By Marianne Delorey, Ph.D., Executive Director, Colony Retirement Homes
I am always impressed by people who build miniature works of art and engineering – my favorite has always been bridges made of toothpicks. I marvel at the intricacy, the delicacy, and the relative sturdiness of something made of small slivers of wood and glue. I wonder if these bridges were life-size, would they hold up? Would they be knocked over by the first storm? What about an attack on the abutments or pilings?
This makes me think about memory. Our memories are much like those creative endeavors – many memories connect one person to another through common bits of shared experiences, thoughts, world views, and love.
My mom is gone now, but in the decade before she died, she started getting forgetful. Sometimes, it was little things that are easy to brush off – the name of the store near my house or a certain joke we used to share. Over time, she started forgetting more of those little toothpicks. It nearly broke my heart when she forgot my childhood nickname.
But that bridge started looking even less stable when the stories she was forgetting were her own. Those memories were structural – they did not bridge us but held up her end. I did try to stick that piece of wood back where it belonged by retelling her about her own memories – how she played hide and seek when she was little and accidentally locked herself in the ice box and how she met my father’s family the day the lights went out on the east coast. But I knew the abutment was getting weak.
She knew she was getting forgetful and often made light of it. I will never know how much she had forgotten as she got to the point where she would just chuckle at me, not admitting she forgot, but not quite sure what else she could do.
When she had her stroke, it was like a bomb hit the bridge. There were still connections from one side to the other, but they could not hold weight. Most days, she knew who I was and where she was. I tried in desperation to pick up all the toothpicks I could find. I made her a photo book so she could have the faces and names in front of her if she forgot. I made sure she had a guest book so she could keep track of who visited. These efforts were futile because she could not hold the books with only one hand and reading was a challenge with only half of her visual field.
I recited her favorite poem and prayers with her. The familiar cadence seemed to help, even if she could not independently come up with the right words. I tried in vain to recreate memories and glue everything back in place. Even these efforts probably helped me more than they helped her.
The bridge between us collapsed when she died. From my side, I still see the abutments and pilings. I see many toothpicks reaching out into the void. Some reach far, others are half splintered because without her, I have forgotten things too. They reach into the nothingness desperately trying to cling to the stability they once knew. The abutment on my side was shaken by the bomb but it will stand until I die. It can never be rebuilt, though and so as we age, we are surrounded by abutments that are no longer connected.
If you have a forgetful elder, remember to help shore up their bridge with them while you can. The bridge will not last, but the abutment on your side will stand longer.