Listening With My Eyes Excerpt: Chapter One
“…I don’t want to remember,” he answered. “If I did, I might keep the future from happening by letting the past encroch upon it. I create each hour’s newness by forgetting yesterday completely. Having been happy is never enough for me. I don’t believe in dead things. What’s the difference between no longer being and never having been?”
Menalque, “The Immoralist” by Andre Gide
Memories: What Makes Us, Us
What if you don’t have a choice about remembering? What if your memories are ripped out of your brain bit by bit and this ultimately renders you helpless?
The Immoralist was required reading for an existential literature class I took in college. The book profoundly affected me. I wrote quotes from it on note cards and posted them in my dorm room and in notebooks. For the first time, I pondered life and the relative importance of memories and past experiences. This was long before I’d ever heard about Alzheimer’s disease and was on the brink of building lifetime memories myself.
A friend of mine once said he believed that 95 percent of who we are is a direct result of our past experiences, which sometimes do encroach on our behavior and may be why we forget some, but retain and sometimes edit others.
So, if memories make a person who he is, what does he become if his memories have been deleted? Is he less of a person or simply a different one? Does he become stupid, and unaware of his environment and of who or what occupies his space? Or is his consciousness simply different than ours? Is his mind occupied with more important things than the supermarket list or the checkbook balance? Is he aware if he is being patronized or treated with disrespect? Is he uninterested in participating in life, unable to participte, or both? Does his perceived unawareness of his surroundings mean he is unaware or simply unable to express it? If so, might those in his life adjust their methods of communication, sharpen their perceptions and alter their expectations of this person, because his former way of relating and perceiving is no longer valid?
I never would have wondered these things if my sweet, generous and vivacious mother hadn’t been a victim of Alzheimer’s disease. I believe it evolved because this aging, terrified woman ignored the lump in her breast that had grown so large by the time she went to a doctor, it was too late to save the breast. I couldn’t forsee the depression that would follow, not only because of her scarred chest (and in her mind, incomplete womanhood), but also because most of her close friends had died or moved away. I’d never have guessed that this overwhelming combination of these things would send her into a downward spiral from which she would never recover and would eventually lead to Alzheimer’s disease.
I was as unprepared for my parents’ aging, decreased self-reliance and reluctance to ask for help as they were. Just before I stepped in and changed their lives forever, I bought my first and what turned out to be, “problem” horse named Dream. What made her a problem, I discovered, was that she’d been abused. While I thought I was training her, this animal taught me how to be present and to pay attention to her body language as well as my own, which guided and aided me in understanding her side of the dialogue. She forced me to focus on how my attitude and energy affected her. I learned that indulging in frustration or anger was counterproductive because neither of us could move forward in our relationship with that barrier between us. Instead of concentrating on getting a task accomplished, I learned to pay attention to what was happening between us every step of the way - not just reaching the end goal.
I discovered the process of communication was equally, if not more important than my personal finish line. By accident, I began applying the same principles of communication I learned with Dream to communication with my mother, especially after Mom lost her ability to speak. I learned volumes of subtle messages from Dream, then Mom, by being more aware of body language, which goes far beyond words and provided more and deeper nformation than I ever would have imagined.