Nov 132011

by William Luvaas

She was trying to remember whether her husband had died or had left her or had just gone away on business, but could not. The doctor had warned her that the drug could affect her memory. “For some,” he said, “it can be a taste of Alzheimer’s.” But, of course, she didn’t remem¬ber this, nor his warning that she should take the medication only when there was someone around to look after her and should stop taking it at once if she experienced memory loss. She remembered none of this. Her husband was gone, in any case. Her eyes dwelled on a picture of herself tacked under a magnet on the fridge. She was hugging a large shaggy black dog; its name, she recalled, was “Muffy,” but she had no idea whose dog it was, and she could not recall the name of the man beside her. She checked the back of the photo for a clue. It said only: August ‘04, Tahoe. However, another picture of this same couple informed her his name was “George”: Look at George’s grin! He looks like the kid who ate the whole watermelon. But then she could not decide who he had his arm around–though this same woman was in the first photo and several others. It occurred to her that perhaps George was a boy she dated in college (for she did recall the name and felt a nascent stirring of affection for him). She remembered, too–more as dream frag¬ment than solid memory– that he had broad shoulders, a thick neck, and beautiful hands, and how this turned her on. Ridiculous that she should remember such trivia but could not recall whom she was looking for…or if she was looking for anyone at all. Though she believed she was. Had they ever made love, she and “George,” she wondered. Regarding him, she certainly hoped they had, for he was quite handsome. She at once experienced profound sadness, felt quite alone, abandoned even. Someone–she could not remember who just now–had deserted her, perhaps for another woman, a woman (she couldn’t imagine how she knew this) who had beautiful hands. “Have I,” she asked the air, which held a bite of chill that leaked in through double-paned windows from outside, “ever slept with a woman?” She could not honestly remember.

She saw through the kitchen window that it was brilliantly and ebulliently clear outside, the sky an arctic blue. So cold, she knew, the air stabbed the back of your nostrils when you inhaled it; she nearly experienced that sensation now, how you gasped at first breaths, then smiled and felt nearly elated at the assault. Fully alive. “How do I know this?” she asked aloud. “Perhaps I have lived here for some time–in this kind of environment…in the mountains.” Yet it all seemed brand new to her.

I’d better call someone if he’s dead, she told herself. Isn’t that required? A funeral home or someone. Isn’t that the thing to do? They must take the body away; you wouldn’t want to keep it lying about. She went off in search of the corpse, straight away to her husband’s upstairs study (not that she remembered him having a study, but muscles often recall what the brain does not; “physical” memory is more indelible than “mental,” and her legs had made this trip thousands of times before). However, by the time she entered the bedroom she couldn’t recall what she was looking for. “I have lost something important to me, something irreplaceable,” she spoke aloud, startled by the clarity of her own voice. Myra sank down on the bed and began weeping. For her name was Myra, wasn’t it? Or was that her mother’s name? Perhaps they were both named Myra. It did happen, though more commonly with men than women, a son named after his father; the male ego often demands such stroking. It seemed to her foolish for a child to bear its parent’s name. How would such a child ever establish its own identity? Did she, she wondered–struck, accosted by the thought–have children of her own? If so, she likely had a husband. How could you forget something so essential? Was her daughter (assuming she had a daughter) named after her–if only she could recall her own name. She must seek it out. Surely it was printed on a bank check or a bill or was on ID in her wallet. But as soon as she undertook to discover her name, she, again, could not recall what she was looking for. Evidence of children perhaps? She had a sneaky feel¬ing that this had happened to her before–continuously even. She would set out looking for one thing, then forget what it was and begin looking for something else. Aha! “Why not jot down what I want to find before I forget?” Good thinking. But what if she then forgot to check her notes? Okay, then, write them on her hand so she wouldn’t forget…or would quickly encounter them again if she did.

Her legs, in a peculiar dream-like peregrination, took her from room to room in search of “it.” Whatever “it” was. The living room windows were iced up, the landscape outside blurred and distorted through the ice. “It’s winter,” she spoke this revelation aloud. “You see! There’s proof. All I need do is look for clues and everything will sort itself out. I will know where I am, who I am, and what I’m doing through the power of observation. Like playing detective. Maybe I slipped on an icy front step and fell, took a blow to the head, and this is why I can’t remember anything. It will all soon come back to me, I’m sure.”

