One afternoon when he had to work, my friend Zach asked me to make lunch for his elderly mother, whom he cares for now. As I was making some sandwiches, I noticed a whiteboard scrawled, in Zach's toddlerish handwriting, with a list of answers to FAQs: the date, the year, the names of Mrs. Klein's siblings and their children — the living ones written in black, the deceased in red — and, last, a list of recent U.S. presidents. I noticed, to my annoyance, that Zach had omitted Gerald Ford, something of a sentimental favorite of mine, about whom I'd once written a poignant song on the pump organ. I went to insert Ford's name and was obliged to explain to Mrs. Klein what I was doing. There is, of course, no explaining Ford without explaining Nixon, and Nixon, per usual, opens a whole can of worms — Watergate, Vietnam, and off we went through the whole mess of the 20th century. In the end, I had to backtrack all the way to Herbert Hoover, who was president when Mrs. Klein was born.
It was an interesting exercise to compress each administration into a simple narrative: FDR rallied America to fight the Axis, but died just before the war ended; Eisenhower was a genial placeholder who golfed a lot; Kennedy was young and handsome, and although he was kind of an inept president, he got retroactively deified after he was killed.
"Oh," said Mrs. Klein. "He died?"
I realized I'd just accidentally broken the news of the Kennedy assassination to her — that cliché of everyone's most vivid and ineradicable memory. "Y … eah," I admitted, now wishing I'd soft-pedaled it more.
Mrs. Klein didn't recall the name "Lyndon Johnson" or the initials "LBJ," but when I used Google's images search to call up his big, ugly, lovable mug, she said, "Oh — I remember him," as though he were some sort of scalawag from her past whom she'd known all too well.
We think of memory as what defines us, gives us continuity — a history — instead of a collection of disparate impressions. "Unless, of course, you have Alzheimer's disease," says Zach, "in which case, memory is pretty much dryer lint." What remains of us when we're shorn of our pasts? Are we left as the same people we were in infancy? What the Buddhists call our selves before we had faces? Or have we made ourselves into something more, in the few fleeting decades of cognizance and continence allotted to us in between?
We've all forgotten whole lifetimes already, probably the lives that mattered most. I still remember turning 8 and thinking that if my life were a TV show and a viewer were only tuning in now, there would be no way to ever catch up — you could never fill that person in on everything that had already happened, all the missed episodes and characters and jokes and catchphrases. Of that whole eventful eight-season run, I now remember only a handful of images, yet that unremembered past is presumably what made me the person I am now.
When I was in high school, a group of my friends was playing one of those board games designed to provoke debate, which presented us with a hypothetical question: If you could have the best year of your life but then forget it all at the end of the year, would you do it? My own first reaction was: Of course — that's what life is. We all forget everything in the end.
Easy for me to say at 17. Now, in middle age, I worry about my own memory. It drives me crazy when I can clearly visualize paintings of rapturous nymphs in diaphanous gowns, bathed in the uncanny hyperclarity of golden-hour light, but cannot remember the artist's name; my brain, like some dumb student trying his best, offers up Louis Comfort Tiffany, which is close, same era, I get the association, but no: What I want is Maxfield Freaking Parrish. Whenever I hear some friend's detailed recollection of a day I've completely forgotten, I'm scared by how much of my life has been lost — whole days bright with hilarity, camaraderie and adventure. I remember my girlfriend Emily and me laughing till we wept after I got stuck in the back of the car trying to get the spare tire out, flailing helplessly like a bug in a trap while she tried to make small talk with someone named Pappy. But apparently I've forgotten the awful fight we had the same day. I sometimes wish, in something like panic, that I'd kept a journal, as if that would have saved the days from evaporating like alcohol wicking off the skin. A friend of mine recently undertook a radical decluttering campaign, ruthlessly throwing out seating charts from her wedding and leaves pressed by long-dead aunts, as a sort of campaign against delusions of permanence. "Holding on to all this crap isn't going to keep the past from vanishing," she says. "The past is gone."
"The funny thing about my mom's Alzheimer's is that she's by and large happy," says Zach. She is currently reading the whole Harry Potter series for the first time, as far as she knows. And even though Zach and I have been palling around with our mutal friend Annie since we were 19, Mrs. Klein is always delighted to learn that Annie and I are friends, though we've been palling around with her son since we were 19. The person her disease probably pains most is not her but Zach. I'm not going to sentimentalize a loathsome disease like Alzheimer's; not all the sadistic genius of the Inquisition or the Gestapo could have devised a subtler, more exquisite torture than to strip people of their memories, ransack the jewels and heirlooms of the mind and scatter them underfoot, giving victims just enough sporadic reprieves of lucidity to be able to understand what is being done to them. But I'll say that, although Mrs. Klein knows she's losing her memory — she sometimes ruefully refers to it as "losing my marbles" — her personality seems intact, even intensified, in the way that children seem like more uncensored versions of the adults they'll become. She's playful, mischievous and rather sweet. She adores chocolate and hoards the foil wrappers of Hershey's Kisses, rolling them into little balls and then surreptitiously chucking them at people, which everyone finds funny except for Zach, who has to retrieve the foil balls from under the couch. She always cringes and rolls her eyes with histrionic guilt when he scolds her, much to everyone else's amusement. Maybe all our experiences — painful lessons learned, volumes read, all our loves and losses, the stuff that didn't kill us and supposedly made us stronger — which we like to imagine have shaped us into who we are, in fact make only the most superficial and passing impressions, and in the end we're left with pretty much the same personalities we came in with.
Of course, Mrs. Klein is not yet at the point where she no longer recognizes Zach, so it's easy to imagine that her essential self is untouched. But who will she be after she's forgotten her own son? What makes us who we are if not the people we love? Maybe on that day, the personality retreats beyond some sort of psychic event horizon, an invincible Self still in there, forever unknowable from the outside. Kurt Vonnegut, writing about the distant day when the sun would incinerate the Earth, imagines the molecular remnants of a few sentimental keepsakes from his own past in that all-consuming fire.
It'd be nice to believe that somewhere in the holocaust of memory will be the ashes of those moments so vivid and pungent that they continue to have the power to thrill us or turn our stomachs, ashes that seem not past but present: the nap of the living room rug in your childhood home, your mother's voice calling you to get up, the hideous faux pas you committed in 10th grade, the smell of your first girlfriend's perfume, that night you thought you might never stop laughing. Where were you when Kennedy was shot? Oddly, our most iconic and enduring collective memories, in this country at least, are of collapse, explosion, trauma: colossal buildings dropping into billowing clouds of their own debris, as majestic as Saturn V liftoffs in reverse; booster rockets corkscrewing into a deep blue sky in the blind trajectories of madness; the universe of a human brain blasted into mist.
Last summer I stood with Mrs. Klein on a sloping lawn overlooking a mountain lake in Idaho, watching the sun go down. Whatever we each remembered, we both stood there in the same moment in time, feeling the air cool on our faces and watching the feathery clouds turn a luminous pink against the deepening indigo sky. She took a photo, to preserve the moment, then lowered her camera and turned to me. "Life is good," she said.
Tim Kreider, 48, is the author of We Learn Nothing.