When I was a kid, super memory was my superpower. I was the youngest in my nuclear family, the second-to-youngest in my extended family, and I was regarded as a rememberer-in-chief by all my relatives. Trip to the grocery store? “Nancy, we need apples, tomatoes and cereal,” Mom would say, and I’d reel off the list to her until it was all in the cart. “Nancy, what was the restaurant where we ate in the Adirondacks?” Aunt Margaret would ask, and I’d answer, “Keyes Pancake House” before the question was out of her mouth. People marveled. “You never forget anything.”
It was easy, this remembering of things. What was the big deal? I’d think to myself, with all the self-awareness a nine-year-old girl could muster.
Later, when I was teenager and perfecting random cruelty directed at my mother, I’d openly mock her for her inability to remember things. “Did I see that movie? Did I like it?” I’d taunt her, after she’d ask me just those questions about some film I’d mentioned. How could someone who loved movies as much as my mother, who was known to hop from movie to movie in a cineplex on a rainy afternoon, not remember the names of the what she’d seen? Mind you, I never thought she had memory problems; I just thought she wasn’t trying hard enough.
Fast-forward 30 years. My sweet mom, now in her 80s, is grappling with real, non-funny, cognitive decline. And science is showing that such decline has a genetic component.
And now I’m 50, and these days I can’t remember jack shit.
Mom is somewhere on the dementia/Alzheimer’s spectrum, but no one knows exactly where to put the big red pin. She remembers my name, but not what day I (repeatedly) tell her I’m arriving for a visit. She is still social, but when you ask how she spent her day with one of the aides we’ve hired to drive her around and keep her busy, the most frequent activity is that she went with The Person to That Place where they did That Thing. My siblings and I are excellent guessers, teasing out bits of context and just enough knowledge of her habits and preferences to piece together what she may have actually done that day.
I remind Mom of the names of her aides and her grandchildren and furtively look on my kids’ Instagram friends lists to jog my recall of their friends’ names without asking them.
It’s not foolproof. The other day she mentioned that she’d seen That Movie About A Boy. I said, “‘Moonlight’?” “YES,” Mom exclaimed, and, since I’d just seen it myself and we both loved it, we talked for a good 15 minutes about the fine acting, the heart-wrenching story, the beautiful cinematography. Later, I spoke with my brother who lives in the same town as her, and he said, “She really liked ‘Lion,’” which is technically an entirely different That Movie About A Boy.
As scientific research continues to uncover hereditary aspects to memory loss, I try not to panic as I feel my own memory loss as a foreboding echo of my mother’s. I do what I can. I stay active. I read incessantly. I eat blueberries and kale until the most updated Superfood article puts me on to beets and sweet potatoes or green tea and cabbage. Last year, I started taking a hip-hop class, in part because I knew that the choreography would force long-dormant synapses last called into service during afterschool dance class in the ‘80s to start firing again. (But mainly for the Missy Elliott beats.)
I also try to show my kids, in how I now treat my mom, how I hope they will someday treat me. I long ago let go of resenting her for “not trying hard enough,” even as I am aware that my teenage daughters must surely think the same thing of me. I answer my mom’s repetitive questions and feel embarrassed when the girls say, “You asked me that 30 seconds ago, Mom.” I remind Mom of the names of her aides and her grandchildren and furtively look on my kids’ Instagram friends lists to jog my recall of their friends’ names without asking them.
When Mom accuses me of not telling her the destination, when I’m in fact taking her to a store that she asked me to drive her to, I clench my jaw and zip my lip. Hey, at least my kids don’t have their driver’s licenses, so I don’t have to be the forgetful mom in this scenario. Yet.
And with the Oscars coming up, I’m going to fight with all I’m worth to keep, “Did I see that movie? Did I like it?” as inside thoughts.