Eerie Halloween
Stuff I Didn't Expect When I Became a Librarian:

On Memory

Today, I read three different reviews about Nora Ephron's new book I Remember Nothing. Probably the title jumped out at me because when I read it I thought "me too!" I'm not exactly sure when it happened, but somehow my memory is shot. Like...I'll ask Jake literally six times in four hours if he has any homework. Or I completely forget appointments even when I think about them two hours before. Names flow through me like water drained from pasta; I'll remember reading a book but not the title, or seeing a movie but now what that actor's name is in real life. Last weekend I sat through almost all of the first part of The Two Towerstrying to remember Legolas's real name. I finally just had to google it. (Orlando Bloom, my apologies.)

Considering my dad's condition, this memory thing freaks me out. I think I would rather experience almost anything other than Alzheimer's. Anything. I'm not sure there is one single disease I fear more than it, unless it's a brain tumor or...anything else that would leave me sitting silent in a chair, having forgotten everything.

What am I without memory?

Those who don't remember the past are doomed to repeat it, so the saying goes. I say: those who forget their history are simply doomed. Doomed to a shell of self, to a half-life, to a mindless ache. There is already so much I have forgotten and so much more I don't want to. Consider, for example, this post that Becky wrote about our Grandma Elsie. The details she remembers about her house are so vivid and precise—I am grateful she wrote them down because I had forgotten. In my mind, her formal living room is simply white: carpet, chairs, couch, walls; a blank mirror in a silver frame. Her kitchen table has intertwined itself with my other grandma's table; I know that yellow Formica belongs somewhere else but I cannot remember Elsie's table in its place. I remember the dark yawn of her cement basement and the afternoon I spent sipping nectar out of her overgrown periwinkle bed. But not much else.

And that's just the far-away memory. What about the closer ones, like exactly how it felt to be newly married and without any kids, or the day I brought home Haley and became a mother. What did I learn during my days at college, and which Theodore Dreiser novel did I read, Sister Carrie or An American Tragedy? What were the details of that messy break-up I had at 18, and how did I get the enormous bruise on my right thigh?

I don't remember.

I have this sneaky feeling, though, that my memory issues are somehow connected to my not-feeling-anything, locking-out-the-world thing. Because, here's a confession: I hardly even pray anymore. It's too much—I don't want to feel anything. I think the not-feeling thing is severing the remembering thing. I know I am wired to be emotional—overly emotional, in fact. This is as much a part of me as my turning-grey hair and ability to stand on my toe knuckles. Valuing memory is, too. Of course I am constructed by the people and things that surround me, the tasks I do, the clothes I wear. But the things I experienced yesterday and in 1990 and five years ago constructed me, too, and I cannot bear the thought of losing their memory. I cannot bear to open up my heart to feeling and yet its is withering from lack of remembering.

And how strange is it, what we remember and forget? I can, for example, recite the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish, something I learned in eighth grade, but I can't remember if I ever mailed my American Express bill last month; there are snippets of poems in my brain ("The way you say the world is what you get" for example, and "I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief" and "a woman like that is not a woman quite") but I can't recall exactly how it felt to write a poem.

Perhaps those who fear losing their memory are doomed to do just that. Perhaps my doom is coming fast toward me, a devastation caused by something I forgot I'd done. Perhaps it is sympathetic Alzheimer's and will clear up eventually. I don't know—but I am fearful. I'm afraid I will forget to be fearful, and then it will all rush away, every cherished and happy and awful and horrid and sweet and everyday and amazing moment will sink, leaving only dimples in the path leading to my grave.

          ~ Billy Collins

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart



I like the poem. "Whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall..."

Becky K

I am there with you on all points. I think that our fear is making it more real that it is/needs to be. But how do you not fear losing your life? Impossible.

And see: you remember things I don't, because I forgot all the cat calendars in grandma's house. Together we can piece it all together. :)


Thank you for sharing another Billy Collins poem - this another fantastic one that captures so much, so well.

With two aunts with Alzheimers, I'm with you in the fear of this disease. Awful.


Hello Amy,

I found your blog via your free class at BPS, the Big Idea Festival. My dad has Alzheimer's. He's 85 and has deteriorated greatly since Christmas, when he was hospitalized for aggressive behaviour. Now is waiting for long-term care, and his doctor is cooking up drug cocktails to cure his aggression. sigh. Anyway, I've read a few of your posts about Alzheimer's and this one really spoke to me because of how you expressed being fearful about forgetting, as if you too are on the journey called "Alzheimer's". I used to fear this, but now I don't. I guess I've realized that my dad lived a very full life until he was about 80, and then the dementia slowly began to take over. I figure 80 is pretty good, and even now when I forget things, I realize there's nothing to worry about. We all forget things as we age...especially when we're stressed, or we have to look after our family and everyone is going in all directions at once. I've made peace with Alzheimer's and decided not to sacrifice my energy by worrying about it. I definitely don't welcome it into my life, but I don't fear it anymore. I hope that some day soon you will be at peace knowing that you are making wonderful memories everyday with your loved ones and your dad's spirit lives on in your hearts. Take care...

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