outside of time and not bound by time. So for God to remember someone means that they are present before God, and therefore their existence and worth are safe, fixed and undiminished.
I know and cannot know what lies ahead for my mother, or for me, or for anyone I love. I don’t know what I’ll remember and what won’t. I don’t know if everything I’ve ever said and written and done will be lost and forgotten. But I hope we are held, even now, in the eternal memory of God.
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