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You Can't Remember Half the Things You Used to -- How Much Does That Matter?

While memories may be all you have of the past, they're not all there is to being alive. There is something more.

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Okay, okay, it isn't just the Michael Jordans of the mind who have a memory. Yes, you still have one, too. You're not brain-dead, you don't suffer from Alzheimer's, you're not diseased, you're not a total loss. You still remember that Eleanor Rigby car ride, and a few other things as well. And sometimes, after you've given up hope, the fog does lift. What you'd thought was gone forever unexpectedly bubbles up from the darkness: "Of course! I left the damn keys in my overcoat."

But all those years you spent with Joanne, why do you recall so little about them? Or her? And the books you've read, the books you've loved, why is there so little, if anything, you can remember of them, or of the countless movies you've seen? Why do they all seem so hazy and blurry, sparse and fragile? Why do the memories you have seem black and white and gray? What happened to Technicolor? Why, when you were visiting Hawaii, did you just laugh at the very idea that you'd ever be able to remember all those odd-sounding place names, no matter how often you might say them aloud? Could you even think of learning a foreign language or mastering some new discipline? Are you entering the zoned-out state your father always seemed to be in when you saw him at the nursing home, staring so fixedly off into space that he appeared to be watching the wall he was sitting passively in front of? What show is playing so insistently inside your head these days? Or is it just a blank screen in there with ­nothing on?

Or is it that you are just not paying attention? Is that it? Thinking about something else when you should be absorbing (for future remembering) whatever happens to be staring you in the face at any given moment? (If that's it, then what keeps making your mind drift elsewhere? And where is it drifting to?) Or have you just reached that point in life where you really can't pay attention anymore; that point where you don't even want to pay attention; that point where you're so damn old, where things—people, places, life, things—are just so familiar, so reminiscent, so tiresomely repetitive that they lack any significance they might once have held for you and now simply don't—can't—sink in? Is that why memories don't form? Because you're going through the motions, a kind of replicant on auto-pilot, unengaged, coasting through life with far fewer fantasies of love or fame or bliss or wealth? Because you've been there, done that? Or because you've convinced yourself that you have? And does that blithe indifference, that buffered stance, increasingly hinder your ability to recapture the past as well?11

Can You at Least Remember When All This Forgetfulness Started?

"Remember"?!?! Get serious!

In high school English, you read Our Town, by Thornton Wilder, a play whose action unfolds in Grover's Corners, a storybook town in New Hampshire as alien to everything you were growing up in as it was somehow identical. No work of art had ever so shaken your adolescent sense of immortality. And it did so, simply and powerfully, by conveying the transcendent beauty of everyday life: how unseen the gift of merely being alive is, and how inevitably that unappreciated gift must come to an end.

One line in particular sent chills through you. The omniscient Stage Manager sets the stage for Act Two by telling the audience that, during intermission. three years have passed, so that "a number of people who thought they were right young and spry have noticed that they can't bound up a flight of stairs like they use-ta, without their hearts flutterin' a little. All that can happen in a thousand days." When you first came across that line in 10th grade, you wondered, "When does that take place, that transition to a weaker body? Thirty to thirty-three? Forty-one to forty-four?" Well, you now know that, at least for you, those thousand days took place in your fifties.

 
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