One of the joys of growing older is having the opportunity to revel in memories of your past. Thinking of those key moments of joy over your lifetime and reliving each one with a quiet heart. One can also wallow in not-so-nice memories. Both types of memories give context and grounding to where you are today.
The Healing Power of Good Memories
I sometimes use these good memories to connect me to moments past. To help me through times when things aren’t going well. Or as a way to calm anxiety and help me sleep.
I’ll lie still while deep purple darkness envelopes me, and instead of focusing on how tired I am, on the next crisis I have to solve, the next unexpected bill I have to figure out how to pay, how hard it is to stay asleep, or how worries about everyday things are overwhelming, I’ll focus on one joyful memory, one specific place or incident that brought me to a calm place of contentment.
I’ll focus in on every minute detail of the memory. My mind will walk through my childhood home, savoring every room. Opening kitchen cabinets to look at the delicate yellow flower pattern on the indestructible CorningWare plates we used to use or examine the can of Tang we were occasionally allowed to make sweet, orange-flavored drinks out of.
In my mind, I’ll walk through the living room and remember the flower pattern of the 1970s carpet, an abundance of gaudy blooms in all shades of browns and creams. How every Saturday was cleaning day, and my sister and I would fight over who got to vacuum with the ancient canister vac and its dangerous, retractable cord instead of scrubbing the bathroom.
I’ll spend time in my old bedroom, remembering when I got to pick out my own bedspread from Kmart and how proud I felt making matching curtains for my tiny window all by myself from fabric my mom had on hand.
I’ll take a trip in my mind out to the barn, remembering every step I took to do my chores in the chill, predawn North Dakota air. The smell of the soil as it awoke for the day, the still silence of the vast open plains before the birds started to welcome the rising sun with song.
All of these memories bring me comfort, a sense that my life has been well lived. Even unfortunate memories can bring a welcome sense of “Well, I made it through that; I can make it through this.”
With Dementia, Those Memories Are Less Clear
But at 48, diagnosed with dementia, I’m starting to lose some of this joy, lose some of the context of who I am and how I got here. It’s harder to access specifics, harder to keep those memories clear and detailed. Recently, it’s been a struggle to access some of the basic parts of what’s made me, me.
After my mom died a couple of years ago, my brother, sister, and I cleaned out her house. We touched every object, sorted through every sheet of paper, designated every tchotchke as keep, donate, or toss. We each set aside a few things that mattered to us. Triggers for memories that gave context to who we are.
Recently, I was doing some spring cleaning and went through a box that I brought home with me after the funeral. I found a ring in the box. I have no memory of this ring, which has three jewels symbolizing the birth months of each of us siblings embedded in a band of braided gold. It was around Mother’s Day, and I thought, Maybe we got this for Mom for Mother’s Day, or Dad must have, since jewelry would have been an unrealistic extravagance.
Try as I might, I could not recall a single detail about the ring. Just a vague flash of my mother’s left hand, the ring maybe adorning her middle finger. I slipped the ring on in hopes that wearing it would bring back any sort of recollection. An explanation as to why, of all of the objects we cleaned out of my mother’s house, I chose to haul this ring over 2,000 miles to my home to keep its memories close to me.
Nothing more revealed itself. I wore the ring for days, hoping to revive that connection. Hoping that the feelings that were so strong a couple of years ago would surface. I wore the ring as my mother must have, on the same hand, same finger.
Hearing the Story of the Ring Still Doesn’t Jog My Memory
I mentioned the ring to my brother when I called him on his birthday. He’s nearly 10 years my senior and has clear, sharp memories of our childhood. He immediately knew the ring and the story behind it.
“We talked about it when we were cleaning out the house, don’t you remember?” he said. I didn’t. “I was newly out on my own and must have used all of my money to buy that. You don’t remember?” he asked. I didn’t. We talked about how he bought it from the old jewelry store that was downtown in our small rural community.
I remembered the store. We didn’t go in often, but I remembered its flat, metallic smell enveloping you as you walked in the door and the cat clock on the wall measuring time with a rhythmically swinging tail and bulging eyes, but I didn’t remember the ring.
My Daughter Gives the Ring a New Meaning and Context
I’m looking at the ring now, weeks after that phone call. I still have it on my hand, still hope a spark of recollection will bring me back to the stories and feelings I had.
I chose to keep wearing it even though it’s a stranger to me. A symbol of the growing holes in my past that dementia is causing. Even though I can’t access the joy that the ring must have once given me, I like to keep it close.
Yesterday, I showed my 7-year-old the ring. She held it in her hand, turning it over, holding it up to the light, asking about birthstones. I told her about how the ring used to be her grandma’s, about how I’m going to wear it now to remind me of my mom.
“And when I’m older I’ll wear it, and I can remember both you and Grandma,” she said.
A quiet peace took hold of my heart at her words.
I slid the ring back on my hand, looking at it with fresh eyes. It’s true I no longer have old memories of this ring, what it meant, what it symbolized, but I made a new memory. A memory where I shared this important object with my daughter. A memory that she might look back on for comfort when the world is getting to be too much. A new memory I hope to hold on to for as long as I can through this journey with dementia. A new memory to revel in, bringing me joy and connection to moments past.