I once saw the movie 50 First Dates, about a young woman who had no memory. Every day she woke up as a clean slate with no past.
The movie gave me the heebie-jeebies. I’ll never watch it again. In several close relationships, both family and romantic, I’ve experienced the devastating grenade of “I forgot,” or “I don’t remember that.”
In chronically abusive and dysfunctional family systems, “I don’t remember that” effectively shuts down any way forward into mutual responsibility, understanding or healing. Our traumatic memories suddenly waver. Did we, after all, make it all up? Did we misunderstand for years and decades? Are we unforgiving, mean and petty of spirit, hateful? Most frightening of all, are we crazy? If we’ve been chronically gaslit, we certainly feel crazy.
In “romantic” relationships, this memory failure is equally damaging. It blocks conflict resolution and discussion. If it’s true, it means the forgetful partner is unable to learn and adapt to the needs of the relationship and the other partner. There can be no learning and growing together. Nothing can change.
Most of all, this kind of response feels to me like an abdication, code for “it’s not my fault and I refuse to take responsibility.” It’s a signal I’m on my own with my questions and my need to understand.
It’s like a door slammed in my face, and I don’t beat on doors slammed in my face, begging for entry. I walk away.
Now I have a relative with dementia, and it’s extraordinary. I have never felt able to get close to this person before, though I have loved them deeply all my life. I’ve also never felt I was anything but a disappointment and a burden to them. I couldn’t find a way to get past their lifetime of accumulated trauma and pain, bitterness and rewritten narratives. As a truth seeker, I’ve been continually stymied and suspicious, believing I could not trust them to ever tell me the plain truth about anything.
Most painful of all, the fullness of my love has been rejected, over and over, for decades. Nothing I am or have to give was welcome; most of it was distinctly unwelcome.
Now I am witnessing a kind of metamorphosis. Gradually, gently, like leaves falling from trees in autumn, my loved one is letting go of their memories. And in some elemental way, as I walk beside them (because I have always been beside them), I am releasing the pain of my memories.
My loved one has experienced periods of extreme agitation and distress, and those are terrible for everyone. But, as the days pass, those periods seem to have passed too, and now I’m witnessing a gentle vagueness, a dream-like drifting, and in some entirely unexpected and inexplicable way I feel I’m at last catching a glimpse of the real person I’ve always wanted to know.
Even more amazing, I can now say “I love you very much,” that simple truth I’ve never been able to freely express, and they say it back to me. And I believe them.
After all these decades of pain and suffering, separation and bleeding wounds, I am finally able, in the words of Eden Ahbez, “just to love and be loved in return.”
This was all I ever wanted out of this relationship (and most others). Just this. To love fully and be loved in return. And I don’t care if it’s only in the moment. I don’t care that they’ll forget this elemental exchange of words of love as soon as they hang up the phone, or possibly before that.
What matters to me is they hear me, they accept my love, they return it. I’ve never had that with this person before. Maintaining bitterness, rewriting history, remembering old hurts, all require memory. And their memory is loosening, unraveling. What’s left is a person I’ve always sensed was there, a person of innocent simplicity, an undamaged personality who can participate in love. Someone who is not haunted by their past. Someone, oddly, who I trust.
Whatever the next interaction brings, I don’t have to go into it fully armored. Forgiveness has no meaning when dealing with dementia. Cognitive decline is unpredictable, clearly out of anyone’s control. Whatever is said in any given moment will not be remembered, whether words exchanged are of love or not. So, there’s no point in me remembering, or taking anything personally, or trying hard to be acceptable, do it right, stay safe. It feels safe to trust again, to trust the naked soul I’m dealing with now. I don’t have to try to repair our relationship. My feelings of duty and obligation are meaningless, because those expectations reside in memory, and memory flutters in the winter wind, frayed and thin.
My loved one has attained, at least periodically, a kind of peace they have never demonstrated before in my lifetime. Peace from the past. Peace from emotional pain. Because they are at peace, I, at last, can also be at peace.
I hoped death would free us both. I never expected dementia would do it first. We have both found absolution, at least for now.
Whatever comes, these interactions are precious to me. I realize now I still reside somewhere in the heart of this damaged, unhappy person. I was and am loved, at least as best they could and can. Knowing that, feeling it at last, changes everything and heals much.
I am beyond grateful. And that’s a strange feeling in this context. Dementia takes so much away … In this case, it’s loosened prison bars and chains, unlocked shackles and manacles, and left behind something pure and tender, a glimpse of someone fresh and unscarred in an aged and battered body.
I wonder how much of our identity is built from our social context memories. Too bad we can’t just delete certain files, wipe our hard drive clean in spots, and begin again.
I ask myself if it’s wrong to be so happy, so grateful, so relieved at this unexpected turn of events. I tell myself I should feel guilty. I’ve occasionally worked with Alzheimer’s patients, and I frequently work with people who are dealing with dementia and Alzheimer’s in their loved ones. I’ve never heard anyone suggest anything positive about it. Once again, I seem to be totally out of step.
I don’t take my self-doubt terribly seriously, though. I always think I’m doing life wrong. I’ve learned to tell that voice to shut up and sit down. Wrong or right, I feel a kind of exhausted joy at the lessening, maybe even the cessation of my loved one’s emotional suffering. Since I was a child I’ve wanted their health and happiness, their peace, wanted it more even than to be allowed to love and to be loved. I never expected those first passionate prayers from my child self would be answered, let alone in this manner. But here we are.
my former life
and realize how quickly
the current travels
dark and irretrievable
blossoms of sound
I made in that time
on the black surface
as if they no longer
From “The Sound of the Wild” by David Whyte
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