Where once my tasks were multiple, and I fielded them with ease and—some might agree—skill, I’ve now boiled down to single tracks, from which I veer unconsciously, losing track, having to go back to the start and repeat myself. Or, to keep myself rolling towards the initial goal, I produce sentences like that last one, and this, like a puppy, giddy with love and the constrained freedom of the beloved, running all over a hillside or a beach, circling the main path on which her focus walks, creating virtuous, virtual circles, like a Venn diagram of love.

Trying to catch a thought, embedding it, tasting and savouring enough to identify a thread and write about it, write it down, is difficult with a Teflon mind. Everything slides away.

I have been ploughing through my tax return, labelling thousands of lines on a spreadsheet as this kind of work, that kind of work, travel, personal, cash. An odd way to look at a life. It’s not even about the numbers, more deciding what’s in and what’s out, for each category… pulling apart experiences that were whole, mincing them into finer, less identifiable and less arguable pieces. It doesn’t help form any mental continuity, other than getting through it and reaching the end.

This morning, I slept long and deep. Now, I am cleaning… a single idea like a beacon hovering in front of me, a simple set of criteria—learned from my grandmother, mother, TV shows and endless repetition—making sense and coherence of the chaos, dust and laundry. I think it is helping.


Daily blips

There are about hundred things to remember in my job, things that have to be done in sequence, from start to finish, during the trajectory of the day. Picking stuff up, taking it to a specific place, using a specific route, with a specific key and bar code scanner… travelling the same route several times, with specific variations, arriving at the same checkpoints at the same time every day. And every day, I forget something. A different thing every day.

If the forgotten thing was consistent, it could be that I had a block about that thing – timing, keys, routes, sign-off sheets, whatever. Different every day suggests the glitch, is in me. A lacuna in my mind.

I don’t want to make more of this than necessary. Everyone forgets. But does everyone who once remembered many hundreds of detailed activities, in order, forget routine, obvious and necessary things, randomly?

Mum is forgetting

My mother has finally said – out loud – that something is wrong. On the phone today she told me she got confused, and knew that her forgetting wasn’t the ordinary kind. I have known it for nearly a year, pricked into considering it when she told the doctor my father had dementia and made him go to the hospital for tests.

Their doctor also tested Dad with comprehension and spelling questions. He’s dyslexic, undiagnosed in his youth, had to develop strategies for any kind of spellings. When asked to spell “would” backwards, he put an “r” in every time. R comes before D in words like those, he said. The doctor worked it out, and came back with clear results from all the tests – nothing’s wrong, you’re fine, and your memory is pretty good for a man in his 80s. Mum was disappointed. If the problem wasn’t with him, it might then be hers.

When they’d described the problems they’d had – things that had been forgotten, appointments missed, names confused – it was obvious to me that the common denominator was Mum. She had been unusually fractious when anything went wrong. Her normal need for complete control was challenged by her forgetfulness and confusion, making her angry and bewildered. How frustrating: to be in charge all your life, then lose it. No-one really knew what was happening, and those – like my Dad – who usually went along with Mum’s queening carried on as if she was still in control… which made her feel more anxious, I think.

She knows that not being in charge isn’t how she wants to live. At this stage of life, having never adapted to anyone else’s leadership or wishes, she is realising that the life she’s known will end. She doesn’t want a different kind of life. On the phone today she said she hadn’t long to live. I don’t think she means that she’ll die, more that the person she is, is disappearing, and will – sooner or later – stop.

She’s fairly healthy, though unfit, so her body may survive the loss of its familiar spirit. I wonder how long a physical human animal can go on being without knowing who it is?

Getting going

I have been running, at the gym. Not really running proper – no heaving weight from foot to foot, launching into air then landing heavily, crunching knees. I use the elliptical apparatus, so never leave the safe, circulatory pedals. No flights of flesh, no hard landings.

I remember running as a child, so light. Then, it felt like I could – if I tried just a little harder – leave the bounds of earth and zoom above the trees and houses. Now, I am leaden. I trundle and stagger like a hippopotamus. So, no – no actual running, at least until I am light enough to take flight for a single stride.

But ellipses suit me, it turns out: fluid, continuous, sinuous. Nothing left behind, the road (pedals, anyway) rising to meet me. I make an effort, of course, but it doesn’t hurt. To be recommended.

