Memory

I was interested to catch, on BBC Sounds recently, a programme made by William Miller about his father Jonathan.  (Radio 4, Archive on 4: Lost Memories).  Jonathan Miller was fascinated by the human brain and in particular the workings of memory.  It was a cruel irony that in the end his own brain was destroyed by Alzheimer’s.  Making the programme was clearly cathartic for his son, who was trying to come to a better understanding of his father’s life work.  And it was, of course, of particular interest to me as I watch my partner struggle with the same disease.

While listening to a talk on the Throssel website, I wrote down the following quote by Reverend Jishin. (These may not be her precise words). “We are inextricable from all that’s gone before. Our sense of being as an individual is based on that.  (…) There is no separated off and permanent me.”

And in the programme, William Miller says that ‘Memory is what makes us who we are.  Our memory of our lives is what ties us together.’  (I think he meant into a coherent personality.)

I think, until watching someone else struggle, I had not fully understood the enormity of this; that ‘There is then nothing more than this.’  Hearing quotes from a string of academics, I learned that memories do not in fact exist per se; that memory is a suite of different systems which our brain organises into recognisable recollections.  Memories themselves are processes or actions and have no separate existence in the brain.  The brain is constantly editing memory and this edited version becomes the story of our lives. And, of course, we have all experienced instances when even shared events will be remembered differently by different individuals, leaving us to ponder whether there can be such a thing as verifiable ‘reality.’

And so, with the loss of the sense of our own past, what is left?  The answer of course must be ‘nothing.’  The body will persist, maybe for quite a while, but that which made the recognisable person is no more.  What I think we do is to project onto that body our own memories of how the person used to be.  It is so hard really to comprehend and to accept that the person has ‘checked out’.

William Miller asked his mother, in an interview before his father died, whether she felt that she still had a relationship with him.  Her answer was that they did have a relationship. ‘He is able still to recognise me as someone who is different (from the carers).  But it is not a proper relationship.  It is not a meeting of minds in any way.’

That’s a good description.  Slowly the person, this unique collection of memories, recedes.  My partner remembers almost nothing of anything we have done over the five years that we have been together.  He still remembers a lot about life well before that and is therefore able to establish some sort of conversation with his family that he cannot do with me.  But what he does say, and this fits with what William Miller’s mother said, is that he remembers love and happiness, in the abstract, even if he can’t remember anything about the things we have done, places we have been, trips we have had.

And so I often remind myself of the famous Larkin poem “An Arundel Tomb’ whose much quoted last line ‘What will survive of us is love,’ offers some modicum of comfort.  Perhaps that awareness of love, however it is formed, is one of the last parts of the brain to disappear.

14 Replies to “Memory”

  1. I am so moved by your post, Chris. Partly (mostly) because I often think of you and your struggle, and as your friend (I hope) my heart goes out to you; partly because the memory of my mother, who had Alzheimers’ and who died in the summer of last year, is still very sharp in my mind; partly beacuse I have friends and family who currently have memory loss, and partly, I guess, that genetically, I am predisposed to suffer this fate, myself. A beautiful, honest and poignant piece of writing, which is full of truth and teaching. Thank you!
  2. Thank so much for posting this Chris. It must be a hugely difficult time for you both. I have not had any experience of Alzheimer’s in my family so it is hard for me to fully grasp what you are going through but my heart goes out to you. What you write is very helpful and has given me a much greater understanding of both the disease and what we are or are not as beings.
  3. Thank you for this very moving account of your relationship Chris. It must be really challenging for you both in extremely different ways. You, knowing the past life you shared together and realising possible future life together, while your dear partner does not recall and express the love you share in the same way. This is unimaginable and the grief (the result of deep love) great. You write with such clarity and truth, which as Charlie expresses above is a wonderful contribution to help others understand.
  4. Thank you for sharing these reflections Chris.

    Both my former teacher and a close friend developed dementia in the last couple of years before they passed away. Some weeks ago one of my friend’s father was admitted into a care home because of the rapid progression of his Alzheimers which made it increasingly dangerous for him to live at home with his partner.

