Friday, February 10, 2017

Tell Me Everything You Don't Remember

[ed. When my mom began her decline with Alzheimer's this is how I imagined it must have felt.]

Short-term memory dominates all tasks—in cooking, for instance: I put the water to boil in a pot on the stove and remember that the water will boil while I chop the onions. I will put the sauté pan on the stove to heat up the oil for the onions, and I will then put the onions, which I will remember I have chopped, into the oil, which I remember I have heated for the onions. I will then add tomatoes. While the onions and tomatoes cook, I will put pasta in the water, which I remember I have boiled. I will know that in ten minutes I will put the cooked pasta into the tomato and onion stir, and thus have a simple tomato pasta meal.

If short-term memory is damaged as mine was, it works more like this: I put the water on to boil. I heat up the oil in the sauté pan. I chop the onions and then wonder for what it was that I chopped the onions. What might it be? I wash my hands, because I might as well—my hands are covered in onion juice, and my eyes are tearing. I return to the stove, where the oil is now scorching hot. I wonder what on earth it was I was cooking, why the sauté pan was left this way. I turn off the heat under the oil. I sigh and go upstairs. I forget everything I just did like a trail of dust in wind. Two hours later, after a nap, I return to the kitchen to a pile of chopped onions on the chopping block. The pan is cool but scorched. And I again wonder why. But mostly, my eyes turn to an empty stockpot on the stove, the burner turned on high. There is nothing in the stockpot, not even water. This happened over and over again in the months following my stroke. So I stopped cooking for a year.

Short-term memory is like an administrative assistant for the brain, keeping information on hand and organizing tasks—it will figuratively jot down a number, a name, an address, your appointments, or anything else for as long as you need to complete your transaction. It stores information on a temporary basis, on Post-it notes, before deciding whether or not to discard the memory/Post-it or move it into a file cabinet for long-term memory storage. Everything in long-term memory finds its way there through short-term memory, from the PIN for your ATM card to the words to the “Happy Birthday” song to the weather on your wedding day. In fact, you are exercising short-term memory now, by keeping track of what you read at the beginning of this sentence so that you can make sense of it at the end.

When short-term memory is damaged, it cannot track sentences. It must read the paragraph over and over again, because by the end of the sentence or paragraph, it will not remember the beginning. And because it does not remember the beginning, it cannot make meaning out of the entirety.

I look at a restaurant menu. I read each item, and when I get to the end of the list, I cannot remember what was at the beginning. I reread the menu. I get to the bottom of it. My brain gets tired, short-circuits, and all I see is random words. I cannot connect my appetite to the words. I cannot remember what food tastes like. I cannot connect the ingredients, “hand-cut green noodles with chanterelle mushroom ragù and gremolata,” into a whole. I cannot put together noodles and mushrooms and chopped herbs in my brain. I cannot connect those flavors into a picture, and I cannot connect them to my appetite, because I have no memory. I only know I am hungry, because I am light-headed and listless.

I put down the menu. I ask for a hamburger if I am dining alone. I ask my companion to order for me, if I am not dining alone. I always request hamburgers, because nearly every restaurant offers hamburgers, and because I cannot parse a menu and hold all the possibilities in my head in order to make a decision.

I am surprised, every time, when the hamburger arrives at the table, because I do not remember having ordered it. I chew it mechanically. There are no images flashing through my head reminding me of the first time I ate a hamburger, or all the barbecues I’ve attended, or the time after marching in the Rose Parade that I ate Burger King because Burger King gave out free burgers to participants at the end of the route. No. There is just blank space. There is chewing. Swallowing. The end of hunger.

When short-term memory is damaged, it will not retain new names. I do not remember someone who popped her head into my hospital room a few minutes ago. I do not remember the receptionist in the doctor’s waiting room. I do not remember who visited me in the hospital the day prior. I do not remember who gave me the flowers in my room. I have to write all these things down in my notebook, so I can refer back to it later.

If short-term memory is damaged, it may not be able to move things into long-term memory, because it takes time, even if not much. It can take about a minute for the memory to be retained. But with age or injury, our brains have less time to successfully move new information to long-term memory. As a result, it is difficult to recall the details of recent events. I see a book at the bookstore, and I buy it because it looks interesting. I go home and see two copies of that book on my bookshelf because I have bought that book over and over again.

I do not remember so many things that happened. I do not remember who was in my workshop the semester I returned to school before I was fully healed, returning because all I wanted to do was finish my degree. I do not remember the woman who befriended me in the wake of my stroke, who then months later wrote me a breakup card because supporting me, she said, was “too much.” I find the breakup card years later and look at the date in befuddlement. I do not remember printing my MFA thesis onto special paper and then assembling it and turning it in. I do not remember the names of any doctors at the hospital. I do not remember room numbers. In addition to not cooking, I do not even go grocery shopping for a whole year, because I forget what it is I have to buy, and if I write a list down, I forget where I put the list.

In the wake of my stroke, I remembered the names of people I’d known for years, even if I couldn’t remember the names of doctors I had just met. I recognized my best friend, Mr. Paddington, and my husband, Adam, and all my girlfriends, and greeted them. But when they’d leave the room and return, I would greet them once again, as if they hadn’t been in that same room just fteen minutes prior. I knew who they were, but I had lost track of time. My short-term memory was unable to move things into long-term storage.

by Christine Hyung-Oak Lee, Longreads | Read more:
Image: Perrin