Collecting Thoughts on Memory by Elizabeth Templeman
In her segmented essay about her father’s last days, Elizabeth Templeman braids together what she remembers with what she’s forgotten. “Collecting Thoughts on Memory” takes on urgency because of her father’s Alzheimer’s and her fears about her future. “The awareness of forgetting is interesting—but slippery. If I pin down the intersection between remembering and forgetting, can I avert memory loss?” The “progression of things” she has “failed to remember” extends from the birth of her children to their adulthood, and includes numbers, names, chores, place names, birth dates and ages, pieces of her children’s lives. (See her author’s note on how the essay itself expanded over time.) Templeman closes her essay with a series of what Virginia Woolf would call “moments of being,” some as small as a “fleeting sensation,” impossible to grasp but indelible nonetheless, some as large as instances of connection to her father and son. Of a moment with her teenaged son when she remembered his babyhood, she says, “And yes, that memory was sweet, as was this moment. They converge to create a telescopic sensation, typical of memories. After becoming so accustomed to the state of forgetfulness, being so wholly able to remember—a state for which we seem to lack a word—is an indulgence.” —CRAFT
My father suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease.
“Suffered” isn’t quite accurate, though. Dad fell gently into the embrace of Alzheimer’s. During the years between the diagnosis and his death, only once did I see him frustrated by his inability to remember. That was the evening of a visit when he couldn’t remember how we wanted our steaks done. There were ten of us, so really, it was a lot to expect. But my father was a chef, and until his dying day he was dedicated to meals—to their planning and their preparation. Sometimes, as the Alzheimer’s took hold, his wife would return from work to find three different dinners in progress, her husband fretting at the freezer in their basement searching for ingredients for yet another.
My father was not a man of intellect, nor perceptiveness—or other traits easy to admire. But he was passionate about food—seafood and steaks, cream sauces and pies. In the face of Alzheimer’s, cooking gave him a sense of mastery and familiarity. For him, to forget how we wanted our steaks was frustrating, while forgetting what ages we were, or that he’d just told a story five minutes ago, seemed not at all troubling. On that occasion, our steaks were all cooked medium—his own preference.
In my selfish heart, I fear the Alzheimer’s. Will this be my father’s legacy to me? I resemble him in temperament, and other ways: I have his long, crooked fingers, the thick texture of his hair. Perhaps this too will be mine.
The day after I learned of my father’s diagnosis, I made an appointment with our family doctor to ask about what this might forecast for me. Hardly a selfless response, I know. But I was afraid.
My father was eighty-five. He didn’t seem afraid. He seldom ever seemed to grow stressed about things. He inhabited a world prescribed by simple parameters: sports, home, antiques, food. Maybe, to him, forgetting felt like less of a risk. As for me, I sensed myself skidding along a fast track of memory loss, and with so much at stake: teaching, reading, writing… Already, the gift of memory felt precious, and precarious.
During my father’s last few years, one story he’d tell upset me greatly. He’d tell it over and over, though I never heard the same version twice. While the context shifted to fit whichever person or year or neighbourhood came to him, the plot never changed. It went like this: There’s this decent and hard-working man who enjoys his drink. He’s harmless and good humoured, even when drunk. One day his wife finds his stash and smashes the bottle, spilling all the whiskey down the drain.
My father invariably became outraged by his own story, despite the decades that had lapsed since any particular version had happened. In one rendition, the couple were my maternal grandparents. It so happens that my grandfather was a drunk—sometimes, hushed stories suggested, a violent one. My father cast his story with many different couples: some whose names I remembered well, or vaguely; others meant nothing to me. The story was never about him and my mother, but I could sense how his righteous indignation swept her into its wake.
The mere repetition offended me. That, and the unfailing sympathy for this mythical man. To me, it’s the story of how my father blamed women—with their silly need for stability—for all the grief these poor sods suffered. I wanted to scream: Don’t you recognize that I am a woman? How can you assume your feelings will be my feelings? How do you reconcile the joy of a stupid drunk with the hardship of a family neglected or abused?
I never said a word.
Years ago, my father’s careless and weak ways—products, likely, of whatever his own sketchy past had wrought—left our family humiliated and penniless, again and again. This man had caused incomparable grief for my mother, and been stunningly irresponsible as a father. And then he got a second chance with a new family. My feelings about this are muddled. I’m fond of his second wife. She became a friend and a wonderful grandmother, and was devoted to my dad. I’m also fond of their two sons, although when they were kids, I resented their comfortable childhood. I don’t remember my father ever noticing.
