During Mother’s last few months, conversations were extremely difficult to follow because her mind seamlessly switched from one decade to another. Isaac Singer writes, “Sometimes she’d tangle one story with another and couldn’t find her way out” (In My Father’s Court). Within one statement, she would toggle between viewing me as a teenager in the 1970’s and as an adult in the 21st century. “I didn’t know you were driving. You didn’t tell me you got your license. What classes did you teach today? Did you know that Johnny bought another acre of ground behind his house?”
Mother always remembered who I was, only because I visited her every few days. Family members who skipped a week or two would fade from her memory. “Which one are you?” she would ask. It rips you up when your mother or grandmother doesn’t know you anymore.
When my son returned from his educational trip to northern Africa, having been away less than a month, his grandmother no longer remembered his existence. She asked me, “Why did you wait until now to introduce me to your son? Why did you never tell me about him until he was grown?”
Salmon Rushdie writes, “It is hard for the old ones; their brains go raw and remember upside down” (“Midnight’s Children”). Of course, it is hard for the young ones as well, being forgotten. Nevertheless, mother and grandmother in her last year was always quick to embrace us and to thank us. Our visits did not always make new memories for her and rarely cleared the fog, nevertheless, love was present.
Thornton Wilder writes, “We ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning” (“The Bridge of San Luis Rey”).
We knew that Mother’s days were short; we knew where this would end. We took the approach of “No Regrets.” Visit her every day. When she’s in the hospital, visit her and feed her at every meal. Mother had four children, so there were lots of us to share the load. We did not want to look back on these months with regrets for the choices we had made.
Every day Mother would tell us the news. Some of it was fifty years old (“Did you know that Johnny bought another acre of ground behind his house?”); some of it, though, was new and accurate. When I told her that dad’s last brother had died, she told me she had no idea who I was talking about. But the next day, after having some time to organize the details in her mind, she correctly informed me about my uncle’s death, though having no idea that I was the one who had told her the news. Sometimes the details made sense to her, but other times not.
There are some things from my childhood and teen years that I would like to forget. Some of the things I did to other people are shocking. Yet, they are part of my history and my memory. My parents had forgiven me for those bad choices, but they had not forgotten them. Sometimes the memories were close to the surface; too close. But during the last months of Mother’s dementia, I was protected from those bad memories. Mother had lost those details. For some of the elderly dealing with dementia, it is only the failures that are remembered. Amy Tan writes, “Dementia was like a truth serum” (“The Bonesetter’s Daughter”). For Mother, however, my failures had disappeared from her memory. John Grisham writes, “You’re allowed to forget the past. God certainly has” (“The Testament”).
Richard Llewellyn claims, “There is no fence or hedge round Time that has gone. You can go back and have what you like if you remember it well enough” (“How Green Was My Valley”). But Mother did not remember it well enough; the memories had become tangled. There was a fence, and it was tightening around her. “Did you know that Johnny bought another acre of ground behind his house?”
Dementia is a horrible disease, for both young and old. Our experience with Mother was one in which she usually remembered the positive and forgot the negative. God has promised to view His children through the righteousness of Christ. God’s forgetfulness is not tangled or accidental, it’s intentional. God’s forgetfulness is purposeful and loving. When it comes to human failures in our lives, remember, “You’re allowed to forget the past. God certainly has.”
Dr. Gary L. Welton is assistant dean for institutional assessment, professor of psychology at Grove City College, and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values. He is a recipient of a major research grant from the Templeton Foundation to investigate positive youth development.