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Facts & Arguments Essay

Lost in memories Add to ...

The field behind my parents' house was alive with grasshoppers leaping like rubber bands launched in an out-of-control classroom.

My young twin sons were having no luck trying to capture one. "Dad, catch a grasshopper for us!"

It was one of those moments every parent fears. My sons are at an age when they still believe I can do anything: Fix a broken toy, name the capital of the United States, kick a soccer ball across a field. I'm Superman in an eight-year-old child's eyes.

I know that won't last forever. They'll realize I've got clay feet. But I'm greedily hoping to hold off that moment for as long as possible.

The grasshoppers jumped with amazing speed when I went anywhere near them. This was going to be one of those defining moments and I was probably heading for a slip from my pedestal. A superhero brought down by a lowly insect.

Then, as I bent over hoping to pull off a miracle, I retrieved a long-forgotten skill from my memory banks. I remembered doing this as a kid. You put one hand in front of the grasshopper while sneaking another hand up from behind. The grasshopper jumps into your trap.

I caught one on my first attempt, bringing huge smiles to my sons' faces and keeping the Superman myth alive another day.

It's fascinating to think knowledge like that can be sitting, not needed, in the deepest recesses of the mind for years, just waiting to be called on when the appropriate triggers are pulled.

I've been thinking about memory a lot these days. My own father was Superman in my eyes longer than most.

He really did build, from scratch, the house in which we grew up. He could fix the car or the boat or any of the appliances. His work often took him to remote Northern Ontario towns for weeks or months, time he used one winter to learn to play the guitar.

He took on tasks even when they had no real connection to his life. Travel and vacations made him physically ill, but he built a camper trailer in our garage, decided he could do better and proceeded to build another. He had zero interest in hockey but coached my team one year when no one else stepped forward.

It wasn't until I had children of my own that cracks started appearing. And when they did, they opened wide and they opened deep. When our twins were toddlers and had trouble reaching the sink at my parents' home, I asked him to build a step-stool, figuring he would like the project. He said yes and did a great job, but it took him more than a day to complete a task he might have finished in an hour a few years earlier.

The furnace broke a year or two later, and he kept the house warm by using the wood stove and electric heaters rather than fix it. When our twins were around 6, my mother asked me to help him put doors on a shed. He had trouble figuring out even the simplest of tasks and kept insisting there was nothing wrong with his warped and worn saw blade, telling me I was wasting my money going to buy a new one. It was getting harder to ignore the fact something was very, very wrong.

There is still a lot of mystery surrounding Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. We don't know exactly what is going on in the minds of those, like my father, who are stricken. There's a common perception that it is no more than "losing your memory."

My father's memories, however, seemed to remain strong, even when it was obvious he was losing his medical battle. Those memories simply had no connection to what was going on around him.

We would say we were heading to the lake for a picnic and he would talk about something that had happened at work 40 years earlier.

I would point to my brother and he would mistake him for one of his own brothers and launch into an irrelevant story filled with colour and a full cast of characters.

Growing up during the Depression, establishing a career, raising a family, working hard so he could retire early to enjoy gardening at the cottage, welcoming seven grandchildren - my father has built up a wealth of experiences over his 79 years.

Looking at it another way, that's a lot to forget.

Another year or so has gone by and the wall around my father has become almost impenetrable. A man who once loved nothing better than conversation with family and friends is now in his own world. His days of creating new memories are over.

But I take some comfort in the thought that maybe, just maybe, he continues to pull a lifetime of reminiscences from deep in his brain.

In his own mind, I hope he is still Superman, building a house with his own hands as a newlywed, learning to play guitar in midlife, or perhaps just catching grasshoppers in a field with his father when he was an eight-year-old.

Barry Ward lives in Barrie, Ont.

 

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