Choosing memories, becoming a person

My mother forgot her name today. Again.

A person, an ego, is just a stringing together of a selected set of memories. I have often read this concept, but reading and agreeing rationally is one thing, and seeing it in my mother’s face is another. My mother is a dementia patient. Over the years, what she remembers of herself gets patchier and patchier. When she meets people and they ask questions, or if she feels obliged to talk, she tries to create a personality for herself by joining these extremely scant pieces of half-remembered things with events that could have happened, and with people who never existed or existed in totally different times and places. It is like the struggle of constructing a picture for a thousand piece jigsaw based on ten available pieces.

When I sit with my mother and hear her talk, I seek in her face the mother I have known over fifty years. The stern mother who insisted I had a work ethic that stand me in good stead even today. The mother who once drove for two hours to buy me the pink raffia I needed for a project. The mother who got angry at me when I came home late and and then claimed that she worried because she loved me (the equation between worrying and loving eluded me then, and it eludes me now). Come to think of it, I can construct so many mothers from the one mother I have by choosing a set of memories that seem to fit together coherently. And what does she of me? Nothing? She remembers virtually nothing about me or my childhood. Her few and far-between memories are of her own childhood, and most of them false, because she mixes up persons, years, and events. The past is a jumble for her at times. It is lost to her at others.

Essentially, all of us live only in the present moment. The past, when remembered, is something recalled in the present moment, and it makes sense to remember it only to the extent it is pertinent, whatever that means. The future is yet to come, and any dreams or fears about it are again the present moment version of what might be. We have with us only the present moment to live in, to act. All these are concepts I understand rationally, and once in a while, emotionally.

Yet when I look at my mother, I don’t know. Is her lack of memory, and her inability to think of the future an awareness? It doesn’t seem so. This is not power, this is not bliss.

Every time I visit my mother, I wonder about my own personality and ego. What I would be like if I could not remember what I usually think I am? Sometimes, the thought frightens. Sometimes, when I am feeling overwhelmed, it offers relief. Yet I wouldn’t want to lose out on memories because I can’t retrieve them–I would rather move beyond the point when I dip into them in ways that hurt or pull me back and slow me down. I want to move the way of no memory because of awareness and peace, not because of a muddle of neurons forcing this amnesia on me (yet, that’s my ego speaking, and that’s part of the problem).

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About Swapna Kishore
I'm a writer, blogger, and resource person for dementia/ caregiving in India. I have also been a dementia caregiver for well over a decade, and am deeply concerned about dementia care in India; on this blog I share my personal caregiving journey, my experiences as a resource person for dementia care, and musings on life, aging, dementia in India, and such sundries. More about me and the work I do for dementia care. For structured information on dementia, for discussions, tools and tips on caregiving issues, for resources in India, and for caregiver interviews, please check my website http://dementiacarenotes.in (or its Hindi version, http://dementiahindi.com). For videos on dementia caregiving (English and Hindi), check the youtube channel here.

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