As I swept up the pieces of dried mud, carrot tops, and other kitchen-accumulated debris, I had a vivid memory of the house in which I was raised. This morning, with a broom in one hand and a discarded bit of paper in the other, I swept the crumbs and tossed them in the trash when, suddenly, a similar scene flashed in my mind.
Trash. The can sat at the end of the sink as you walked into our only bathroom. Broom. My mother’s preference for a wide straw broom, tucked awkwardly behind the trash can, leaning between counter and door. Paper. We had no dust pan. It was always an envelope, some newspaper or bit of cereal box.
The memory was so focused, so clear. I saw the many colors of the worn linoleum. I saw the chipped paint on the bathroom door. I saw my brother Paul demonstrate to my mother that wetting the edge of the paper, made it easier to catch everything. I smelled the sour trash and cigarette smoke. I heard the broom scraping the floor. Such vividness.
A memory that was at least 45 years old, was brought forward by my brain as if it was the present moment. Is this how it is when one has dementia? Do the misfiring neurons (or whatever is up there) catch memories that are similar to, but not quite what is actually happening around us? Are we transported by muscle memory and lingering smells to a similar task?
I fear dementia. My post-50 brain cannot retain information as it used to or access the correct word or concept as rapidly as when I was young. I don’t know why I fear “senility.” There is no certainty that my brain will deteriorate as my body ages. My mother at 81 could still answer all of the Jeopardy questions quickly and correctly a few days before her death.
Perhaps I fear for no reason. Maybe it isn’t so bad sometimes. Confusion seems scary, but floating back to familiar places and activities might not be the worst thing to happen to a person. Hopefully the frightening, hurtful memories will stay tucked away most of the time, and I will remember how the wind felt against my skin when I swung on my rickety swing. Maybe I’ll remember the delight I felt when my mother pulled out a fragrant, freshly baked pie. Perhaps I’ll go back to times when love was new, when life seemed endless and possible, when I was becoming me.
Buddhist tradition, among others, teaches us to be in the present, the now. Living in the moment helps us to be truly present with the other and frees us from useless worry. Perhaps another fruit of being present is to create the clear memories of the now that we will need as we approach end of life.
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