There was a small, well-crafted wooden box on the living room coffee table–cedar from its smell–with a gold plaque attached and the name “Muffy” inscribed on it. “How is it I remember the smell of cedar? What a small animal Muffy must be to fit inside this tiny box, a snake maybe? How does it manage to breathe? Do snakes breathe?” No doubt she hadn’t forgotten the answer to this question but had never known it. Opening the box, she found a thick plastic bag containing gray ashes, shot through with flecks of bone. All at once, she remembered (as if the memory wafted to her on the smell of cedar–memory and scent intertwined as a dog must experience them): this was Muffy’s crematory urn, of course. Muffy had lived to be thirteen; Myra still missed her terribly. Wasn’t there another urn somewhere belonging to the person she was searching for? The idea, though chilling, wasn’t convincing to her. She sank down on the divan, fascinated, running her fingers over the silky box. “So this is Alzheimer’s?” she said. “This is what it is like.” Not so much that you disremembered things–well, you did–as that you couldn’t be certain of them. You experienced vagaries rather than distinct thoughts, yet some more solid than others. You needed to put your trust in your intuitive ability to distinguish solid traces from more vagrant ones–if only you could hold onto them, for they, too, seemed to evanesce. Damn.


She scrawled on her forearm with a felt tip pen. Here, you see, was another clue: the pen lay on the coffee table beside a shopping list on a funny narrow notepad designed for making just such lists. Clever. Right here in black ink was an item: Pick up George’s prescription!!!

That name again. “George!” (There lingered a ghost trace of the name which had recently made a journey across her mind’s vault: imagine a shooting star that leaves a lingering trail on the night sky, a comet’s tail.) This George was not likely her high school sweetheart but her husband… or maybe a son. Or both! Surely, anyway, he was a person presently involved in her life, as the list had not likely been written decades ago and left sitting on the table all this time. Note the exclamation points denoting urgency! “It’s a recent list,” she told herself. “Maybe I was writing it just before my accident, the blow to my head, whatever has clouded my memory.” She saw the awful word scrawled lopsidedly on her arm: ALZHEIMER’S. It chilled her through.

“I don’t have Alzheimer’s, do I? I believe my mother did. Look at your skin that will give you some clue to your age. Wrinkles? Go in to the bathroom mirror now and look at your face, the skin tone just under your armpits, that’s telling.” Staring hard at the word so as not to forget–see how clever the mind is at finding solutions, even for an eroded memory–she appended the earlier note:

Check to see if I have ALZHEIMER’S

She held the arm up before her eyes to guide her to the mirror. Fascinating. Like a road sign in a foreign land. Regrettably, before reaching the bathroom, she forgot why she was foolish¬ly staring point-blank at her arm rather than watching where she was going. No wonder she was always falling, with an arm blocking her vision like that. “You must be more careful, it’s icy outside. See! There’s nothing wrong with my memory.” She recalled that she’d had an accident. “I’ve taken a blow to the head–driving perhaps. Quite recently.” Had she lost traction on the ice and slid off the road? Cracked up the car? So that’s what had happened…and John–was that his name?–was he all right? She had better call the hospital. Maybe she’d been foolishly holding her arm up before her face while driving, rather than clutching the steering wheel. That was really asking for it on these icy, treacherous roads. “How will I inquire about him if I can’t remember his name?” She turned and walked back to the kitchen.

“Oh, that’s right!”

She needed to take her medication. She looked at her hands, vaguely recalling that she had jotted notes on them, but saw nothing about medication. She did, however, see that she was sup¬posed to check to learn if she had Alzheimer’s. “No more nonsense.” Her legs, blessed with their own memory, carried her straight to the bathroom before she could digress, and, though she couldn’t recall why she was supposed to check her own image in the mirror, she saw looking back at her a middle-aged woman of perhaps forty-five years, not an unpleasant face, one she recognized. She was fairly certain there were pictures of this face about the house. She was quite comfortable being in the bathroom with this woman in the mirror. She laughed out loud. “Why, of course, I am. It’s me! Myself. Don’t be a simp! What is written on my arms? Do I have Alzheimer’s? Of course not, I’m much too young. I believe my father did. Or his father. No, I’ve probably awakened abruptly out of a dream and I’m disoriented. I must go back to bed; it will be comforting to snuggle up against George. But is it night or day?” Icy light shone through the bathroom sky¬lights. “Goodness.”

