When I last saw my grandfather, before he died, he was looping through memory. My great-grandfather had been “Big Paw-paw,” but my grandfather was The Big Paw-paw, broad and square, with a belly like Santa Claus. When I last saw him, he was still large, but also sunken. Unable to hear well, to see very far, to eat or to shit on his own, and harried daily by his virago of a wife, he had physically curled in upon himself. To look at him, he resembled a large, clothed fetus.
His memory curled in upon itself, as well. He was lost in World War II, then last week, then my mother’s childhood. He remembered that I was a “doctor,” but forgot that I was not a medical doctor. The night before he died, he thought he and my grandmother were still dating, and asked her to go to the movies. She propped him into his wheelchair, set him in front of the television, and turned off the light. A short time later, he whispered to her that he wanted to go home. Her ruse appeared to have worked. Then, on both occasions, his memory un-curled and he was in the room, in the moment, right now.
Most people fear Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. They see once functioning people lost and helpless, their minds looping through time, reduced to infancy but without the hope of future inherent in most infants. They fear becoming like that themselves. How does life look on that other side of the disease? How much does the stricken person experience the indignities of her present existence? How does the looping feel?
What most people describe as memory loss in Alzheimer’s patients seems to be not so much the inability to remember – although that is a large part of it – as to be the inability to remain mentally anchored in the present. The stricken person, like my grandfather, jumps from place to place or time to time, like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five. The stricken person seems to relive memories in all of their senses, while losing all awareness of the present. Moreover, unlike the usual method of remembering, the dementia memories come at will, and the stricken person cannot distract herself. Along with the present, the ability to cope with memory disappears.
What hell lies in memory? Will a molested child be forced to relive the molestation in his Alzheimer’s addled old age? Will a rape victim? Will a person have to relive the loss of her mother or father? What about unhappy childhoods? Will all of these memories or worse become tangible experiences once more, while we are unable in our minds and our bodies to hold them off?
This frightens me most.