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first person

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Illustration by Kumé Pather

“Have you seen that intense new movie on Netflix about the, you know, thing?”

“I dunno. What’s it called?”

“Something about a girl or a mountain, maybe? It’ll come to me.”

“That’s not ringing any bells. Who’s in it?”

“That actress. You know – she’s done a few things recently. What’s her name?”

“I dunno. What’s it start with?”

“I think an ‘S’ – or a ‘K’? You know who I mean.”

“I do?”

“You love her!”

PAUSE

“Should we Google it?”

I am 62 years old, and these conversations with my friends have become as typical as – well – it’ll come to me. We prepare ourselves for aches and pains, for children who leave and for children who don’t. But memory loss, the precursor to Alzheimer’s and dementia, is often hidden and seldom discussed except as a momentary lapse.

When I was younger and forgot something like a birthday or the name of a plant or a movie, I chalked it up to exhaustion, a hangover or a preoccupation. Often, I’d laugh it off, promising myself and others that it would come to me soon – and it mostly did. I had a block against the word “hydrangea” – I don’t know why – my garden is laden with them. And I could never remember the movie title Reversal of Fortune, though Jeremy Irons is one of my favourite actors. These were idiosyncracies like the compulsion to ensure that the toilet paper unspools from above instead of below.

But forgetfulness is not so funny anymore. We don’t speak of it, and if we dare to, it’s in hissing whispers like how we used to discuss which family had lice at school, cautioning our kids to give the afflicted a wide berth for at least a month. These days, when I’m with a friend who forgets a name or place, I maintain a smile but inwardly cheer for them to come up with the goods. I’m thankful that we’re mentally fit for another day if they do. I resist the urge to slap them on the back and yell, “good for you!” because that would indicate they’d done something incredible and heroic. If they can’t think of the word, a creeping sadness permeates my heart, and I have to beat it back with a change in attitude that requires either meditation, a dose of some unfortunate Pollyanna affirmation cards, or a nap. But we aren’t supposed to nap, have you heard? It’s a sign of Alzheimer’s, or maybe a cause. I don’t remember which. Either way, it’s not good news.

My mother died last fall from Parkinson’s disease. Dementia is a symptom, and she had it for years. While her memory of significant moments and the people in her life remained solid, she often struggled with finding the right words to express herself. As my mom never mastered the Internet, I became her Google, and she used me sparingly, not wanting to draw attention to her challenge. Instead, my beautiful mother would smile, maybe smack herself on the leg, and introduce a word or phrase in the vicinity of the one she really wanted. “I have a – handkerchief for some French fries,” she might say, or “Those things that keep the sun out of my room are a bit topsy-turvy.” Hankering. Blinds. Lopsided. She made it easy for me to understand her meaning, and her lapses never stopped the flow of our conversation. My mom had a caregiver named Thelma, and early on, that name proved difficult for her to remember. She began calling Thelma “shwarma.” She knew it was incorrect and hilarious and that we all realized who she meant anyway. I think Thelma felt honoured to have earned a nickname so early in their association, one that lasted until the end.

My mother was able to take the bounce and move on. She no longer gave a fig about how she appeared to others, nor did she need to worry about what her forgetfulness foretold. She’d already accepted that her recall had declined and focused instead on making herself understood and sharing insights with those she loved.

I love to write and to talk. Both require language, not necessarily erudite or fancy, but definitely, precise and perfect. I often thank the universe for using Thesaurus.com and chastise myself for needing it. Didn’t I use it 15 years ago, too? I don’t remember, but I think I did. Then, it was part of an ongoing quest to find the best word. What has changed? What do a few years older mean beyond an increased understanding of life and an unclouded self-awareness?

Regrettably, I have succumbed to medical Googling over the years, which should be banned. But, in my research, I have discovered a tiny gem called “age-associated memory impairment,” which can be categorized alongside annoyances such as achy joints and thunderous snoring. Being unable to access words or remember actors’ names is a regular part of aging. (Regular: routine, usual, typical, expected. Non-catastrophic.) I decided, therefore, to embrace the “forward movement of aging.” I no longer worry about its outcome, which is the same for us all.

And I won’t keep forgetfulness quiet as if it were a family shame. Instead, I’ll lampoon it with my friends, dismantling age-related memory loss with laughter and camaraderie. But mostly, I will try to emulate the mother I think about every day who showed me that connections matter infinitely more than vocabulary. The fact that she’s still teaching me is evidence of that truth.

Robin Stone lives in Toronto.

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