This evening I popped out to the corner store for milk. A woman was there with an older man. He was walking up and down the aisles as she trailed behind him – sighing and huffing and saying things like “Dammit, Dad! You dragged me out to get something with you and now you can’t remember what you need?”
Her words seemed to fall like blows on his shoulders. He began picking up items in a random fashion and knocked over several cans of soup. I bent to retrieve them up and when I straightened I looked into his face. There it was: the panicked, lost look of a man who set out with clear intent… and lost his bearings along the way. I know this look – and it breaks my heart.
For those of us who watched helplessly as loved ones drifted away from us, there are no words to describe the pain. So much of Who We Are is found in our reflections within others’ eyes – and to lose that is almost unbearable. As their memories fade, we find ourselves doubting the veracity of the past – for what is the past if not shared memory? Dementia, Alzheimer’s – we try to name the thief even as we rage at its daily crimes against humanity.
Unless you have looked into your mother or father’s eyes and seen only a gently quizzical “Who are you?” in place of the once-familiar gladness; unless you have turned to your life’s-partner to share a yesterday-moment, only to find him gone even though his hand is in yours; unless you have experienced the soul-freezing terror of being lost within yourself…you cannot know.
America: By 2030, there will be about 72.1 million older persons, more than twice their number in 2000. People 65+ represented 12.4% of the population in the year 2000 but are expected to grow to be 19% of the population by 2030.
We will, as a society, be challenged. We will be asked to stretch our compassion, economics, and medical ingenuity to new horizons. How we respond to this will be yet another measure of Who We Really Are.
Eight months before my father passed away, I took him out for lunch. As we were leaving the restaurant he became slightly agitated and began searching the pockets of his coat. He found a carefully-folded piece of paper and handed it to me. Later that night I read it. He’d carefully printed out this Billy Collins poem:
The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,
as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.
Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.
It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.
No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.”