David Bouchier: Speak, Memory

Mar 13, 2017

Yesterday morning I almost forgot to spring the clocks forward. Not that it would have mattered. My life is not so busy that an hour added or taken away would make much difference and, in any case, time pays no attention to clocks. Time just keeps ticking on relentlessly at the same pace, no matter what we do.

But forgetting about the time change made me wonder whether my memory might not be what it once was. When little things like this happen most of us more senior folks begin to worry about memory loss. It gets so much publicity these days, and has daunting medical names like dementia, Alzheimer’s, amnesia, and cognitive impairment.

It happens to just about everybody, and always did. But in the past it was treated with more kindly indulgence and less medical language. I have been forgetful all my life. My mother used to say: “He’ll forget his head next!” I was constantly accused of being “absent minded,” which seemed to me more like a compliment than an insult. An absent mind is obviously dwelling on higher things, not trivia like remembering to wear matching socks, or any socks at all. Another reproach that often came my way, especially from school teachers, was “wool gathering” with the implication that I was daydreaming about sheep, or perhaps about knitting.  Where’s the harm in that?

As we grow older we have more to think about, and a lifetime of people and experiences to remember. It gets harder and harder to manage the mental filing system. When you think how many things can happen in a single day, and then imagine the accumulation of things over a whole lifetime, it’s a miracle that we can hold on to any memories at all.

Some exceptional people do have the gift of total recall. I just re-read Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography Speak, Memory, and the descriptions of his early life in pre-revolutionary Russia are so detailed, so real, and so sparkling fresh that it’s almost like being in that world and living his life in real time.

I would love to have that gift, but I don’t, and I can live with that. If I forget what day it is, or the name of Johann Sebastian Bach’s second wife it’s not the end of the world, I can always look those things up. So I don’t waste time worrying about dementia, Alzheimer’s, amnesia, or cognitive impairment. I’m just a bit absent minded, that’s all, like most of the people I know.

The time to worry is when the thing you want to remember is important, and even urgent, like trying to recapture a telephone number that you keep on hearing, that echoes in your dreams, that you want to call right away – but that has temporarily slipped your mind. At moments like this, when memory really matters, a little gentle prompting may be necessary. Here it is: 1-800-777-9748. Call now, before you forget.

Copyright: David Bouchier