Monday, June 18, 2012

Hamburgers or Pancakes?

At dinner Saturday night, I offered my sister-in-law a spoon. "Eat the apples," I said as I pointed to the broth in her bowl of steamed clams."They're really good with the onions."

My brother stared at me. "What did you say?"

"Tomatoes. I mean the tomatoes. They're really good." I said trying to cover my mistake.

"Do you do that a lot?" he asked.

"More often than I'd like," I said. "I can't help wondering if Mom knew when she was beginning to lose words."

"You could get the test," my sister-in-law said.

Would knowing that I was cursed with my mother's dementia help me face the inevitable? Or perhaps the odd substitution of words that slips from my lips now and again can be chalked up to stress, age, hormones, or any of a variety of causes we tossed over the Formica table top the other night.

If it weren't for another linguistic swap that has entertained my husband and daughter for years, I'd be terrified. I've used the words hamburger and pancake interchangeably for as long as I can remember. Is it because of their similar round, flat shape? The way they both fill a skillet by threes or fours? Or could it be that my childhood fondness of hamburger dinners and pancake breakfasts around the big kitchen table muddle the two words? Maybe that loose language conduit has existed for years and simply shorts now and again to taunt me.

What is memory? As my daughter and her boyfriend began planning their first European adventure and worried about how they were going to pay for it, I encouraged them to make the trip, to gather experiences and memories, regardless of cost. They'd be returning to jobs, they'd be frugal, they'd figure out how to pay it off. Gather the memories and hold them tight, I urged. In the end it's those remembered experiences that make us who we are.

So who are we when our memories are gone? Who do we become when we no longer remember our own names or those of the people we once cherished? Who is my mother now as she wastes away in a wheelchair, her memory a blank?

As my daughter wanders the streets of Dublin today is she walking the same path that my mother and father walked decades earlier and in some way recreating the memories that my mother no longer holds? What memories do the streets of Dublin hold? Do they remember the footsteps of my daughter's ancestors? Is she innocently exploring streets that her grandfather's grandfather once struggled to escape? I don't know the stories and cannot pass on those memories, that family history, to my daughter, a girl named Erin to honor her unknown ancestors. In the void of family history, my daughter builds her own memories and history.

As I sat surrounded by cobalt walls in the fish market restaurant confusing the words apple and tomato - both round, red fruits enjoyed either raw or cooked - I thought about memory and dementia, time and relationships, life experience and family history. I wondered, as I often wonder, if I will know when to end my own life before I suffer the fate that my mother now suffers, the fate of losing all memory of life and love. And if I am able to recognize the clues, will I have the strength to avoid the inevitable?

As Erin gathers memories on the streets of Dublin, I hope she buries them safe where they can never be stolen.