A few days ago, my mother was complaining that she can’t remember anything. She expressed significant anguish about this, asking “What is the point of living if you can’t remember your experiences later?”. My immediate response was to offer a piece of my brilliant wisdom, saying “I think the point is to have your experiences while you are having them”. And I do believe that is true. I do believe the point is to mindfully move through life with presence, with passion, with playfulness, and with peace (also with positivity, patience, and perspective. Also with partnership – if you’re lucky enough to find someone on the planet with whom to partner. And also with percussion – because really, what would life be without rhythm?)
My mother’s question hung in the air long after we said goodbye, giving me great pause (in contrast to the complete absence of pause before the glib response that had tumbled out of my mouth). There is a vast emptiness now for her, where once there was a treasure trove of stories and recollections to reflect on and re-experience. How excruciatingly sad – Now there is just the knowledge that things have happened, because we tell her, but she can’t invoke the pleasure of all those lost moments.
A prime and particularly painful example: During my visit last year, I arrived to the nursing home just when the daily entertainment was scheduled to begin. My parents were there in the lobby, with the other residents, awaiting a performance of some kind. It turned out that the entertainer of the day was a no-show. I spontaneously asked the staff person in charge (who at that moment was trying to keep people engaged with her rendition of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a rendition which one can only hope will never need to be reprised) if I might be able to offer some songs, and she happily handed over the microphone! There I stood, singing song after song after song – many of which were requests being called out by my Dad. (It would be more accurate to say “all of which” were called out by my Dad, as he doesn’t really notice things like 75 other people in the room who might have wanted to make their own requests.) Thankfully, I know and love the scores of the musicals that my parents love. I sang for an entire hour, encouraged by the audience applause and appreciation. The best part for me was that my parents got to hear me sing these beloved songs, and got to witness their daughter spreading joy. My Dad has never stopped talking about that day – It brings him such pride, especially the part where the residents continued asking me, every day of my visit, if I would be singing again. He loves to say that I was the best entertainer they’ve had there. (just a bit of bias)
My mother doesn’t remember it at all. She wouldn’t even know it had happened if my Dad didn’t still talk about it. It pains her intensely to hear about it and to know that she was there, but to have absolutely no personal recollection of the experience. It pains me too. I want it to be a shared precious memory for all of us. And she has to settle for a created memory built out of the stories we tell her. Perhaps this is what memory really is for all of us. We construct stories to mark experience, and the memories become solidified and/or transformed with the re-telling of the stories.
But the question remains – What is the point of an experience that you won’t remember having? It’s like the tree falling in the woods question – Does it make a sound if no-one is around to hear it? Does an experience have an impact if it will be promptly forgotten? The good news here is that my mother doesn’t even remember bringing this up. Another perk of memory loss – the overnight resolution of existential crisis.
I seem to be encountering existential questions of my own these days, in recent interactions with the healthcare system, such as it is. When I went on long-term disability, I lost my health insurance from my prior employer, and had to get my own coverage through the Obamacare plans. I won’t bother going into detail now about how that process went, but I will say that generous mental health benefits should be offered on all of their plans because you will need to utilize them by the time you’re done subscribing. With the new year came new prices on these plans, and I had to change plans once again, this time getting an HMO plan because it was the only one I could afford.
I recently needed to get a foot X-ray done, and so I called the insurance company to be sure that I would have all the correct paperwork submitted in order to have the X-ray covered. This led to hours on the phone with a variety of people who all told me completely contradictory “information”. (Just once, I wish that my phone call would be the one that “may be recorded for quality assurance”. I simply want to know – if it were recorded – Who the Hell is assuring the quality?)
I finally concluded that I would need to have a referral submitted by my new Primary Care Physician. So I called that physician’s office, and was told that I would need to come in for a full physical and review of history, so she could be up to date on my health. I made the appointment, as directed. When the doctor came into the room, she appeared confused and slightly disoriented. She looked at me quizzically and said:
“Why are you here?”
I explained that her office staff told me I had to be there and that I was expecting a physical. She stated that she did not have time to do a physical, and proceeded to ask some standard questions about my family history and my own health. I explained that I have Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, which she had never heard of, and which seemed to confuse her further. She took a few notes and then suggested that I get a tetanus vaccine. I declined, and the visit ended. (As I was leaving, I noticed that she had written the diagnosis as: “Medical chemical sensitivity”. Hmmm. I’ll give her credit – It’s pretty close. And it could actually be a new diagnosis for chemical injury resulting from medical interventions such as unnecessary tetanus vaccines.)
Two weeks ago, I also had an appointment that was made by the Social Security Disability people – to do a mental health status exam. This appointment was made because I wanted to have documentation of the depression that coincides with MCS, to be considered with my Disability application. So they sent me to see one of their psychologists. I walked in, and the man conducting the interview asked about any current treatment. (The term “interview” is being used loosely here, to mean: the process of watching someone in authority compulsorily complete a form about you, in your presence.) When I told him I was not in treatment, he paused, looked up at me quizzically and asked the following question:
“Why are you here?”
I began to wonder whether this whole thing was a big Jungian archetypal dream from which I would awaken with the knowledge of life’s purpose. But it was clear that I was indeed awake. So I answered him, explaining that I was there because I suffer from depression. He went down his list of standard questions and checked off the boxes as I gave my answers: Decrease in energy? Yes. Decrease in social activity? Yes. Difficulty sleeping? Yes. Feelings of hopelessness? Yes. (Not even a blink of an eye in response to these answers. Just on to the next question. Gotta love a system that conducts its business so efficiently. No time-wasters like an empathic pause in the presence of personal pain) Difficulty concentrating? Yes. And here’s the good one: Difficulty with memory? Maybe. Compared to my parents, my memory is stellar. Or so I thought.
The psychologist conducted a standard memory test – telling me 3 words that I would have to remember later, and then asking me a bunch of mathematical questions that required my full attention. After focusing on all those numbers, he asked me to repeat the 3 words. I could not. This was the evidence he needed to confirm my own short-term memory impairment.
(I would like to think that most people would have trouble remembering words as mundane and uninteresting as “pen, apple, and chair” – particularly after repeating sequences of numbers backwards at 8:30 a.m. on a Friday morning , having gotten up at 4 a.m. to be able to do their full morning routine, and then driving for an hour into the city during rush hour, and then inhaling enough cologne from the person conducting the interview to cause the blood in their brains to coagulate.)
The good part of this is that there is now concrete evidence of my limited mental capacity – which may potentially support my disability application. The part I don’t love so much is that there is now concrete evidence of my limited mental capacity.
Tomorrow, I may or may not recall the details of what I did or said or thought today.
My parents may or may not recall anything we’ve talked about before.
This is often frustrating and sad.
And I still believe what I told my Mom.
The next time I encounter someone asking me why I am here, I will say “to have the experience I am currently having”.
And then I will likely ask to be recorded for quality assurance.