As for me, here is a progression of things I have failed to remember:
For a time after our older son Andrew was born, I could no longer carry out mathematical computations in my mind. When we’d traversed the continent years ago, I prided myself on the ability to do mental calculations: kilometres to miles, litres to gallons, Canadian currency to American. Now it takes a fierce concentration—nearly brings on a headache—to hold a pair of two-digit figures in my head long enough to compute their sum.
After James, our third child, was born, a new challenge: I could no longer remember the colour of my towel. They were over-sized bath towels—my husband’s pale green and mine, blue—hanging in our furnace room. At first I simply refused to acknowledge this startling deficiency. I’d wait to catch my husband’s towel damp, and try to relearn. It was embarrassing, finally, to admit that I couldn’t learn how to anchor this simple fact (green, his; blue, mine) in my brain. I could only ask, or guess. It was as though the receptacle for storing the significance of colour had been sealed. Or the code for blue and green had vanished.
What was certain was how giving birth marked chunks of loss; how hormones tapped memory.
My memory for colour association did, eventually, return. (I can’t, of course, remember when.) Years later, our towels were thicker, and both the same dark green. They hung on two rods, mine toward the front—and I never seemed to confuse that fact. But I am keenly aware of how such realms of awareness can be lost, reducing a person to a dismaying state of humility.
For all his many faults, my father was an easy-going man—even through his dementia. A blessing for those around him. What they had to bear were the repeated stories. His mind tended toward them as water runs toward the well-worn rut in an open field.
On our visit in the year he was diagnosed, a story he kept rediscovering was about a trip to Nova Scotia when he’d cooked on a fishing boat. He’d tell how he bought kilts for my sisters, and a tam for me. I might have been three. The blue-and-black tartan of those kilts is vivid. When they were handed down to me from my sisters, they felt special. I wore them often in grade school, clasped at the side by a pin kept in my jewelry box.
At the time of this visit, we were on a cross-country road trip, looping our way home from the Maritimes. At the mention of beach or boat, my father’s attention would be derailed anew by the happy resurgence of his story.
At first this scared me; it never ceased to unsettle me. I felt embarrassed for him as he relayed the same accounts. The kids would shift uneasily—glancing at us, or each other—unsure how to respond. Yet even the youngest, only seven, soon realized that my father was wholly oblivious to our discomfort, to the repetition, to our own stories even. My father would take joy in each turn of his memory, delighted to share.
The awareness of forgetting is interesting—but slippery. If I pin down the intersection between remembering and forgetting, can I avert memory loss? Coming to understand—both what gets forgotten, and how it’s reclaimed—may restore control. Like the sand-coloured ginkgo pills I swallow, it might do some good—and probably does no harm.
Sometimes I lose names. On trips to Vancouver, I’ve had trouble conjuring up the name Urban Fare, an upscale market in Yaletown that has a wonderful array of bread, cheeses, spices. When I try to pull up the name, my mind formulates a square. (Because square rhymes with Fare?) My husband has a black T-shirt with Urban Fare written in a white block (the square?). I try to visualize the T-shirt and read the words on its front, but that seldom works. My next trick is one I’ve relied on for years: to work my way through the alphabet, until a word snaps into focus, pulled forth by its first letter.
Another name I’d forget caused more problems: Brittany, Andrew’s girlfriend for a time. Her name inexplicably morphed into Tiffany. Although the kids are generally indulgent about my vagueness, Andrew took offense to this lapse. Why was this such a source of irritation? Did he equate my forgetfulness with a lack of respect for his love life? But my son was young, with lots to learn about forgetting and about vulnerability, and one’s maddening lack of control over either.
Along with some place names, locations also seem to be vanishing. I have trouble with small towns, lately, and particularly with those located on an east-west axis from home. I lose track of Clinton, Chase, Cache Creek. They slip from mind, skidding free of position. I also lose the relative positions of the seasons, sometimes frantically searching for a reminder to situate myself (February: Christmas has passed; school’s underway; the weather’s cold), before I utter something ridiculously inappropriate to the context everyone else so blithely grasps, with not even a second thought.
