Photographs and Memories

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Memories are a tricky thing. You don’t always know they’re missing until someone or something points it out to you.

Short term memory loss is a common symptom of late-stage Lyme disease. You know how you walk into a room and forget what you went in there for? Or you forget where you left your keys? That’s normal forgetfulness in a busy life. With Lyme, these instances are stranger and more frequent. The real oddness of it is you don’t realize you’ve forgotten something.

For instance, this past Friday evening I asked my husband if he had to work the following day. He gave me that look I’ve come to know so well – a combination of frustration and amusement – and said, “You just asked me that ten minutes ago.” Ten minutes ago? Really? I tried to remember what I’d been doing ten minutes ago when I’d asked him that question. I came up empty. “Did you answer me?” I asked. He did the eye roll thing and laughed at me. Turns out the answer was yes, he did have to work a few hours the following day.

Our memories are independent of our wills.
~ Richard Brinsley Sheridan

This sort of thing can make for an interesting day. People don’t like to feel they’re being tuned out. Even people who understand my illness occasionally get irritated with my perceived inattentiveness. And I can’t blame them for those feelings. I get irritated with myself, as well.

Me to my son: “Take the trash out, please.”
My son: “I did that a half hour ago.”
“You did?”
Raised eyebrows and a huff.

My husband to me: “I have to drive down to XYZ factory again tomorrow.”
Me: “You were there before?”
“Last week. I told you.”
“You did?”

You know the real problem with this kind of short term memory loss? It gives my husband all sorts of leverage. If I claim he didn’t tell me something important, he can always say, “Yes, I did. You just don’t remember.”

While the short term memory loss is an everyday aggravation, it’s the long term memory loss that I find truly disconcerting. I have gaping holes in my past, like segments of my life were cut out and tossed away. I assume this is due to the advanced Lyme, though I don’t really know because there is so little research. I also don’t know because the neurologist who was supposed to look at my brain didn’t want to “look for trouble.”

Here’s an example of what these missing parts feel like:

A couple of years ago, I was sorting through my old photo albums. I came across a bunch of photos of my older son Anthony when he was a year or so old. (He is now 28.) In the photos, he was playing with another boy about his age. Some were taken at the other boy’s birthday party, at what I assume was the child’s home, and some were taken at our home. I had absolutely no memory of this boy. Finally, after pondering these photos for more than an hour, I came up with the boy’s first name. Several months later, I was finally able to remember his mother’s first name. At least, I think it’s her first name. I have no memory of how we met, how long we were friends, or what we did together. I don’t remember ever being in their presence. I look at the photos, and I have a vague tingling of something like recollection. But it’s not a memory. Not really. I know I should remember them. I know I spent time with them. But I know nothing beyond that.

My sons’ father and I divorced in 1997 and I long ago lost touch with the people from that time in my life. I have no one to ask about this mysterious child and his faceless mother. It’s an odd feeling to be confronted with photographic evidence of an experience in your life you have no memory of.  It’s not like forgetting details. The entire memory and every detail surrounding it is gone. Without those photos, I’d never even know these people existed in our lives.

Memory is a way of holding onto the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.
~ From the television show The Wonder Years

I wonder about the things I’ve forgotten that I don’t realize are lost. A popular theory, or maybe an obvious truth, is our memories define us. They make us who we are. I wonder, though, if that theory is slightly off. Maybe it’s not the memories defining us, but the experiences of having lived them. Am I the same person now as I would be if all those memories came back to me? Would remembering them change me, or is having lived them already what helped shape the person I became?

I have no memory of anything before the age of 7. From there through my mid teens, my memories are spotty at best. And, from then until now, there are pieces as lost to me as the child in the photograph. But I believe the impact of the experiences remains. Remembering them might give me better insight, but I don’t think they’d make a difference in the person I am.