Remarkably, she made her way directly to the bedroom. So this was it, at last. She vaguely recalled having been agitated for some time. Yes, she’d been wrenched sideways out of sleep, part of her was not yet awake. Likely, she’d taken a nap. No sign of him. In fact, the bed was made. Was he ill? In the hospital? Had he been involved in an accident? He hadn’t died, had he?

“Ohhh Gawd, no!”

There was a recent death in the family; she was sure she hadn’t dreamed it. What, after all, is the difference between dream and waking reality? How can you know the difference if you aren’t wholly certain you are even awake? Or, say, under the influence of narcotics? Whether it is night or day, for instance. Firstly, dreams are less detailed than reality. If fine details are missing, that is a clue. Secondly, there is much shape-shifting of people, events, and things in dreams, while in reality they tend to remain constant. Imagine, for example, you are dreaming of giving birth to your son, but when the baby is placed in your arms you see your father’s head stuck on an infant’s body, complete with a cigar in his mouth. Unsettling. If things like this begin to happen in real life, you are in trouble. Speaking of her children, how many are there? Any at all?

“I was thinking about something,” she said. “Damn! I was really quite fascinated by it.”

She made her way back to the kitchen again. There on the counter was her medication.

That’s right! She needed to take it. How many pills? She could not recall why it had been prescribed to her. Perhaps to keep her calm after their tragedy. Perhaps to cure her memory loss. Perhaps it was for the pain resulting from the accident. Prominently on the label was some- thing about memory loss. So it was meant to cure memory loss then? Splendid. She took two pills.

“I will be over this soon. I need to get some air. It’s so sunny and inviting out, the light so crisp. Thank God–” seeing that message on her arm again “–I don’t have Alzheimer’s, anyway. I wouldn’t dare go out if I did, I might not find my way back home again. Silly notion.”

She walked out the back door without so much as a coat or sweater, but the chill chased her back inside before she could lock the door behind her. Aha! The body has, so to speak, a mind of its own. Memory resides in the flesh. It said, bundle up! So she did. The heavy parka and mittens spoke intent to her even after she’d forgotten what she had in mind. “Oh yes! I was going for a walk. I need some air. Something about the car, too, wasn’t there?”

Only one vehicle was parked at top of the drive before the garage, an Element. “I’m certain there should be two.” Hi and hers cars. Isn’t that sweet? But only one here now. Was this funny boxy thing hers? The registration would tell her, insurance documents and such. She giggled at herself. “It will remind me of my name, too. No one needs to be reminded of their own name, you silly goof.” Though she seemingly did. So where was she planning to drive? Into town? To the market? The roads would be treacherous. Even the driveway icy. Sunlight glit¬tered and danced atop a snow field that rolled away from her down into the valley, undulating, broken only by bare trees that looked spindly without their leaves, oaks and such, she imagined. Here and there, as if placed by a painter, were great old New England houses or faded red barns, tumbledown fences, picturesque against the snowy landscape. Although this was not New Eng¬land, she was fairly certain. “Once, we lived in New England, but not now.” The fences, for example, were not made of stone but of barbed wire with wooden fenceposts, and the farmhouses were smaller. “We live in the West,” she spoke aloud. Glad to know this, though she didn’t actually remember it.

Had the cross country skis not been leaning against the porch rail she would not have remem¬bered them. She could not say now whether her initial intent was to trek over the country¬side by ski or to walk the road on foot. Her breath exploded in a puff of laughter which clung to her lips. “Silly! Doesn’t matter. It’s what you want to do now that counts. Live in the moment, right?” Memory loss–Alzheimer’s, amnesia, call it what you will–forces you to live in the now. That is its virtue. Though now, of course, is a fickle estate, since now at once becomes then, giving quickly over to the cosmos of the remembered. But what if then no longer exists?

“You are like a skater zipping along with the ice disappearing behind you, leaving no tracks.

What am I talking about?”

She supposed she planned to go downhill to visit her friend, Thalia. She was looking down at the red-shingled roof of Thalia’s house, a discernible path wending though the snow toward it. “That’s a nice thing about the physical universe: objects do not forget what they are.” She had no difficulty clamping on her skis. The difficult part would be coming back uphill after gliding down. There were climbing skins in a fanny pack, which she belted around her waist; she would mount these to the bottom of the skis to facilitate the uphill climb. “Is the coffee strong enough to get me back home?” she asked aloud, laughing at what was a standing joke with her friend–for when a phrase is repeated often enough it burns an indelible trace in the mind. “I have taken a serious blow to the head–” speaking as if to Thalia or her husband “–which seems to have erased my memory… most of it. It’s kind of interesting, really.”

