The Geometry of Memory

Posted March 23rd, 2012 by Candice

Tom (not his real name) spoke to me first.  “Good morning.”  My husband and I had just finished breakfast at our favorite family restaurant and he had gone up to pay the check.  We’d seen the older gentleman sitting at his usual table on previous visits.  On this particular morning, he’d been seated across from us. 

“Good morning,” he said again.  I glanced up from digging in my purse and answered, inanely, “Good morning.  I have allergies.”   “Oh, that’s too bad,” he said.

His eyes were very blue and clear.  I guessed him to be in his early 80s.  Something about the set of his mouth and his earnestness put me in mind of my husband’s father.  I stopped rooting in my purse and gave him my full attention.  He spoke with a slight stammer, choosing his words thoughtfully, his speech lacking the flat, careless accent of native Virginians. 

He always came in the restaurant alone, always dressed neatly–button-down shirts, pressed slacks, light jackets.  Up close, I noticed he knocked his knees together, a tic of some sort.  My husband said later he believed Tom had “been somebody.”  Tom wore the aura of someone who once carried a tightly-furled umbrella and practiced moment generating function in his work.

The next time we saw Tom at the restaurant, we were eating supper.  Tom came in and asked the waitresses if they’d found his coat, he’d lost it.  No one had.  He left, upset.  The next morning, he arrived while we were eating breakfast [Yes, I do cook!  My husband’s appetite is still poor from surgeries and his weight is low.  If he has a craving for something, we go out.]   I heard Tom ask the waitress what the date was.  He studied the menu intently, though it hasn’t changed in the 15 years we’ve frequented this place, as if he were going to be tested.

We met Tom at the cash register.  I introduced myself and my husband.  Tom responded politely, but appeared vague.  In the parking lot, we saw him standing by his car.  He came toward us and asked us what day it was.  His fingers fretted with his keys.  I realized then Tom had probably had a mild stroke.   He got in his car and drove off.  A corner of my heart tagged after him.

The rest of the day I thought about Tom and how he managed.  His world was a sphere of familiarity, I imagined.  The restaurant, possibly church, the grocery store.  I suspected he operated fine within its circumferance, but sometimes life poked through its pliable sides and let in chaos. 

Tom’s house could be plastered with calendars, but if he didn’t look at them, they didn’t exist.  He could X out each day on every calendar, but the second he turned away, he’d forget.  Did he just X out the day?  Was it still that day?  His hand holding the pen would tremble.

I know a few things about stroke-related dementia.  It can creep up slowly, as it did with my grandmother, ending in electroshock treatments that left her sealed in a globe of silence.  Or it can hit like a locomotive, as it has with my aunt, shoving her into a shapeless place of hallucinations and jagged agitation.

I know a few things about memory loss, too.  At one time, calendars papered the walls of my office and a huge dry-erase board loomed behind my computer monitor, yet I still went to appointments a week early (driving 200 miles to one).  I bought a perpetual calendar, believing the physical act of changing the number blocks would cement the date into my head.  But when I came back into the room, I’d wonder if I’d already changed the blocks or if that was yesterday’s date.

Eventually, I learned to deal with my memory problems.  I threw out that bully of a dry-erase board.  I have one calendar that I often forget to look at.  I keep a running list of projects and appointments on my desk and carry to-do lists on days I have a lot of errands.  I stopped pressuring myself to remember and order restored itself in our house, like water seeking its natural level.

When the boundaries of your sphere of familiarity become elastic and unreliable, you patch it as best you can.  But you may still need help.  When I see Tom from now on, I’ll speak to him first and reintroduce myself.  I’ll ask him what his plans are for the day and slip the date in if I sense a hint of fogginess.  Then I’ll let him get back to the comforting round shape of his eggs, fried over medium, before they get cold. 




4 Responses to “The Geometry of Memory”

  1. Melissa G says:

    Memory loss is heart breaking. Our memories are part of what makes us who we are. When we lose that what have we left within ourselves?
    That is very nice what you plan to do for Tom. It is something that most people wouldn’t stop to do.

    • Candice says:

      I think I’m finally growing up, seeing what I can do for others instead of always hanging back and observing. Autobiographical memory remains for a good while (events from our past) but the day-to-day stuff is what defeats these people.

  2. Melodye says:

    Memory is a mysterious, powerful thing–so much depends on the memories we’re able to hold on to, as well as the things that slip beyond our reach. Thank goodness Tom has you in his life, a touchstone more valuable than any calendar could ever be.

  3. Candice says:

    I only see Tom once in a while, but he knows me now, at least. I think it’s more tragic to lose our autobiographical memories–we can always get through the day somehow without knowing what the date is–but our past defines who we *are*.

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