Memory fails

From seat 5A, I gaze out at the Ohio hills, greens slowly turning to yellow and crimson with the fall. This is my 4th flight in three days. Long ago, on those early morning Southwest flights back home to DC, I taught myself to nap on planes. Now short flights equal naps. But airports equal reading. I seek out airport bookshops.

On this trip, I discover The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. This story of memory, personal history, and rewriting the past is my companion on a long day of short flights and extended layovers.

My visit to Pittsburgh included time spent with a mother losing her short-term memory even as her grasp of the distant past broadens and tightens. My father must deal with her changing needs even as he deals with his own fatigue from cancer treatments.

At the Pittsburgh airport, I fall into the caretaker role for Mrs. Wright, a neighbor of my parents. Her bag weights twice as much as mine, and she needs a wheelchair to navigate the vast landside terminal. She is traveling to Charlotte to visit her great grandbaby (among others), who is one month old. I imagine how travel has changed in her lifetime, and how hard it is, at the end of that lifetime, to manage the little things like bag check and security lines.

Mrs. Wright will be a witness to her great granddaughter’s life. But who is witness to hers? Does anyone still live who knew her in infancy, or childhood, when she learned to ride a bike, went to school, fell in love?

Barnes writes, “…as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been.”

My mom no longer remembers my high school friend, Meg. She no longer asks me for news from Sheila, my college roommate, or Patty, my playmate on Amy Drive. She doesn’t remember that she’s visited my home in Cleveland Heights or in Houston. She may never see our Louisville condo.

Facebook has put me in touch with old friends. Together we can piece together a tapestry of the past, each of us enriching the other and building a common memory. But there are long years of my life for which I am the sole keeper of memory – imperfect, inadequate, uncertain. Barnes is right: what I remember may not be true, and is surely not the whole story. Does it matter? Does my inability to remember the details change who I think I am today? And if distant memory replaces the present moment in old age, who am I then?

From seat 5A, I watch the rolling hills as we fly over southeastern Ohio. The leaves are just now turning. Soon they will explode with a glory of color, then fall, and the trees will sleep.

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