On my last visit to see my father, he was hooked up to an oxygen tank. Tilted back in his leather recliner, he sat for hours, facing the television, wrapped in a fleece blanket decorated with footballs and team logos. The television was, as usual, on. Mostly, he gazed out the window, or at a photograph of him and his wife, and their boys with wives and children.
The photograph captures his second family. I am from the first. He sometimes had trouble keeping track of all this. Most of the time he had me positioned in the first family. What he couldn’t keep straight was whether I was a kid, or an adult. When I’d enter his den, he would invariably ask how “the others” were doing, when I’d last seen them. The second question led me to know that the others, in this case, were my four siblings. When he asked, his regret was palpable, and I knew he meant to convey his longing to see them.
I could never identify the trigger that would shift him to the other, more recent reality of my life, but within seconds he’d have negotiated that shift and his questioning would follow the tack of my current life: How was my husband doing? The kids? Then the protest about how long since he’d seen them: when would we all visit? I’d answer either set of questions, despite having answered them not an hour ago. I’d feel my impatience surge, mounting to fury that this man would not face the fact of his own mortality; that there would be no time for more visits. He’d puff unevenly through the oxygen tube, fussing with the connector that fit into his nostrils, and still he did not recognize that I had come to say goodbye. That he would not see my husband or children again. That they were half a continent away, missing me while I was here.
My irritability would subside, trailing guilt in its path. His repeated questions left me so weary. Once I caught myself slinking past his doorway, to spare us a round.
One morning he detoured while making his arduous way toward the bathroom—leaning onto his walker, oxygen tank in tow—and came up behind the computer desk where I sat reading my email. He sighed and said that he never could understand “all the fuss.” “All this computing” he supposed he’d need to learn. I wanted to roar: You are dying! There will be no learning computers.
But I said nothing, and wondered at my smouldering anger.
When our family vacation folder outgrew its space on the bookshelf, I bundled all its maps and articles into a fat binder and put it in the file drawer of my desk. I made a concerted effort to memorize its location; yet the mnemonic failed. By accident, I discovered what I’d given up for lost, searching for a pencil which had dropped into the drawer: a discovery which might have been more pleasing had it been the tiniest bit intentional.
Sometimes I devise chants during my runs, threading through a sequence of chores to attend to at home (pick crab apples, pay bills, hang laundry, water plants, make salad dressing…). But I have no method for safeguarding what sticks and what won’t. The mundane tumbles with the essential, one thing summoning the next with a randomness that boggles my mind. Why can’t memory sort by significance, dropping smaller items first? But no. The weekend passes: work shirt neatly mended; four-thousand-dollar bill unpaid.
At other times, I will have something to contribute to a conversation: a reflection, cogent and compelling; the perfect complement to another story, and just right for this moment. But wait: The access to my story has vanished. If only I could locate the date or place or book title through which it would connect to this conversation. Instead, I lose the thread of the conversation and chase the shape of the idea which has eluded me. Even if I could track it down, I’d look the fool for slogging back up the channel to where my story could flow. Instead, I’m grounded on my private sandbar of dislocation.
Most sobering is realizing that I’ve forgotten fragments of our kids’ lives. One child had nightmares about the school bus. Was that James? Two kids love canned pineapple. Which one doesn’t? Nicole tells about the schoolyard collision which caused her first nose bleed, and it’s a totally new fact to me.
I struggle mightily with birth dates and ages. Age changes every year, so there’s logic to the challenge. Birthdays should be easier. May, Nicole’s month, stays in mind; so why would July (Andrew’s) get twisted up with August (nobody’s)? And why, if eight arrives on cue, does twenty-one resist? For James, I remember with absolute confidence that he was due September twenty-eighth. That he was born on the thirtieth seems harder to retain, which is perplexing.
Once upon a time I was regarded as bright. I have considered myself intellectual, and am aware that—for better or worse—I pass more time absorbed by my thoughts than immersed in the rush and tumble of life. The difference is that I used to be able to demonstrate that I was a person of intellect. Now, if it’s even true, it’s private. I know that I have an abundance of curiosity, and some imagination. But I’m not so sure that intellect thrives without memory to nourish it. My mind feels like a tangle of images, phrases, vaguely formulated ideas—most of which are impossible to articulate without more time and focus than social interaction permits. This makes me want to weep—or sometimes, perversely, to laugh.
