Of course you remember she says.
It was your sixtieth, and
we came from across the country
to express our love.
I don’t remember, I say.
But you do remember she says.
We ordered your favorite Indian foods
sang songs of the 60’s
and danced to Eleanor Rigby.
I don’t remember, I say.
But you must remember, she says.
We drank Woodford Reserve
and reminisced about motorcycle days
and drugged pleasured nights.
I don’t remember I say.
But surely you remember, she says.
we spoke of memories
some new and others old
that made you, you.
They all look at me as if
I’m playing a game
designed to torture
worse than Abu Ghraib
And with resignation I say
yes, Yes, YES!, I DO REMEMBER!!
Punctuating each word hoping
the melody hides the truth.
And finally people relax
wanting to believe
I had too much to drink
or was too lazy to think.
But I don’t remember.
I don’t remember the wonders
I’m told defined my life
and changed others
who thanked me for entering theirs.
My friends repeatedly tell me
of events whose weight,
now have shrunk to pebble-size,
Evaporating into wisps
that slip from my mind
as if they were breaths
escaping through a gossamer web
I’m told I cried
When my children were born
and I knowingly nod my head
But only remember my tears
I’m told I exchanged whispers with Martin Luther King
as citizens of Montgomery
hid in shadows
holding gray cold objects.
But I only remember the smell of night blooming jasmine.
I’m told I sent students
on livelong journeys
and taught children
who couldn’t speak to speak.
But I see only a few nameless faces.
I’m told I eased
the lives of many
as they prepared to die.
But I only remember torn pieces of faded pictures.
All bits of yesterday
the most important
slowly descending without control
as if vacuumed from my mind,
On the way to a doorless place
I don’t know how to enter,
Or if I could, what I’d find,
Or once found what I’d do
And the repetitive painful questions
keep coming from those
That the me I was is still within.
I see their fear painfully grow
as if it isn’t me they’re seeing
but a stranger they now fear.
So, with a smile I again say,
Or course I remember.
They relax comforted in believing
it was just a fleeting senior moment.
Like ones they have and laugh at
before their own doubts begin.
And I wonder how often
I’ll need to repeat this painful drama.
Smiling and nodding
because they don’t understand that
I can’t remember.
Your poem of course draws my attention to the relationship between identity and memory. It does so because the people who have memories of me have their own distinct instance of *me*; each of them do, and I have mine or I do for a time until those become distorted as they fade and morph. We all do this and have this same set of issues. Comedy is where the juxtapositions of all the *me*’s in others come together in unexpected and strange collisions. Tragedy is where the I that is me now is lost between the various *me*’s that others are expressing, and is confused by the various forces that are attempting to shape that *reality*. Their anxiety and insistence projected is my anxiety twisted and extruded into threads that stretch to the point of breaking. That is existential dread – like Dostoyevsky’s “Double” except that it is not a double but a multiple of all the people who are each doing it within earshot.
I am not in a state of dementia or Alzheimer’s, though I do have an inkling that the antechamber of this is on the horizon. (I took far too many concussions when I was young, and get the sense of fog and free association that occurs when memories fall first into the fuzz of mental cotton floss, and then pop out of consciousness with barely a trace, until some stimuli from another mental angle brings matters back into sharper focus. I am not sure that this – in itself – is necessarily a bad thing. It can be a very creative space if others are not trying to shape my *me* with their various *me*’s.)
These are just my observations – based on having a sense of the beginnings of the slow slide. What bothers me is that I like to think deeply, and as I get older maintaining the grasp that memory provides is essential to building and maintaining a large and complex representation of the various connections. I enjoy complexity when it creates a nuanced aesthetic, but hate it when I have the sense that it is just beyond my horizon, and that the borderlands are in motion. As stated: From the right place this is creative play, but from the wrong place it is an existential chaos where the void so near at hand is a mesher that will bring total dissociation, rather than the place where threads combine to create something complex and beautiful.
Since you like poetry, here is a recent one of mine:
One Knot for me
One moment here, the next I’m gone.
Without refrain; a noteless song.
I see the sun, I drink the sky.
When it doth set; I shall die.
A beautiful woman, a soaring bird.
Without a breath; not a word.
High I soared, my time ran out.
A great oak tree; I hang about.
Time’s hangman pulls, a door untraps.
The rope goes taut; my neck snaps.
A woman sits, beneath the tree.
She knits souls; one knot for me.
Nicholas, I really enjoyed your evocative and thoughtful response, and the lovely haunting poem. Your comments on all the distinct yous residing in the memories of others reminded me of a sudden realization I had some years ago when I was looking at a photograph of a family member in a crowd at a national park. I suddenly realized that I have a photograph of a whole bunch of strangers, and *then* I realized that the inverse must be true–that a whole bunch of strangers likely have photographs of me, pictures I’ll never see. Do they wonder who I am, as I wonder about them? It’s a nice metaphor for the idea of how we do indeed build up a personalized memory homunculus of everyone we know, including ourselves. No one representation amounts to the “true” me, but neither am I the sum of the perceptions of others. We live somewhere in between those poles.
