I was sitting in my car yesterday morning, getting ready to run a few errands when I had one of life’s dreaded experiences. The one when you reach into your wallet for your debit card only to find that it had magically vanished from its usual spot, tucked safely inside one of those nifty credit card sized carrying cases. In fact, not only was the debit card gone, but so was the credit card that’s usually sitting right behind it. I immediately felt panic. Years ago, my husband and I had our identities stolen, kicking off a long struggle to recoup money stolen from our bank accounts, and to close down multiple fraudulent credit accounts established in our names. The idea of doing that again was harrowing. I quickly dumped everything out of my purse. Twice. I ran back into my house, tossing couch and chair cushions around while digging into their creases, hoping to find the errant cards which had somehow slipped out of place. In the meantime, my brain was in overdrive, trying to remember the last time I’d used either card. I was already losing time in my day, aware that with every passing moment someone could be creating havoc in my financial life. I finally decided to cancel both cards, opting for immediate peace of mind. But wouldn’t you know it? I remembered the last time I’d used my debit card and found it shoved halfway into a small space in the front car seat cushion. Then I remembered that I’d taken extra stuff out of my little wallet when I’d been traveling in August. I found the missing credit card in that stash. All of five minutes had passed, too late to reverse the cancellations. Sigh. Much ado about nothing.
But of course it’s really much ado about something. I lived for the bulk of my adult life with an amazingly forgetful man. When I hear Michael’s voice echoing in my mind, a good deal of the time it’s asking questions like these: “have you seen my wallet, have you seen my checkbook, have you seen my glasses, have you seen my grade book?” Sometimes just for fun, he’d call down the stairs and say, “have you seen my brain?” Haha. His absentmindedness drove me crazy. Once when we were quite young, he decided he wanted to take responsibility for paying our household bills. That ended after the first month when he forgot to pay the water bill which he only remembered when the water was turned off. We used to joke about this stuff. He’d tell me that if I developed dementia, I’d just have the memory of a normal person. Meanwhile, when he was given his miserable cancer prognosis, he said that the upside was that he’d never get Alzheimer’s disease. What a cruel twist it was that ultimately his cancer metastasized to his brain, creating the rotten confusion he thought he’d escaped. But that is a different story. This story is about my memory, remarkable character that it is, and the dread I have about losing it. Was the debit/credit card fiasco a sign of what I’ll gently call “slippage?” Or was it just one of those insignificant moments that don’t mean anything serious?
My mom had a fabulous memory. She told her life story in technicolor and surround-sound. Sometimes when I think about her tales, they’re so vivid that they feel like mine. I know that I’m like her in that way. Her mental acuity remained sharp all the way into her eighties. I remember her bewilderment when she realized she was slipping. Will I live long enough to have that happen to me? I must say that reality is not high on my to-do list.
I’m thinking about the erosion process commonly called aging. Of course there’re the obvious physical aspects, gray hair, some of it in the most unexpected and peculiar places, and wrinkles, sagging skin and what my dermatologist kindly calls “wisdom spots,” which back in the day were more unpleasantly referred to as “liver spots.” Then there are the aches and pains, the slowing down, the gnarly joints and so on. Those are actually the easy parts, the ones that aren’t indicative of a dread disease. But for me, it’s the mind decay that’s way more daunting than that body changing. Recently I ran into a woman I swam next to for years. She’s a bit older than me. She had to stop swimming after she developed severe lymphedema in her leg after a cancer surgery. I saw her in a grocery store and we shared a pretty effusive greeting. We started catching up on each other’s families when suddenly she asked me to tell her my full name. Then she couldn’t remember the name of another friend from the pool. And finally she couldn’t remember the pool itself, or where it was, saying she thought it closed a few years ago. What an unsettling interaction. She seemed like herself until the conversation devolved into confusion. Her husband showed up and she then told me she couldn’t go anywhere on her own any more. I was really sad and somewhat scared too.
I’ve been noticing lots of these changes, not as severe as my pool friend’s, but similar changes nonetheless, with a number of my peers. There’s the one with whom I’m exchanging texts who suddenly seems to forget what we’re talking about and goes off on some random tangent. Or the people who tell me the same story we talked about yesterday. And there’s nothing like those moments when I refer to a shared experience and see a blank look which indicates that my friend has no memory of ever having been in that moment with me. The horror of it all. At least for me. I’ve counted on my mental competency so much throughout my life. Who will I be if that part of me erodes?
The truth is, there’s not a thing I can do about what may be ahead for me, another one of my pet peeves. I really can’t stand thinking there’s nothing I can do to fix a problem. So I’ll continue to play all those Words with Friends games and all the various New York Times ones. Maybe I’ll keep making new brain pathways to compensate for the old ones getting worn out. My brother used to have the following slogan at the end of his emails : “Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most.” Yes. I can relate.