    Both in the case of my teacher and of my friend, there was/is sadness about the fact that at some point they could not remember much about our shared past. That feeling of sadness made me wonder, as I am forgetting things all the time without feeling it as a loss. With the recent house move for instance, going through old stuff, it made me realize just how much I had actually forgotten, and that is without Alzheimers, and not counting the memories gone forever because I no longer have any reminders of them.

    A loved one and our relationship with them is so much more than the arbitrarily edited selection of memories about the past. Making our own identity and that of others dependent on something as fleeting, changeable and limited as memory, is a disservice to our self and to those we love. A memory is a thought about the past arising in the present. Is there anything lost when a thought arises and passes? Not really, as they do that all the time. And yet sometimes there is the sense of loss, which underlines the necessity to continue to investigate our beliefs about the nature of reality, the nature of what we call a human being, what we refer to when we say”I” or “you”. We do know that the true self is more than a series of fleeting thoughts, feelings and perceptions, that intuitive knowledge in the midst of grief is the refuge to turn to in the face of challenging times.
  5. Thanks Ayse. It won’t be a surprise to you to hear that I don’t altogether agree with you! And of course I am more than happy to consider a different point of view. Nevertheless, I think the essence of my piece is that, as I see it, memory is actually all. I’m not at all sure about the ‘disservice’ bit, nor about the existence of anything we might label ‘the true self.’ But this would be a long debate, and we probably would never agree! And it’s all just a matter of ‘opinion’ to which we strive not to cling!
  6. I like to think we are exchanging experiences rather than opinions Chris.

    It is my experience that thoughts / memories come and go but there is something – which is not a thing, call it true self, stillness, Buddha nature, being, etc. – that just is, that is without arising or passing. It was not my intention to invalidate memories as they are a beautiful expression of the interconnectedness, I was trying to say that, based on experience, the connection, the closeness does not disappear like memories do due to their fleeting nature, so there is more than just memory.

    If you really belief memory is all and there is nothing left without it, then I have no problem accepting that as your point of view. In your post though you do reflect on what might survive that which is transient, and that was what prompted my reflections on that which does not arise and pass: being, true self, etc.. Because I think we should always follow and investigate that sort of inklings. But if your mind is made up that memory is all, I would not want to try to change or argue your point of view. And whatever your point of view, I would like and respect you just the same.
  7. Thank you for your incredibly touching essay Chris. It’s generous to share your experience. I cannot begin to imagine the impossibility of grieving a partner. For whatever it’s worth – this is so different – but my father died fairly recently after a long period of vascular dementia. I’m only mentioning it because I want to think about some of the topics you brought up, if you don’t mind. Years before when symptoms first set in, I began to grieve; but what was I grieving? Some kind of reciprocal connection, I think. The way we used to be together. The comforting knowledge that he was happy. And I grieved for our old relatively carefree and joyful life. For his remaining dreams that hadn’t come true, and for the end of his dreams that did. For the feeling of safety that I’d had back when I’d believed him to be capable of anything. But the nature of our relationship was always such that we used to just sit or walk companionably together side-by-side, without saying much. We could continue doing that until the end. I sensed that he felt my presence and found it comforting, even if he was anxious, too. Sometimes he even enjoyed it and still laughed. A few years in he stopped laughing, but he pointed out things he loved. Every day for a while, he showed me how incredibly beautiful – full of awe – nature and trees were. He’d usually been too busy to tell me that before, because he’d been stressed with work. Eventually he could barely communicate at all, but the exact same love and recognition was there in the room somehow. I don’t know how, but then, I never know how love is there even at the best of times. It was like he was revealing and peeling off layer by layer of himself through the years, until he came to the core which was so still – only love – so subtle that sometimes it felt like almost nothing. Like a soft baby feather settling on your hand, unmoving in a darkened room and with your eyes closed. So yes, in a sense, I’d agree to call it ‘nothing’. Or death, or love, or I don’t know. Or seemingly endless grief. Or who he really was/ or not… and if you knew me in person there’d be a lot of sailor’s swearing too, along with shaking of fists at the ocean and at the ghost of what was lost, and at life as I knew it, which had chosen to leave. But parents are not at all the same as partners, and every loss is as different as relationships and people are. What can we do but sit (or grieve or talk or all the above) with each other through it all.

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