I have both Early Onset Alzheimers and Frontal Temporal Degradation/dementia. I am able to write because of the slow speed and ability to choose and then erase words. I’m in the nasty middle stage (to those who prefer, just entered stage 6)I also am a chronic pain sufferer which is what led me to you. This is an incredible poem. There is a site on Facebook called Memory Peoplewhich is a private site for people who have different dementias, their caretakers and people involved in advocatcy. I would love to share this poem with them. It describes me, it descibes my friends. And thank you for being you. Hugs, Debbi
Thanks for your kind words Debbi. I’m also on Memory People and refer Rick and to the site in my book on caregiving. And when Dallas was still able, we exchanged emails on what she was going through. Please feel free to share the poem.
Hi Stan. I really appreciate this articulate and evocative poem. My sister recently received a diagnosis of Alzheimers, and I have been looking for information from the patient’s perspective. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be as much of that as from the outside looking in.
I have a question. I can see the person with Alzheimers might find it hard to respond to the question “Don’t you remember?” so what would they rather hear? How do I talk to my sister without emphasizing her weaknesses?
Unfortunately there isn’t an answer that works for all people with Alzheimers. And I think maybe that’s the problem with many of the books. But there are some guidelines that do apply across the board that might help.
Most people are aware that loved ones with Alzheimers have memory problems, both short and long term that increase as the disease progresses. But many don’t understand the role “structure” serves. Generally, we make sense of our world because we have an internal sense of structure (e.g., rules of social interaction, expressions of emotion, making sense of our physical surroundings, etc.) What I’ve seen is that those internal structures also breakdown with people with Alz. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that one of the first things to go with declining cognition is using and understanding abstractions. And that’s what all of these rules have in common: they’re unwritten rules that allow us to make sense on our world.
IN my new book I spend a chapter explaining how cognition effects those with various forms of dementia and what loved ones can do to help. Generally, it’s a good idea to make things as concrete as possible. A simple example is to create a “family board” where pictures of family members with their names printed underneath are grouped together. Simple ways that can make structure external help greatly. It’s important to make structures external even before someone needs it. It becomes easier to use when they do and can temporarily prevent the confusion the loss causes.
As for “Do you remember..” questions. They’re rarely helpful. If there is something you want your mother to remember, describe the event that she participated in. If she remembers, it may come back. If she doesn’t, she won’t feel that she’s being asked to do something she’s incapable of doing. Don’t put the event in the form of a question. It’s better to use just a description within a conversation you’re having with her. You might also want to look at some of the articles on my website that deal specifically with chronic and terminal illness issues. Hope this helps.
I am a full time caregiver of my mom who has alzheimers disease.I was directed to your site by one of the members (Angels)of an on line support group I belong to. I just want you to know how inspirational your writing is to those of us that are caregivers,or anyone really that is going through a difficult time in their life. Keep up the good work, and I thank you for sharing.
Thanks for you kind words Cheryl. I hope you’ll find my new book Leaning Into Sharp Points: Practical Guidance and Nurturing Support for Caregivers just as helpful.
Tears ran down my eyes as I read this beautiful poem. Truly,you are very gifted. Thank you again for sharing this and your website.
Thank you Helen for your kind words. I’m finding it easier to put into a poetic or fiction format some things that people have difficulty with as a nonfiction essay.
Very touching. Touches so much of our humanity and our fears.
Your poem has touched my heart. As I read this I could see the far away look in my mama’s eyes. I can remember the struggle to “cover up” and her bright smile as she made an acceptable ‘excuse’ as to why that didn’t sound familiar. I now work for the Alzheimer’s Association as an Early Stage Care Consultant and Educator. With your permission, I would like to share your poem with others. Blessings to you and yours.
Thank you for your kind words. Please feel free to share the poem with others. The responses from people who don’t understand dementia to my article It’s Alzheimer’s not the bloody plague, has been gratifying. It’s more a case of people being afraid of what they don’t know rather than being insensitive
Your poem is heartbreaking and beautiful.
Do you have any memory of a Carol Cole?
Thanks for your kind words. The name Carol Cole doesn’t jog any memories. Are you Carol? If so I apologize. Tell me more.
Beautiful, Stan ~ just beautiful. You have such a gift for writing ♥
Thank you Marty,
Your compliments always make my day.
Beautiful writing, Stan. Isn’t it sad how our fears often blind us to the truth.
Thanks for the kind words. You’re absolutely write about fearing those things that often are our keys to becoming more whole.
I have done what’s called Slam Poetry for 5 years — I made the Nebraska National Team to compete at nationals in August — and nothing I have ever written in all this time compares to your poem. It reminds me how lucky I am that I can stil remember you.
As always, your words humble me.
Thanks for the additional features to your website! You are an AMAZING soul and I look forward to reading more. . .♥
All the best to you my friend,
Thanks for your kind words, as usual.
Wow, so powerful.
Thanks for your kind words Kathlee.
Thank you for a wonderful poem.
You’re very welcome.