The thought struck me – if I have no memory, how can I learn any skill or knowledge?
As I come to the last part of my thoughts of Remembrance, I realise how the words ‘memory’ and ‘remembrance’ have such a broad scope of meaning!
We have ‘remembered’ historical events and persons, known to us by the written and spoken stories of collective, cultural history.
We have ‘remembered’ likewise the miracles and stories of God’s salvation history, from the written words of Bible and through ongoing synagogue or church traditions.
We have remembered our own family heritage, perhaps enhanced by family anecdotes, photographs and paintings.
Much of this ‘remembrance’ is a bringing to mind of stories about, rather than of personal experience with, a person, time and place. We tell those stories, teach the lessons and pass on the collective wisdom learned through the people and events of the past. Society wants us to remember and learn lessons of history and God wants us to remember, learn and be encouraged by His faithfulness and love. This is why Jesus spoke in parables and stories that we can understand, remember and pass on to others.
But there is a different sort of remembering, which is also crucial in our personal identity. These memories are formed by the impact and impression of experiences we witness, hear, see, smell, touch and in some ways ‘feel’ fully for ourselves. These are our own personal memories. It is not a ‘knowing about’, but is a ‘knowing’. We were there and saw it and felt it. We heard him. We tasted it. We smelled it… and it sticks in the mind. The impact of this depends on the persistence over time of the information we store and on the impact of it on us. When I hammer into stone with a sharp implement, I will impact the stone and leave a mark… likewise, years and years of footfall, or weather, will also cause a mark and impact on that stone.
It is very significant how early our formational personal experiences occurred. The first experiences we have lay the foundation and shape of the person we believe ourself to be and often do then become. These early experiences are fundamental to our identity.
Our identity is entwined with all these experiences we have had and through our experiences of our interactions with others in our world – our parents, family, church, school, society, culture… We learn who we are, who we are expected to be and the significance of our place in it all.
Lessons from Dementia
I’ve been thinking a lot over the years about the importance of personal memory and the absence thereof.
It became an intensive personal study when I became a full-time carer for my young mother, who had early-onset Alzheimer’s. She was diagnosed with it in her early 50s, younger than I am today.
When Mammy’s Alzheimer’s became debilitating, one of the deep lessons I learned was of the nature of memory to define who we are. When Mammy began to forget, her sense of self, her foundations even, began to slip… she forgot what her family looked like now, and in time she no longer recognised their faces, voices and names. She no longer recognised herself, or where she lived, where she was at any moment, who she was with, what she was doing, or supposed to be doing…
Her memory failed and she forgot who she was in relation to everything else. She became lost and very afraid!
We knew her and we continued to affirm her, hug and hold her, remind her of who she was and all the moments and memories that made her who she was. Sometimes this was enough to give her quality of momentary peace, warmth and love, but it all was without connections. The oldest, deepest memories of experiences that were significant and powerful, these remained as monsters in a fragile void. The string of fairy lights no longer connected and illuminated the place that was Mammy and for many lonely hours, she lived a state of terror, haunted by old trauma, (unresolved stuff that had left big impact in her life), and frightened by her state of lost unknowing.
She entered a void of dissociation, disconnected and mute as all meaningful words also retreated whence they had come. As she slipped into oblivion, the torment and terror seemed to stop and she seemed to experience a peace?
My first published work, ‘Lost Down Memory Lane – Caring for Alzheimers – A Personal Journey’, by Dawn Fanshawe, explores the reactions and responses of my mother, me and others, to Mammy’s loss of her identity in dementia. I wrote it in honour of her struggle and for myself to remember. I also wrote it to offer encouragement and empathy with others, who also embark on that un-chosen journey to care for a loved one whose lights begin to go out.
This is available as an e-book or from WestBow press (for those in the USA) or on Ebay direct from me for those in the UK. Use links in the ‘BOOKS’ page or message me directly.
As I witnessed the unresolved parts of Mammy re-traumatise her in her state of dementia, I knew I had to find a way to exorcise, if you will, those painful parts of my own early experiences that I had long ago buried out of harm’s way. I did not want them to come back to haunt me, if I should ever get dementia!!
Since publishing this book in 2015, I began my own journey to get to know my own wounded-inner-child. I called her Suzie.
The second book, that I am hoping to publish soon, explores this personal therapeutic journey and the strategies and processes I have used to effectively re-connect with my wounded inner-child and to re-member the fragmented parts of me that had been disconnected and buried inside. It is an exciting journey of growth, honesty and an unexpected joy.