March 5, 2014

Stealing Memories: An Essay

The human brain is fascinating, no? It's capacity to think, to feel, to love, to compute. To remember.

Remember when... 

It's a frequent conversation starter among people everywhere. Remember when we were little, and that man chased us while we rode our bikes? Remember when we were in high school and we played Spin the Bottle? Remember when we were in college and we got so drunk we fell asleep on the floor of some random guy's apartment, our arms around each other like we'd been best friends forever, even though we'd only met a week before? 

Do you remember?

I do.

But what happens when you stop remembering? When your memories slip away like sand through a sieve? What happens to you then?

It's a topic that fascinates me, in a morbid and morose sort of way. The father of a friend of mine once told me that if he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease, that disease that rips away your memories with diligence and without mercy, and there was still no cure, he'd go home that night and put a bullet through his head. His father had died of the disease, you see, and it had been long, and drawn out, and excruciating. 

The idea was terrifying, but also exhilarating. Why not take control of things, when control will so quickly be ripped from your grasp? Why not save your family the pain of watching you go...while still your body remains? 


An aunt on my husband's side was in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's the first time I met her. She sat in a wheelchair in an old-age home, her husband long-dead, her only child having all-but abandoned her. A caretaker by her side, I approached with my then three-year-old daughter. The aunt's eyes were vacant. Her expression didn't change...until her caretaker asked my daughter to sing "You Are My Sunshine."

It was like magic. The aunt's eyes came to life. She watched my child and sang along. It was beautiful, and over all too soon for everyone.

Can you imagine what it's like, to be mostly afraid, mostly alone, mostly unaware of why you sit in a room all day and all night, recognizing no one and nothing. And then to suddenly be turned on, just for a moment to remember...something.

That sounds like the worst kind of torture devised by the wickedest science fiction bad guy around. At least to me.


Memories work the opposite ways, too, though. Have you ever stolen a memory? Stolen an experience? Taken something that wholly belonged to someone else and made it your own? Integrated it into your life?

I do that sometimes, though my thefts are less than nefarious. 

I didn't grow up watching basketball. I went to a small college in New Jersey with a small, unsuccessful basketball team. When I began dating my husband ten years ago, I'd have even said I hated basketball. Who cares. Right?

My husband cared. He went to the University of North Carolina, with all its storied basketball legends (Remember Michael Jordan? He went there.). His college experience, too, was the stuff of legend. Waiting in line for tickets for hours, cheering on the team, hanging out on Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill after a big win. He did it all and more.

He used to share these stories with me, and I ate them with a spoon. I loved them. I wished I had lived them. 

We began to watch UNC basketball together early on in our relationship. The first year, the team, led by Sean May and Raymond Felton (Remember them?), won it all. The NCAA Tournament Championship. I remember standing there, watching them win, and hoping it would always be that way for this group of players I'd come to love throughout a single season. 

Of course it wasn't. 

Through the years they've won and they've lost. I've seen new legends emerge from the UNC locker room (Remember Danny Green and the way he hit a string of 3s in the Spurs playoffs?). I've wanted to throw things at the TV, and I've stood up and cheered.

Through those same years, I've heard more stories. I've gone to Chapel Hill, though never for a game. I've begun to consider myself a UNC girl, though I never attended the school. The end of their alma mater goes: I'm a Tar Heel born, I'm a Tar Heel bred, and when I die, I'm a Tar Heel dead. Me, I was neither born nor bred, but I  married into the family and I embrace it as my own.

Nowadays, when I see a game at Chapel Hill, I'm nostalgic for a world in which I never actually lived. Images of Franklin Street and the Old Well make me almost as warm inside as a long shot of the New York City skyline (which is much closer to where my true roots lie). I've stolen my husband's memories and they've become a part of me.


North Carolina's basketball program is still home to a living legend. Dean Smith coached the team to over 850 victories in his decades-long career. Now, over 15 years after his retirement, he suffers from advanced dementia. He's lost the memories of a lifetime. Of family. Of friends. Of teams coached to incredible victories, and teams supported through loss and recovery. 

My husband send me this article earlier today, and reading it brought me to writing this essay. It's heartbreaking to see someone lose everything they ever did, especially when they've done so much.

Reading through the article on Dean Smith, I felt a weird mix of emotions. Sadness, sure. Anger that we still can't save people's memories somehow? Definitely. 

But what I felt most was loss. Loss for a man who coached a team long before I even knew it existed. How could I feel loss for that? 


Memories. They're tricky things, aren't they? They can be stolen, they can be lost, and they can be shared. But once they're gone, it's impossible to get them back. 

Keep telling your stories, everyone. Keep sharing your memories. You never know when you're going to need them.

1 comment:

Nadre said...

That sounds like the worst kind of torture devised by the wickedest science fiction bad guy around. -YES!

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