Thursday, April 4, 2013

when emotions outlast memory

Continuing yesterday’s theme of mindfulness, learning attentiveness to the here and now, and living in the present moment. Since our grandchildren moved near us last month I have been very aware of the blessings intrinsic to allowing yourself to be present to small children.

When I was a young, I confess that I was often too busy taking care of the practical realities that come with becoming a mother to our awesome foursome in our first six years of marriage.

Being a grandmother, on the other hand, lets me have a certain distance and space that is new to me, and allows the grace present, for example, in completely surrendering my attention (and self) to the baby girl blowing bubbles in my face!

But this week I’m also pondering how to live in the moment with someone who suffers from memory loss, be it because of stroke, aging dementia, or as in my case, Alzheimer’s disease. After all, why does it matter spending time with someone if that person may not even remember that we were together?

I have a dear friend in her early 60s who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s four years ago, and it’s truly painful to watch this person whom I love dearly diminishing with each visit. In a very real way it feels like my friend is dying, even though physically she’s in better shape than I am.

When I’m with her, I try very hard to be deliberate about how I say things, but above all, how I respond to her, especially when she repeatedly asks the same question only minutes apart. I find that it’s not so much an exercise in mindfulness as it is a loving act, rooted in living the moment, each se-pa-ra-te mo-ment, without concerning myself with the connectedness of the whole conversation.

Two Peasant Women and a Child Seen from Behind, from the Foresteria Guesthouse 1757
By Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (1727-1804)

It’s also been very helpful to remember that although she may not remember the details of our time together, my friend will remember the emotions, how she felt when we were together.

According to scientists, for people like my friend whose short-term memory is fading, the feelings (good as well as bad feelings) that are triggered by meaningful events actually linger. They are captured by a different part of the brain.

So, if the “good feeling” that my friend feels during our visits outlasts her memory, then, I pray for the grace to simply love on her from moment to moment, to let myself laugh long and hard—every time, and to find deep joy in what we’re doing, even when the story repeats itself several times in one night.

This, too, must be what Jean-Pierre de Caussade meant when he said: 
Our only satisfaction must be to live in the present moment as if there were nothing to expect beyond it.”