I was shaken this week by a note from one of my dear friends. I have since been unable to let go of the demons it released in me. The note simply said that my friend—who is in her mid-50s—has been experiencing memory loss, both short-term and long-term. It has been going on for a couple of years but increasing to an alarming degree recently. She can do every step in a procedure if it is written down, but if you ask her a few minutes later if she did the thing or how, she hasn’t the foggiest idea. Memories from her past are being lost as well. She is losing contact with the path from which she came.
If you know me at all, you know that the very thought of this completely freaks me out. Of course, my very first reaction to the note was to feel absolutely awful for my friend. I cannot even begin to imagine the sort of terror that must strike her when an episode occurs–when her connection to the past is cut–much less how she has come to live with the reality of that disconnection in her daily existence. And that is exactly what freaks me out.
My brain and the life of my mind have always meant so much to me. Perhaps too much, even. I have always felt extremely grateful to be relatively intelligent, as I have seen the ways it has given me advantages in the world. I have definitely had my moments when I have been an intellectual snob, somewhat looking down my smarty-pants nose when dealing with people who don’t seem to me to be understanding the situation very well, especially if they are arguing against me. I have a way of using the science of Logic to win any argument, even if I am the only one using my scoring system. I am sure it is mostly annoying to the people around me. I try to not make it about my ego, but I also get some satisfaction in my ability to pick any issue apart in my mind and see it rationally. And because I am over-sensitive, I have played every argument I have ever had over and over in my head a thousand times (so I know who was right!).
The other reason—aside from simple intelligence—that I have so valued the life of my mind is that I have spent so much time there, my mind as my best friend. I think of all the years I lived in cities far away from home, where I hardly knew anyone at all. Then I think of the months I spent wandering around Europe alone, both not knowing anyone and often not speaking the same language as anyone. I also think of the years I spent living in a way that others described “as a hermit,” basically holed up with my books and journals. My primary company was myself, and I relied upon my mind to sustain me. I am so grateful that those years of solitude were indescribably blissful for me. I have always thanked the power of the mind for that.
This is exactly why my friend’s note threw me for a loop. Although I have spent a lot of thought on cancer and its potential devastation on my family, the disease that truly frightens me the most is Alzheimer’s. I simply cannot bear the prospect of being betrayed by my precious mind. Basically every aspect of the disease sounds like my worst nightmare: memory loss, disorientation, misinterpreting spatial relationships, having trouble finding the right words in speaking and writing, difficulty with concentration and reasoning, poor judgment and decision-making skills, struggling with the routine of basic activities, and personality changes. All of those seem absolutely dreadful to me, but the first and most obvious Alzheimer’s symptom—memory loss—really strikes fear deep into my heart. I could not bear to lose the memories that seem to make up the substance of my beautiful life.
I am a personal historian by nature. I love to chronicle my life and that of my family. It would be a dream come true for me to have my parents and all of my aunts and uncles come together and allow me to film them in group and individual interviews about their lives growing up and what they know of my ancestors. In lieu of that, I chronicle my own life. I take thousands of photos every year and keep them well-sorted. And of course, I journal. Although I have never thought that the reason why I journal is to have accurate memories of my life—I do it to maintain clarity about who I am—I must admit that it is a wonderful treat to be able to look back on the 50 or so volumes I have filled to see what I have been doing all these years. Reading through them for “The Journal Project,” I had so many moments when I laughed and said to myself, “I totally forgot about that!” It is fun to have a record of it all to jog my memory.
Now the memories I am trying to create—and document—are of my kids. I try to spend every possible moment with them. I seriously do not want to miss a single thing. I cherish them all, from the giggly moments wrestling on the playroom floor, to the quietly appreciative ones, when I just sit back at a distance on my hammock and watch them spin each other around in the swing in the backyard. In those quiet moments, I am fully aware of just how blessed I am to share a life with them, and I try to burn those memories deeply into my brain so I can hearken back to them as they grow up and I grow old. When the moment allows it, I try to capture them with the lens of my camera, as I do love to sit at my computer and watch slideshows of them from our favorite days. However, I am beginning to see that the best way to fully take them into my heart is to engage with them. To put down that camera and jump into the fray while they still want me to. The magic is in the connection with them, a connection that can only be made when I am fully engaged, fully present.
In fact, what I am learning now is that it isn’t the memories that make up the substance of this life. It is the present moment. This is what we have! This is the only tense where we get to exercise any sort of control. This eternal moment of NOW is where we get to decide, in every moment, who we are going to be. NOW is where we feel Joy. Now is where Peace exists. NOW is when we forgive. NOW is the time we get to choose our attitude and our actions. NOW is when we connect with those we love. The world will always deliver us into new circumstances—with or without money, near or far from loved ones, cursed or applauded, sharp as a tack or being betrayed by your brain with Alzheimer’s—and all we can control is our attitude in the present moment. The precious present.
This is my lesson from this week of fret and concern about losing my mind and my memories. When I look at the other things that have haunted me in recent years—fears of cancer, of losing my parents, of my wife dying young—it seems that the remedy is exactly the same. Stay in the moment, and make the most of every one. If my parents or my wife dies–or if my body gets eaten by cancer or my mind by Alzheimer’s—the only thing that will save me from regret is if I know I gave myself completely when we were together, that we made the most of our time. And that we were present. Completely present in this most precious tense. This is the one silver lining I see for my dear friend who is losing her memory: at least she has the present. She can still find Joy and Peace and Love in every moment, even if she doesn’t remember the specifics of it later. Maybe that is enough. I hope it is.
How about you? What ailments or afflictions do you dread the most? Open up your journal and explore the possibilities. What makes your stomach turn when you think of the possibility of getting it? Is it an injury, perhaps something that does not allow you to be mobile or athletic anymore? I know it would drive me crazy not to be able to exercise or chase my kids around. What about paralysis or infirmity, where you require someone’s help to do even the basics of life, like eating or using the toilet? Do you fear that type of dependence? How about cancer? That one scares the daylights out of me, because I have seen it ravage both the body and the mind. What have you witnessed, and what effect has that had on your fears and on your appreciation for life and for living in the present? On a scale of one to ten, how badly do you dread the prospect of Alzheimer’s or another disease of the mind? Does it make you want to take more photos or videos, or journal more? Or rather, does it just make you want to be better at soaking up each moment you have? Is presence the best answer? Leave me a reply and let me know: How do you make peace with your biggest fears?
Be your best right now,