Three years ago, David’s father began showing signs of forgetfulness, beyond just losing keys or not being able to recall the name of new acquaintances. More significant, cognitive issues manifested when he was trying to find where his car was parked and then, worse, losing his focus and forgetting that he was searching for his car in the first place.
On another occasion soon after, David’s father went to the store but could not find his way back home. It was this incident that captured David’s full attention, setting him on a new path with his father whose increasing difficulties with memory continued. And as his father’s power of memory decreased, the demands to understand forgetfulness grew.
A colleague in education, David has always loved research and scholarship. So he was determined to find out more about forgetfulness and aging. But what David soon discovered was that the science of memory was much less important than the experience of his father’s forgetfulness. David’s relationship with his father developed into an intimacy of care and co-dependency, words often associated with disease and disorder in our culture. In this life-changing process, David began to question our society’s obsession with memory. He came to realize that memory was central to being normal in our society, and a sharp memory was key to being successful.
So David’s deepening experience with his father unexpectedly led him to question why memory loss seemed so threatening in our society. David realized that his own concern for his father was not just about his father; it was also about how David himself was viewed in society. To be forgetful could cost a person a job or a raise, a house or a car, a friendship or a marriage. Forgetfulness had terrifying potentials in a highly organized modern society where lapses in judgment could be costly in medicine or engineering, where forgetting could lead to fatal accidents in the air or on the road.
David knew that memory made his father vulnerable. The feeling of vulnerability was new for David at that time. He had not felt that way since he was a child. So as he grew ever more empathetic for his father, David felt more vulnerable himself. I recall David explaining to me that as his father declined in memory, his father relied on him more. His father was losing his individuality in our society. David realized that individuality seemed tightly linked to good memory skills. So did independence. He would say to me, “Just look how we measure achievement, using memory tests in school and memory tasks at work.”
As with most people, David experienced minor memory lapses himself. But the difference between himself and his father was that David could recover quickly. David could ask someone else for details he’d forgotten, check his notes, look it up online, or even try associating one thing to another to jog his memory. Because David’s memory was more easily recoverable compared to his father’s, it became apparent to David that recoverable memory was as prized in our society as not forgetting at all.
David once talked with me about recoverable memory. He noticed that we had hundreds of technologies devoted to recovering memory. There were so many devices that would allow us to forget, to go on autopilot. We had computers for information storage, social media for lost connections and special day reminders, and radio-frequency finders for locating wallets, purses, and keys. We even had Orwellian-styled subcutaneous microchips for geographically locating and retrieving loved ones suffering from Alzheimer’s.
On a broader scale, we had programing technologies for automated manufacturing and farming, even regimented ways established for healing and retiring. David understood that such organized and high-tech methods could enhance memory artificially and connect us to information, places, and people. And certainly there were rewards for artificially expanding and improving our memory skills.
But what David also realized was that as a result we marginalized persons with poor memory. And as those with poor memory behavior became marginalized, we were missing something valuable in humanity. In fact, in his own experience with his father, David began to accept unrecoverable memory as not so bad. Indeed, forgetting could be a way to be in the here and now. Admittedly, David thought this idea sounded a bit too “new age” for him, but he was feeling transformed by entering into a world in which, by the end of his father’s life, his father seemed always to be meeting David for the first time.
As David’s expectations for possessing a strong memory changed, he admitted that forgetfulness had become a close friend, as it was a “sometimes friend” in one form or another for everyone. Perhaps the most obvious anaology for David was sleep, which could bring a pleasant sort of forgetfulness to push away the day’s troubles, hence to refresh for the next day. Certainly, sometimes sleep provides special respite from troubles. Shakespeare’s Macbeth, suffering from insomnia because he can never forgive himself for killing the king, cries out for “innocent sleep,” the “death of each day’s life.”
In Greek mythology, death as final sleep is represented by one of the five rivers of the underworld—Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, which runs through the cave of Hypnos (the god of sleep). Bound by time and space, sleep rushes us away from both. For Shakespeare’s Henry IV who develops insomnia because of his weighty responsibilities as king of England, sleep is pictured as “Nature’s soft nurse” who can “steep” the king’s “senses in forgetfulness.”
Unwisely, our medical establishment sometimes diagnoses forgetfulness as part of a disorder, as in identifying someone with dementia. But memory loss itself does not indicate dementia, which represents various other symptoms as well. Another word for dementia is senility, a synonym we are less likely to hear in conversation when describing this disorder. The distinction between these words is ironic given that in the Oxford English Dictionary the term dementia denotes insanity whereas the word senility denotes old age. For David, dementia seemed an unfair way to describe his father. Dementia sounded like demented, which means out of one’s mind.
David researched the terms. He found that senility and its adjective form senile are not used to the degree that dementia is today. One way to see this difference in use is to look at the frequency dementia, senility, and senile appear in more than 155 billion books found in Google Books. By using Google Ngram, David could easily track the word frequencies of these three terms in books published in English between years 1960 and 2000. Over those forty years, much has changed with the use of these words—dementia grew in frequency until by 2000 it appeared 8 times more frequently than senile and 19 times more frequently than senility. But in 1960, dementia occurred only 2 times more frequently than senility, and senile occurred 1.5 times more frequently than dementia. This soaring increase in use of dementia over the past 50 years is telling – a term many immediately associate with memory loss.
For David’s father, his physician’s diagnosis of dementia could never sum up what David’s relationship was with his father. The power of intimacy had grown in ways untold because of forgetfulness. Their relationship was not about dementia at all. It was about love—which forgives and forgets each day.
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