Soon after Juanita's death, Ted spoke to me about what the loss meant to him. Of course, first and foremost was her 68 plus year role as his wife: lover, friend, and constant companion. Another aspect that Ted identified was Juanita's role as "his memory". Initially I focused on the fact that Juanita had an extraordinary memory, especially for family, friends, places and dates. It wasn't just Ted who turned to her for help remembering. The whole family appreciated her ability to help us recall everything from the place and date of a family reunion twenty years ago to the names and locations of far flung relatives.
"When I lost Juanita, I lost my memory."
Ted wasn't referring simply to how she had helped him since it became clear that Alzheimer's was robbing him of his past. Juanita had always acted to bolster Ted's recollections by offering details as needed. Of course, as the Alzheimer's progressed, Ted needed more and more help.
Recently it dawned on me that Ted's remaining family members are now serving as his memory for much of his past. Although Ted can remember his childhood on the farm in great detail, the years after that are gradually but inexorably dimming. As recently as two years ago, Ted could remember his job as high school principal and the names of some of the teachers who worked for him. Now he retains little of that. Recent memories are even more problematic. Ted is slightly aware that Bruce and Brenda acted as his caregivers while Barbara and I spent a month with our daughter and grandchildren in Norway. However, each day since we have returned he remembers less and less about that period. As I reminded Ted of our trip and his other children's visits, I realized that I was acting as his memory. I have known Ted for almost 30 years. I have heard his stories along with a great deal of family lore from others. Now that we live in the same house, I am aware of many of his day to day activities: visitors, outings, anecdotes. Now I am able to remember big pieces of what he has lost.
I work hard to listen carefully to the things that Ted does remember, as well as his thoughts on events as they happen, but I am also aware that I can prompt him with information that he would normally have stored away were it not for the Alzheimer's. Sometimes the additional information puzzles Ted. "Bruce was here last week?" he might ask in surprise. Other times, my inputs help him call up more fragments of memory than he would otherwise. "Yes, I remember that Brenda took me out for a walk by the duck pond." Of course, I have no idea how accurate his recollections are, but I see how gratified he is to feel that he is remembering.
All of us who interact with Ted can serve him as holders of memories. I find it best to avoid asking him what he remembers, but it can be helpful to offer him a starting place regarding some event. "Brenda flew home yesterday" I offered. "Oh, that's right, she was here for a while. Where is her home?"was Ted's response. I reply, "Wisconsin. She lives there with her husband John."
I see that all of us depend upon one another for shared memories. We recall them. Discuss them. Embroider them. Past, present, and plans for or speculation about the future are all rich parts of a relationship. We vary in our ability to contribute to a discussion of each. Our differences strengthen the bonds between us when we use our gifts to serve one another.