Saturday, September 4, 2010

Dragonfly memories

Dragonflies stalk the beaches of Guana in elegantly deadly pursuit of mosquitos and possibly the beginning or end of their reproductive cycles, which are, I think, much more closely tied to their life cycles than we may imagine. Today this one was caught in a fatal tangle of waves and sand. I lifted it up with care, awed by the brilliant turquoise color of its body and the beautiful bright green of its head - colors that had spilled across my lap only last night as I worked on a warm woolen scarf for Dylan. I was able to capture the electrifying colors of its body, perhaps less so the shimmering bronze and copper-bright wings that moved delicately in the wind, in a photo: one brief moment of memory, and then it was gone.

But memory: I've been thinking about that. We talk about it often, my dear old person and I, for the obvious reason that we've lived through Alzheimer's with Pop, where the erosion of memory is the raw and never-healing edge of encroaching disease. We talk about it because pain management is a balancing act of pharmacology and surrender, resistance and retreat; memory is a wild card. In Alzheimer's, the most common memory loss is short-term. According to our dear friend David, a clinical psychologist whose illustrative description helped us envision the thing, memory loss in Alzheimer's typically happens from the outside, in. Imagine the brain is an apple: those memories you created 5 minutes ago, or yesterday, are the skin of the fruit. Memories created 5 or 10 years ago are the apple's flesh. And the things you learned before you can remember learning them (washing your face, going to the bathroom on your own, combing your hair): these are the seeds at the center of the apple. They are closely held and the last things to leave you.

What if you don't have a dementia in which memory is lost? Is your memory perfect? What DO you remember, after all? I cannot remember a time, reaching back past those snapshot recollections I have from being 2 or 3 years old, in which I could not hear musical harmonies in my mind. I could hear harmonies before I knew what to call them, how to label them, that they even had names. In memory I have always heard thirds and fifths against melodies. Melodies, in my memory, always seem to be of secondary interest; it was always harmonies I loved most. So: I do not remember the time before I heard music in dimensions.

Rodney doesn't remember a time when he did not know what the ocean was. He was born close by, he was taken to the beach as a tiny baby and the scent, the breath, the warmth and rhythm of the ocean are part of his heartbeat. (Like many who were not born on at the coast, I have a crystalline recollection of seeing the ocean for the first time: I was 7 years old and it was life-changing.) Dylan doesn't remember a childhood without Sheba, our dear old nanny-Boxer. He was 2 or so when we got her, but his childhood memories are shadowed by her presence. Mac, of course, doesn't remember a time without Dylan. He was 20 months old when Dylan was born, but in his recollections, Dylan has always been there.

Still, memory is a weird thing. It is as though a virtual video recoder is running all the time, for all of us. Our brains purr along, capturing everything, storing it all up for future retrieval. This seems self-evident; how else would we be able to call up memories of electrifying accuracy? How else would things we might in all honestly prefer to forget push themselves to high-definition recollection, front and center? And why does the film seem to break, now and then, so that review of our memories shows not a smooth, frame-by-frame view, but rather a halting clunky series of images like disjointed still images? Trauma? I was 11 when my mother died, and when I look back on those memories some of them stream along like film strips; some move with the jerky awkward flow of single images strung together. I can see clearly the scene in the darkness of evening in which my stepfather woke me to tell me she was dead. With an ache that has lasted these many years, I recall her funeral, despite being given a solid dose of paregoric to stop me vomiting that morning. I remember who gave me the medicine; I recall the glass from which I drank it. But there is so much more I have lost, or forgotten, or cannot bear to let myself recall.

Are our brains and their attendant memories and images wrinkled and changed forever by trauma, and perhaps compromised in their abilities to reliably deliver memories in their wake? Do the carefully recorded movies, those high frame-rate recordings, degrade under trauma so that the recording consists only of stop-motion still images with a different kind of power?

What do you remember, my loves, and what have you forgotten?

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