Last night at Back to School Night, as the parents were switching classes, a teenage girl came into my room and stood in front of me. I knew her. I didn’t know her name, but I knew her, and I was happy to see her. I stared at her for what seemed like minutes, trying to place her face. Why couldn’t I remember? I wanted to apologize, to explain what was wrong, but the truth is I’m not sure why I can’t remember things the way I used to, why language sometimes fails me. “You,” I said, and smiled. I wanted to cry because I was still so disoriented and freaked out that I couldn’t figure out who she was. Finally she said, “You had me in seventh grade,” and told me her name. I embraced her. “I’m sorry,” I said by way of apology for my terrifyingly fucked-up memory. “All of you change so much.”
What I said was true, but when I was younger, I never would have forgotten her name. As the years pass, it gets harder to remember names. The first few days of school, I said hi to last year’s kids in the hallway, and on some of them I blanked for a full thirty seconds to a minute before I could come up with their names. I taught them only three months ago.
True, the context in which I was seeing this unnamable girl threw me off; I had been expecting to see parents, not a teenager. Even more than that, as I later realized, the circumstances under which I’d last seen her were atypical. One day toward the end of the school year, she was just gone from my class. “Scary things can happen to girls, even good students with loving families,” the guidance counselor had said. Doctors said she would not be returning to school that year. I wasn’t allowed to know anything beyond that. I’d sent an email and maybe a card, I think, but I never heard back from her, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how I’d failed her. What was it? Eating disorder? Suicide attempt? Was she being bullied, and I hadn’t noticed? How could I have missed something that big? Basically, I was pretty sure I’d let her down and pretty sure she didn’t think much of me.
But there she was, telling me about her life now, and saying to the parents standing nearby, “She’s a great teacher!” before merrily going on her way.
Lately, in the evenings, I try to pick out the day’s best moment. (Today’s best moment happened in the car on the way to school, when Jack looked at the sky all aflame from the sunrise and said, “It looks like a giant phoenix!”) Yesterday’s best moment, of course, was Maggie. I wondered as I drove home precisely what moment I would choose—the moment I first saw her, or the moment I hugged her, or the moment she’d said I was a great teacher. The loveliest moment, I eventually decided, was the strangest—the few seemingly endless seconds when I both did and didn’t know her. The moment I said simply “You,” and language was otherwise suspended. Hopefully she thought that was a little magical too instead of wondering if I was actually way older than she remembered or had early-onset dementia. Or worse, that I’d forgotten her.
It occurred to me that remembering isn’t all or nothing. There’s a liminal area. Suddenly I understood how it was possible for my grandmother to both know me and not know me at the same time. She didn’t know my name for a few years before she died, and she couldn’t remember my relationship to her, or how old I was, or where I lived, but she knew me. I could tell by her expression when she saw me. I’ve talked much about how sad it was for her to have dementia. Perhaps that’s because I’m uneasy being anywhere where language is subordinate to meaning, instead of the other way around. It makes me less sad to know that the realm of memory has its own wisdom. When we love a person with dementia, we have to go to that realm and surrender to its rules.
I’ve always been afraid I’d get swallowed up by dementia like my grandmother, but now I realize it’s just a matter of learning to dwell in a different place.
That place can still have meaning and connection and joy. While we’re there, we can still have our best moments.