That thief, aging, is snatching away her words, her vision, even her fingerprints. But it can’t steal her optimism
“Remember that I am putting the car ticket in my back pocket,” I say to my husband at the airport. Yet, 15 minutes later, when it’s time to pay for the car at the valet parking place, I ask him for the ticket.
I search in every room, through every bag, and on every countertop for my sunglasses, only to remember hours later that I purposely left them in that hidden compartment next to the driver’s seat in my car — so that I wouldn’t lose them.
Recently, I came upon a photo of me and my family at my sister’s law school graduation. I have no recollection whatsoever of even having attended said graduation.
Forgetting is my new norm. It happens more and more often — bits of memories lost. Pieces of my brain shut off from access. The thoughts, words, recollections I try to retrieve are there — on the edge of remembrance — but they are blocked and cannot be called up.
Is This Just Normal Memory Loss? Or Something More Sinister?
I can justify forgetting where I put things. Too much multitasking, I tell myself. I may be able to do several things at once, but maybe my brain can only hold onto one or two of them at a time. But to not be able to retrieve a memory — even with a photographic cue? To see a picture of myself somewhere and to not be able to remember being there?
I wonder what is happening in my brain. I laugh at myself, admit to my friends, with a chuckle, that I am “so senile.” But then I think, where have the memories gone? To what remote corner of my brain? And what kind of gridlock in my neural pathways is blocking me from reaching them?
Then I Start Forgetting My Words
I am particularly troubled by my newfound difficulty in retrieving words. Words are my specialty, my currency. How can I write without words? It’s like an artist failing to remember colors, or a dancer forgetting how to move her limbs.
But I am sure of it — I am losing words.
I am writing a sentence and I know there is a word with just the exact subtle meaning I need to make that sentence sing. That particular word is the only one that will fit, but I can’t recall it. I spend more and more time with the thesaurus, looking for the words that used to come naturally. It’s like reverse language acquisition — instead of adding words to my repertoire each day, like I did as a child, my words are falling away. I reach for “disquieting,” only to come up with “worrying,” “disturbing,” “unsettling.” It takes three rounds of thesaurus checks on my laptop to arrive at the word I sought.
What Else Am I Losing?
There are other things I am losing with age.
My eyesight — I cannot read the words on the side of the shampoo bottle. (Who knew that would matter? But suddenly it does.) Perhaps of more concern — I cannot read the words on the side of the medication packaging. Or those teeny, tiny letters on the laundry tags of all of my must-be-washed-on-delicate clothing (thus, I am no longer sure which items fit into that category). Or the minuscule font on menus in dimly lit restaurants.
And in the theater, where I like to read the actors’ bios before a play, I have to hold the Playbill far, far away from my eyes — so far, that the woman behind me offers me her reading glasses. I start stashing reading glasses in every room, in every bag.
If only I could find them.
My hearing isn’t lost yet; in fact, I tend to notice this deficit in others more than in myself. But more and more often, when I ask my daughter to repeat herself, she asks in that exasperated tone, “What’s wrong with your hearing?”
On her more empathetic days, if I say “What” too many times, she urges me to get a cat scan of my brain. She doesn’t consider the possibility that maybe I miss what she says because she says it too quickly and we are both speaking on cell phones.
Even My Fingerprints Are Fading
My friend tells me over dinner that as women age, we also start to lose our fingerprints. Who knew? Despite having gone through the process of getting TSA pre-approval so that she and her husband could whisk through the gates at airports, she has failed the fingerprint part of the expedited boarding process several times. The TSA agent explained that many women have this problem — their fingerprints become too faint to interpret.
I am fascinated by the concept of losing your fingerprints — the mark of your identity, the one absolute thing that distinguishes you from every other person on the planet. I study the pads of my fingers, to no avail, since I can’t see the fine lines on my fingertips without my reading glasses.
Isn’t losing your memory — and, in my case — your words, in a way, also like losing part of your identity? What makes up your identity, if not the things that are stored within your brain? So I ask myself: Is this what aging is? The gradual loss of parts of the self?
But Here’s What I’ve Gained
One thing I gain with age, I suppose, is the equanimity to deal with what is being lost. And the good sense to focus on what has been gained: confidence, the love of an ever-expanding family, genuine friendships, the ability to appreciate the beauty in small things — a garden, a crisp autumn day in New England, a joyful greeting from my dog, a kind gesture.
If someone had told my 20-year-old self that by the time I was 50 I wouldn’t be able to find a thing, remember a thing, or see a thing, I would have been horrified. Now I am perturbed, but I am certain there must be an antidote. I haven’t yet lost my optimism.