But, instead of embarking for Thalia’s house, she found a second trail that skirted the tumble¬down barn–used for storage, though she expected it might also house livestock. She imag¬ined the steamy breath of cows on the chill air, ballooning puffs smelling of sweet alfalfa, how she loved to put her face close and let it bathe her, the sweetest breath in the world! A memory of hugging the beasts’ warm, sweaty flanks remained in her cheeks. “Now that is coziness.” She could hear them chewing their cud, slow and amicable even in such cold. “I remember Gramma G’s three-legged milking stool…See! All is not lost. I remember her head resting against a Guern¬sey flank, her strong milking fingers.” Gramma G., who milked even with Alzheimer’s at eighty- plus years. She could hear her snap, “Be good, Bossy. Don’t you dare kick over your pail!” Surely this was Gramma’s barn, and the path led around it into woods below, “dark and dank and deep,” as the poem says, mixed hardwood and conifer, the trail wending invitingly through trees, depressions around their trunks where the snow had melted away, as if trees con¬ducted warmth up from deep earth, conifer boughs bowing groundward. Yes! She remembered all this.

She hurried around the barn and quite literally skated down the slope behind it. She no longer recalled that she was headed for the ancient woods behind her grandmother’s farm, but knew she was going somewhere wild and exciting. So when the vague trail appeared to make a horse¬shoe turn at a fence line at bottom of the hill and backtracked on itself, returning up slope, she barked, “Nonsense, I’ve barely gotten started.” She loved how inhaled breaths stiffened the mem-branes of her nostrils, the air more solid than gas as it passed through. “It must be zero degrees.” Some would find it painful, she found it exhilarating. “You know you are alive in this chill–intact memory or no!”

She stepped over the single strand of barbed wire not yet covered by snow on her skis and continued on. Always more fun to blaze your own trail than to follow another’s. Momentarily uneasy, she glanced up at the barn roof gleaming atop the hill. You couldn’t miss that! Objects write their own memories. It was unmistakably a barn, though she could not say whose barn it was. She did not notice the lengthening blue shadows or that the sun had disappeared behind the western ridge or even that sunlight no longer glimmered on the snow anywhere in her range of vision, not even on the rise behind. However, her shoulders stiffened, aware in their physical way that the temperature had dropped further. She cinched the scarf more snugly about her throat, standing upright and schussing blindly along, not even using her poles as she rounded a hillock and descended into a draw. Down here at bottom was a creek, though, of course, it did not flow freely at this time of year. Here it was like the lower depths of a deep freeze, as if elemental cold rose off the landscape’s core. The canyon walls loomed up either side, blanking out other features and landmarks.

“It is extremely cold,” she huffed, “dangerously cold. I should go back. Life is so very fragile,” she added as an afterthought. Just a drop of a degree or two in body temperature and you are in peril. The heart need merely skip a few beats. “Life is like memory: it seems so solid and indelible…until you start to lose it.”

But she realized there could be no turning back, since she did not know where she would be returning or which way it was. There were no obvious signs or clues around her, just the low canyon walls and snow so deeply drifted in places that she must plod through, sinking in to the knee on her skis. It was slow, laborious going. She stopped and tried to reason it out. “I might simply follow my tracks back to where I came from. Easy.” But where had she come from? And how far away was it? “Perhaps I was up on the mountain.” Vaguely, her legs recalled a journey down¬ward. No, she didn’t wish to go back up on the mountain now, with the sun going down and the wind picking up, whistling in her ears. Heavens, no. “It would be foolish to go back up there.” The long uphill climb exhausting and dangerous. It was so extravagantly cold, the chill penetrated her clothes. She felt groggy, her legs heavy from plodding through drifts. The mounded snow looked so inviting–soft, blue-white, and clean in the shadows, so warm looking–she might just lie down in it a time and sleep.

“Don’t be a simp. Keep going down the mountain and you will reach the road. There will be traffic. Surely, someone will stop to give you a ride home.”

If only she could remember where home was.