On that final trip to see my father, something extraordinary happened. Certainly, I never expected or even dared hope for such a thing. He and I shared two moments of genuine connection.
The evening before I was to leave, he started talking about his relationship with my mother, a topic from which I’d always try to divert either of them, to stem the inevitable tide of bitterness. But this was different.
Rather than embarking on one of the usual rants, he faltered, looking baffled, and said, “I don’t know what went wrong between your mother and me. Somehow we got off track.” Though I can’t imagine that my mother would ever have described their relationship as on track—and despite his disregard for the magnitude of the eruption—I was grateful. For the briefest moment, he admitted that he and my mother once shared something real and good between them, and that (I could be stretching here) he may have borne a share in the responsibility for its downfall. This was so far from adequately capturing the extent of his failings, and yet as close as I’d ever seen him to contemplating the reality of our family’s unravelling.
The second moment that passed between us was before dawn the next morning. I was ready to leave for the airport. My father was still asleep and I was reluctant to wake him. He looked so frail on the couch, oxygen at his side: a shrunken and greyer version of the father I’d always known. And I didn’t want to navigate again through the looping series of questions that would only remind me how soon he’d forget I had been there, or indeed, who I even was.
But I did awaken him. It was as though he woke before the Alzheimer’s could fog his mind. His eyes shone with tears, and he told me that he knew he wouldn’t see me again. He thanked me for coming and told me he felt well loved, and then fell back into sleep. I knew he probably would not remember this crystalline moment, but that didn’t seem to matter.
My father has a peculiar place in my heart. I know he loved me. I also know he never knew me, and never came to know our kids. Andrew, the middle child, always felt an attachment to his grandpa. Just after he died, Andrew found a photo and frame, and propped his grandfather’s picture on his bureau. Discovering it brought tears to my eyes. The only other tears I shed was when I told our youngest, and we both cried. My emotional connection with my father seems to circuit through my own children. What do I make of this?
There is a moment barely two years after his death that I remember, and hold dear. This was rare: a day spent at home, one child and me alone, variously engaged. Andrew had just graduated from high school, and was preparing for a move to Alberta to find work in the oil patch (a move that thrilled him, while terrifying us). Wading through an accumulation of stuff in his room, he had discovered his baby book.
He found me at the ironing board and read me the phrases that had caught his attention: Woke up on his sixth day and cried for twelve straight weeks… and Such long fingers and toes!
“This is sweet!” he exclaimed, laughing. While I knew that “sweet” signified something different to him, it felt good he was touched by this condensed record of his infancy.
And yes, that memory was sweet, as was this moment. They converge to create a telescopic sensation, typical of memories. After becoming so accustomed to the state of forgetfulness, being so wholly able to remember—a state for which we seem to lack a word—is an indulgence.
Click: It’s eighteen years ago. The image of that baby in my arms is as real as the sight of this lanky, long-haired, broad-shouldered boy in front of me. If memory didn’t lapse, then maybe the sweetness of these moments would be so much diminished. And yet…
The summer after my dad died, I read Bill Bryson’s book, A Short History of Nearly Everything. I loved it: read greedily, wholly enthralled, delighting in Bryson’s far-ranging curiosity, his humour, his zeal for all that is quirky. Yet I knew, even as I made my way through successive chapters, that I was losing the rich detail of chapters that came before. Surely I would distil something of value to keep hold of, but I could neither anticipate, nor control, what it might be.
It’s been years now. I don’t forget the pleasure of reading this book. I remember the broad sweep of Bryson’s perspective; that life is precarious and the universe amazing, and that we are probably never going to be capable of comprehending its magnitude or essence. Sometimes, a single fact will surface—a random detail about a bug or fish or cloud formations.
Once, on a southbound flight from Calgary, the pilot announced that we could glimpse Yellowstone National Park from the left of the plane. His announcement prompted this crushing sense of doom, which arose from some residual shred of memory from Bryson’s book. A spasm of fear, with no attendant context, left as suddenly as it had come. And this fleeting sensation, against all odds, I remember.
ELIZABETH TEMPLEMAN lives, writes, and works in the Central Interior of British Columbia. A collection of her essays, Notes from the Interior, was published in 2003 by Oolichan Books; individual essays have appeared in The Globe & Mail, and in anthologies and journals including Room Magazine and Eastern Iowa Review.
Featured image by Kevin Martinez courtesy of Unsplash