I knew, theoretically, that as I grew older my memory would decline, but I never expected it to happen so quickly, or so precipitously. When memory loss eventually came, I hoped it would erase traumatic memories from the past and then slowly overwrite unnecessary information such as phone numbers and addresses of every place I’d ever lived. Instead, I found that I asked my children the same questions over and over again because I couldn’t remember having heard their answers; my mind had already gone back to my to-do list. Soon, I couldn’t remember a phone number for the length of time it took between looking it up until I had a pencil in my hand to write it down. My kids began joking (at least I hope they were joking) about safety-pinning an index card with my name, address and phone number to the inside of my jacket so that some kind stranger could help me make it back home when I inevitably forget where I had been going.
To compensate for my fading memory, I started carrying a microcassette recorder so I could record those spontaneous thoughts, such as “scallions,” “dry cleaner,” or “Toys ‘R’ Us,” that I desperately needed to remember. On the one hand, that helped, but on the other hand, it also reminded me of just how abysmal my memory had become. On one notable occasion, as I drove my son to Junior Assembly, I looked over my shoulder at him in the back seat of the car and noticed that his arms had outgrown his shirt sleeves, and that his pants were too short. I asked him to remind me when we got home that I needed to buy him new clothes. Never one to assume responsibility for my problems, he said, “Why don’t you record yourself a message?” Good idea. I repeated the reminder into my cassette recorder.
Then the traffic light changed, and I caught a glimpse of him in the rearview mirror. Suddenly I noticed that his clothes were too small and asked him to remind me that we needed to buy him new clothes. “You just said that 10 seconds ago” he shrieked. But kids always insist that they had told you something, like a bad test grade, so I didn’t automatically believe him. Wisely, he suggested that I replay my last message to myself.
It was frightening. No more than 15 seconds could have elapsed and I’d already completely forgotten the thought that had occurred to me several times in the preceding minute. (You probably won’t be surprised to learn that I lost that tape recorder—and its replacement too).
My memory lapses made me fear I was experiencing the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. I went to my doctor, who asked me if I was forgetting short-term or long-term information. “Short-term,” I said. “Information goes right through me without even taking off its shoes.” She told me not to worry, using a phrase that seems to be her catch-all for whatever ails me: “At your age, that’s perfectly normal.” But I don’t think of myself as being “that age,” which is always supposed be at least 10 years off.
Although it didn’t help, I knew I wasn’t the only one; my friends were experiencing it too. All of us had minds overcrowded with our children’s schedules, details about school projects, invitations to which we still needed to RSVP, and oh yeah, what was it that I was going to make for dinner? When I go to the supermarket for the one critical item that’s written on my list, I will come home without it at least 50 percent of the time.
One friend used to place notes to herself in her bra and reach in there whenever she got to the supermarket or wherever else she needed to do something. Anything she forgot to deal with fell out of her bra at night and was stuffed in there for the next day. (She used to say that it was cheaper than silicone implants.) Another friend had a more effective solution: She wrote it on the inside of her hand—the ultimate PalmPilot.
I began to hold an informal competition among my friends; each of us recorded (though don’t ask how we remembered) the most “airheaded” experience we’d had. I had been the champion until my friend reported that she had begun using her car’s remote door opener to summon the elevator in her office building.
What else is there to do but laugh and find another way to look at it? For one thing, my Swiss-cheese-of-a-memory has made me a really good person for others to confide in, for obvious reasons. And I have had the joy of reading favorite books over again, not recognizing the story until I’m about three-quarters of the way through it.
Finally, I decided to celebrate rather than deny my memory failures and ordered a personalized license plate that reads, “IFORGOT.” This has turned out to be invaluable when I have accidentally driven onto a military base or turned the wrong way down a one-way street. And when I can’t find my car in a large parking lot and need to be driven around to locate it, it all makes perfect sense once I finally find the car and the good Samaritan sees my license plate.