The first time, in early January, I set the clock for three minutes. I’d thought that was a ridiculously little time, but wanted the opportunity of deciding, later, to go on for another minute, then another. Three minutes turned out to be at my absolute limit. Halfway through I felt like giving up, my stomach rebelling. I kept going, and at the end of the time – panting, red lights flashing warnings about my heart rate – the machine offered another minute to “cool down”. I couldn’t face it, dismounted, and was nearly sick. The strain on my heart of this sudden effort, the unusual movement, the incapacity of my leg muscles, all combined to stop any further exercise. Slowly, and with care, I went unsteadily via the changing rooms into the steam bath, lay down, and pulled myself together again.

A few days later I tried again, then again every few days, upping the resistance, increasing the time. Now, in early March, I can run – elliptically – for twenty minutes without my heart rate going into the red, and without collapsing. Most days now I feel I could go on longer, but the gym asks people to limit their time to allow everyone a chance on the machines.

What has this to do with memory? I don’t know, but I feel less vacant, as if I meet fewer pockets of mental absence, as my body’s sense of integration and fitness to meet the world is increasing. I don’t think it’s a cure for memory loss, but running – even elliptically, without impact, without increasing muscle mass, not even losing much weight – is better than waiting to find out if sitting around is worse.

I remember you

When someone close dies, you forget about the world. All the things you thought were important become airless, transparent, pointless. Your memories of this person – your friend, your love, your sister, brother – come rolling in, taking over every thought.

Old memories seem so fresh, so real. Repeated use – to savour, to regret, sometimes simply for the pleasure of recall – has worn them in. They sit on you just right, like old overalls, paint-spattered, with pockets exactly where you want them.

Freshly dead, the one who is now gone hardly ever appears as they were yesterday, last week, or even a year ago. Freshness is applied to historical events like heightened colour and contrast. When were were… when we did… old times, like charms, are repeated, and grow stronger.

I keep you (in my heart).

Switching on

My first time locking up the office and I forgot to set the answering machine. I had a checklist in my head, and skipped that part – the pressing of a single button. It came to me in the pool (swimming backstroke, length seven) like a light being switched on. Absolute clarity, no dithering ‘did I forget?’. I knew I hadn’t done what I was supposed to.

It would be just my luck that someone needed to leave a message before the morning. In the next couple of lengths I thought about my two options.

  1. Leave it and take the consequences: further confirmation to colleagues of my absent mindedness. It’s possible that the boss has already checked – phoning in from home – and called in after hours to sort it out.
  2. Go in and press that button. It’s on the way home from the pool, and it’s unlikely that anyone would see me skulking around the building, even after nine o’clock.

I decided to go in and switch it on – it’s only one button, no need to put on the lights, won’t take a moment. I could see the journey in my mind, exactly where I’d park, how I’d light my path indoors with my mobile, the switch on the office phone.

Then, listening to a radio investigation into Alzheimer’s before bed, I realise I’m home and didn’t go anywhere near the office. The plan fell out of my head completely. Then it came back with – again – absolute clarity, hooked out the the mental abyss by association.

The man on the radio is talking about neural networks, dysfunctional neurons… genetic predisposition of amyloidal plaque leading to cognitive deficits, families losing someone beloved and never getting them back.

I am losing myself, losing the parts of me I want to keep, that make me me.

Senior moments

I’m pretty sure I forgot things at other times in my life. Like when we’d been told to “get thing things you need for the beach” and I had to swim in my pants and vest, ignored by the other children. Or when I forgot my homework three days running. Or forgot to go to work, having woken next to golden skin of the boy I’d dreamed about, but had never believed would even notice me.

But now, after a certain age, all my forgettings seem forebodings [there’s another word, saying something more about this feeling, that I can’t reach – is this a senior moment or simply what happens all the time, only made visible in the lens of trying to write?]. I follow the google trail and find:

Dread (noun)
A sudden take-off and flight of a flock of gulls or other birds:
‘flocks of wood sandpiper, often excitable, noisy, and given to dreads’

Is that it? It’s new to me, ‘dread’ in this sense. I like it, but it’s not the word hiding behind the furniture of my thinking – I’ll stay on the look-out for that.

But someone, years, even centuries, ago understood something about how it feels to have one’s certainty take flight.

It can feel, the thing I can’t remember, when I venture nearer, somehow temporarily dismantled and chaotic. I reach for it – and, in an instant, all its constituent parts  take flight, assembled loosely, murmuring beyond grasp (“a hum, muttering, rushing,” probably from a PIE reduplicative base *mor-mor, of imitative origin cf. Sanskritmurmurah “crackling fire”). It fees dreadful, a huge and fluttering loss that circles and fades, its impact diminishing. Which is soothing.

At least it ends in consolation and the optimism of Beckett: I can’t go on, I’ll go on…