There are certain memories that never fail to make me smile.
In elementary school, my friend Heather and I spent a lot of time producing radio commercials. We had a tape recorder that was state-of-the-art. We wrote a script. There were sound effects. Heather’s little brother, Brian, played a supporting role. I specifically remember making commercials for vacuum cleaners. We said they “sucked” but in a good way. (See what we did there? Looking back, we were pretty clever.)
I don’t think our mothers were all that impressed with that particular commercial. In 1985, second-graders weren’t really supposed to be using the word “sucks.” We were in uncharted territory. You might call us rebels. I’m smiling just thinking about it.
Then there’s our wedding. It’s a good memory for all the reasons people typically say their wedding is a good memory, but what makes me smile the most is when I think about a specific moment when my stepfather, Dennis, was taking some pictures of my husband and me. He didn’t like the shadow that the sun was creating. My dad, who is quite tall, stepped in awkwardly right behind my stepfather with his arms arching over him–practically on top of him–to block the sun. Then there was my mom standing about ten feet away yelling directions at her ex-husband and current husband on how to work together to avoid the shadows in pictures. (As in, “Roy, step to the left and lean over Dennis a little more! Dennis, get down lower! Bend your knees!”) I am laughing as I write about it.
I also have memories that aren’t so positive. I’m not trying to portray myself as a pitiful victim, but I’ve been through some rough times. I’m not unique in this. I know you’ve probably been through rough times, too. Life isn’t all roses and unicorns, after all. I know you likely have a few images that pop up at night when you can’t sleep. You tell them to get lost, but they don’t.
They are memories I’d like to forget, but I can’t. They relate to painful times in my life. Things I saw happen that I would give anything to have not seen…or that I would give anything to have not happened at all. But that’s not an option. Just like those good memories that are imprinted in my mind, those bad memories aren’t going anywhere. I’m stuck with them.
I’d like to say those awful memories make me a stronger and better person. I’d love to tell you that they’ve forced me to grow and helped me to develop valuable new self-insights. Maybe some of that is true in a small way. Yet…really…bad memories just suck. (I can use that word now because I’m no longer in the second grade…unless Heather’s mom or my mom want to chime in here and veto it, which I would completely respect.)
Dementia can take those good memories. Dementia can take those bad memories, too.
I had to laugh uncomfortably recently when someone said to me, “The bad news is that Dad has Alzheimer’s. The good news is that he doesn’t have PTSD anymore.” It sounded like the punch line to a bad dementia joke. (Note: I’ll talk about dementia jokes in an upcoming post. I thought I had heard them all until I heard one the other day that happened to be both derogatory to people with dementia and racist, but I digress.)
If you can’t remember the traumatic event anymore, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is often relieved. This woman told me that her father had been in Vietnam. He came home and struggled with depression, fatigue, nightmares, flashbacks, and aggressive episodes. This cost him his marriage and strained his relationships with friends and family members. Then along came Alzheimer’s. As he gradually lost his memories of Vietnam, his PTSD subsided.
Certain types of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s, often work by impacting short-term memory at the start of the disease. Then you don’t remember the last year. Gradually, you lose the last 5 years, 10 years, 20 years….And if you don’t remember the last 60, maybe you see yourself as a child. You look in the mirror and don’t recognize that old person looking back at you. With Alzheimer’s and memory loss, we often use the phrase, “Last in, first out.”
Sometimes with Alzheimer’s, and even more so with some other types of dementia, the memory loss isn’t so predictable. The progression doesn’t always make sense. I once met a man with Alzheimer’s who remembered that his son had committed suicide five years earlier. However, he didn’t remember the wife that he had been married to for over thirty years or that he had been a well-respected lawyer. He couldn’t name the last four presidents.
I found it cruel that Alzheimer’s had stolen so many memories but left him with what was likely the most traumatic memory of his life. Dementia should have to take the bad memories if it’s gonna take the good ones. That only seems fair. But when it comes to dementia, what’s fair is irrelevant. Dementia, like life itself, is tremendously unfair.
If I have dementia in my future, I want to forget those life events that I can’t forget now as hard as I try. And I want to remember making commercials about vacuum cleaners that suck and how my dad and my stepfather ended up making the world’s oddest and most awkward pose in order to get the perfect wedding picture.
But dementia doesn’t let you choose.