I am desperately afraid of losing my memory. Sometime last year, I read neuroscientist Lisa Genova’s novel Still Alice, about a woman’s descent into Alzheimer’s. It wasn’t the finest piece of literature I’ve ever read, but I read it in a single sitting and sobbed for HOURS. To lose your memory seems, to me, akin to losing your sense of self, your purpose, the ability to comprehend and interpret the world that you’ve painstakingly refined since birth.
My friends and I spend a good deal of time reminiscing. I mean, I know everyone does this, but I’m not sure that anyone is as hardcore about it as we are. We can pass hours reconstructing the events of a single night in gory detail, prompted by the memory of an object or a moment–it goes something like this:
“I would really kill for one of R.M.’s brownies right now.”
“Do you remember the last time we had them? It was the night we crashed the end of a cast party for a show we weren’t in–”
“OMG, I fucking HATED that show. J.W. was the director–you remember J.W.? She was psycho–”
“Wait, but wasn’t that the show where B.P. was shirtless?”
“When was B.P. NOT shirtless? Whatever. But remember, we were at the cast party, and we had run into J.F. in the College Center on the way–”
Here J.F. himself interrupts. “I still can’t believe you didn’t make me come with you! I was in the midst of making a VERY BAD life decision!”
“Um, YEAH, you were. But seriously, J.F., when were you not in the midst of making a very bad life decision?”
“Anyway, it was like, March, and it was still super cold, and we weren’t even drunk but we decided to go to this party anyway because R.M. always made really delicious food for parties, and we ran into J.F. on his way to make a really bad life decision, and B.P. had been shirtless, and then we ate brownies. Wait, but what else had we done that night? Why weren’t we with A.S. and M.K.?”
We have memories like elephants. We are a herd of memory-hoarding elephants. It’s silly how much we love to do this, and perhaps a sign that we should be doing more constructive activities as a group, but we’re memory-hoarding elephantine storytellers and maybe we’re writing the sequel to “How I Met Your Mother” and it’s what we like to do. We like to hoard our memories, use them to build stories, marvel at the absurdity of life.
I hoard memories, for certain. In my living room, I have an ottoman that opens to reveal boxes of journals, photographs, show reviews clipped from newspapers, notes, letters, cards. That’s a lot of paper with a lot of memories that I don’t need to hold in my brain.* And perhaps in decades when I’m in the throes of dementia, I’ll sit for hours digging through my vast stores of paper, unfolding the notes that the cute boy in freshman geometry used to write me back in 2003, tracing my tenuous path to adulthood through a pile of spiral notebooks, aching for the details–details that I could never capture in words or photos or origami or Crayola marker song lyric collages.
There are no words that can capture the most precious feelings. I don’t know how to write a book that will explain to an elderly, confused version of myself how strangely warm it feels to see someone cry because you’re leaving them or how cold it feels when someone leaves you. All the photographs and programs and ticket stubs can’t encapsulate the ecstasy of being onstage. I can’t write a poem about the spins.
I cling to the most visceral elements of my memories. What will I do when I can no longer remember the feeling of your hands on my back? When I can’t remember how cold I was that night in October, how I had to put on a bathrobe over my sweatshirt to keep out the chill? When I can’t hear the applause of 1300 people giving a standing ovation in the middle of a high school theatre performance? When I can’t relive the feeling of my stomach dropping as the cops burst into the backyard at our Memorial Day roller disco in 2007? When I can’t see the green paper that I used to write my goodbye letter to our house on Brook Bay eleven years ago?
*Guys, what if I started referring to my brain as my personal virtualized storage solution? I AM THE CLOUD. Only I’m not a particularly non-repudiating solution. I can’t vouch for the integrity of my data.