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Without Memory

Mama says he can’t remember
Daddy thinks that he still can
I’m going back to see him
While he still knows
Who I am
This time I’m gonna hug him
Instead of just shaking hands
Gonna tell him that I love him
While he still knows
Who I am
— Kenny Chesney, While He Still Knows Who I Am

There are moments when you hear a song on the radio and you want to pull over to listen to it in its entirety. That moment happened to me with this Chesney song as I was merging onto Interstate 95 between the George Washington Bridge and the Alexander Hamilton Bridge. In other words: not a place you want to pull over. But I multitasked my way through the song and Washington Heights safely anyway, thinking I’d have to listen again sometime soon. Technology puts songs at our fingertips nowadays, and so it would be.

Having a father with dementia, the lyrics land as body blows. When you lose someone while they’re still with you, it’s a different kind of loss than the losing of someone who’s had their last heartbeat. I’ve lost two fathers in the last few years, one each way, and you feel the hurt uniquely for each. The one who was more present in my life feels like loss. The one that got away feels more like lost opportunity. Both have shaped me, both leave a void in their absence that has to be reconciled in unexpected moments like merging into traffic. Timing is everything in life.

“Memory is our deepest actual language. It’s our storehouse of riches… and we need to keep it open, to keep in mind the importance of childhood events that will somehow condition our life and character… If we have no memory, we are nobody, and nothing is possible.” — José Saramago

There are days when I wonder which way I’ll go myself. Will my body give out first, or my mind? We never want to be a burden on those we love in our final days, but we do want to linger with them as long as possible. It’s the saying goodbye part that we want the most in the end, even as we wish with all our heart that it wouldn’t end. Having seen people leave this world both ways, I think I’d rather have my body give out first. At least I might write and say a few things until the end. At the very least tell the people I love what the passwords are for all my accounts. Nobody likes loose ends. Dementia leaves a lot of loose ends.

So we learn to hug the people we love in the moment instead of waiting. We eat our blueberries and leafy greens and stay hydrated hoping to stay healthy for as long as possible into our senior years. Vibrant physical and mental health become far more important when we see the alternative. We can’t always change the path we and our loved ones are on, but we can control how we react to it in this moment. I suppose that’s all we’ve ever had.

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