I dream about remembering. I want to populate my mind with knowledge and see life with different, better eyes. It seems to be a noble objective, I think, but it is a pretty individualistic one too. The idea is to eventually be good, and do good, but until then it is about me, alone with my books, in front of my computer, studying and remembering whatever I want. Sometimes, it all becomes hazy and I lose perspective of what I am doing, and whatever vague moral ambitions that drive me get even vaguer. Why am I doing all this? Does it really matter? But in the middle of this fog of doubts and fears, out of the blue, the obvious answer appeared in the guise of a loving smile. I visited my mother one of these days and finally realised why she doesn’t read anymore, even after all my stubborn insistence, even after all my appeals. The answer stroke me like a slap in the face: she simply can’t remember what she read the day before. Again, out of the blue, the fog dissipated and the path appeared clear as never before. If there is any true reason why I should learn the Art of Memory, it is to make her remember.
It was a day like any other, but I was abnormally happy. I was around seven years old at the time and my mom had agreed to buy me a set of table tennis racquets and ball (we call it ping-pong). I wasn’t so sure who I’d play with, because I’ve never had many friends and the ones I had didn’t have a table for playing it. But I was indeed happy. We had never been a poor family (not rich either), but somehow in a very subliminar way my parents had taught me the value of things, both spiritual and material. I knew those rackets had cost money and I was grateful for what she was doing. She was paying the cashier and I was trying to reach for the rackets behind that tall counter that made me stand on tiptoes. I had my armpits over the counter and my arms cumbersomely arched toward the inside of it, making me look like a a lobster hanging from a fisherman’s hook. Then it happened in the form of a dry, grave thud. I let go of the counter almost as if jumping from a cliff and saw my mom lying on the ground. I kneeled beside her and slightly touched her shoulders. “Mom, mom, mom!” I had absolutely no idea what was going on until the blood began flooding out of the back of her head, slowly covering the wood laminate flooring underneath. I have always thought that blood was red — at least that’s how they looked in the movies — but that was instead a black pool of a viscous liquid, more like the hot milk I loved to drink in the afternoons, full of powdered chocolate that would make it thick, dark and yummy; I would probably have eventually noticed the reddish border of the puddle advancing towards my feet, but at that moment I was staring at the dark gist of it. As soon as her head began shaking sideways as if she were being electrocuted and a very low rumbling came from somewhere deep inside her throat, I felt some lady’s hands pulling me and turning me away. With the corner of my eyes I could still catch a glimpse of a bearded man kneeling over her and putting his hands inside her mouth. I didn’t know what he was doing, but I could somehow sense it was for her good. Then someone gave me my ping-pong rackets and ball.
My mom didn’t die that day and she still hasn’t, more than three decades later. All that blood, scary as it was, was just due to the impact on the floor and the least of her problems. She was diagnosed with hydrocephaly and a pump was stuck in her head. I remember helping her pump that thing by repeatedly pressing with my thumb a small cambered rubber disk that abrupted from her scalp. That event though, far from letting her down, brought renewed happiness to her life. She has always been a lively woman, one who seems never to be affected by life’s difficulties, besides fighting so many of them in a daily basis. Now, she felt all at once how beloved she was. All her friends from all three jobs she had and all her family members demonstrated their love for her and she was amazed and thankful and happy. She had had to shave her hair entirely, but for her that was an opportunity to have fun wearing a number of different wigs and to be different women depending on her mood: today she was a brunette, tomorrow a blonde, and the day after she was a red-haired amazona. It was impressive how she had turned a near-death experience into a blessing. She perfectly embodied the great Marcus Aurelius’ words “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way”. She had seen the good in the bad and strengthened herself with it. Pure Stoicism!
But then she fell again, now in a moving bus. She hurt her head and face again and looked like Rocky after fighting Apollo for the first time. Now, apparently, she had “dysrythmia”, some kind of epilepsy, they said. The problem was not hydrocephaly, after all. She again sucked it up, but her spirit was not elevated as before. She could faint and fall any time, so her freedom of movement was affected. How could she trust herself again? She would now have to take strong medicines for the rest of her life and hope for the best. And she still had to pump that useless pump! My father wanted to kill that “hydrocephaly” doctor. I remember listening to him planning his death many times. But he never did, thankfully. In fact, he was diverted from those thoughts after taking my mother to go see another doctor. He wanted to make sure what she had and this doctor, now a good one, finally found out. It was a cerebral aneurism. Chances were, if she fainted again, that the aneurism would rupture and she would either fall to a coma or die. The doctor said she had been really lucky. She had to be submitted to surgery immediately. My father renewed his vows of killing the other doctor, but, again, there was no time to do so.
The surgery was successful and the aneurism was clipped. Life eventually resumed and everything went back to normality. That, of course, meant almost daily fights between mom and dad, who would also fight my older brother constantly. While he was clearly worried about her life, all his actions seemed to be in the direction of abbreviating it. Any serious stress could make the clip fail and kill her, but he reacted to any ordinary problem of life by fostering arguments with a generous amount of alcohol, thus stressing her to extremely high levels. But years passed. One day, the argument involved my grandmother, who was visiting us for Christmas. My grandmother has always been one of the most beautiful women we have ever met. She was tall and sleek, with long legs and dark hair, big eyes and meaty lips — classy like a princess. She was aptly named “Diva” and my late grandfather used to call her, even more appropriately, “Divine Diva”. Nobody believed she was my mom’s mom — she looked like her sister — not because my mom looked old, but because she looked so young. That factidic Christmas day, I saw my grandmother look old for the first time. In a rampart of alcoholic rage, my father told her the doctor had given my mom an expiration date: that aneurism surgery was good for ten years at most. And seven had passed. That day ended like a bad omen, all those Christmas presents for nothing.
But the clip has held ever since. My grandmother has died. My father has died. But not mom. And little after I moved to the mountains with my wife, I brought her to live by me. I managed to rent her a beautiful cozy house less than 100 yards from mine and I am happy to take care of her. She loves the house and keeps repeating how grateful she is that I could find such a beautiful place for her. However, although she is alive and much better than I could have anticipated, something else inside her is dying. I think it is her will to live. It is not that she is depressed, although she has been for a long time encompassing the deaths of her mother and her husband; it is not either that she wants to die, not at all. It is more like she is forgetting to live.
I remember well when my father said that her memory would never be the same after surgery and that it would get worse with age. We clearly noticed the symptoms and throughout the years we had to adapt. After he died in 2012, things got worse — much worse. Or at least it was my perception that changed, because I began to see my mother with much higher frequency. Her memory had decayed to a level that largely affected her responsibility. She couldn’t be trusted anymore. She had turned into an easy prey for bank managers who would induce her into contracting loans and investing into virtual scams. She had a lot of debts and had no idea about them. Time and time again I’d explain her situation to no avail — she would always forget it all. She still had short-term memory, so that she could stop the conversation to go to the restroom and still remember to come back — but not much more than that. I believe the problem is with her working memory. There is considerable discussion about the differences between short-term and working memory, so I won’t delve in those right now. I believe you got the picture. In any way, it is a quite “short-term working memory” problem. Of course, age is also weighting a lot in the equation, but when I compare her with other elders I know, the difference is conspicuous. And it was made even more so when I decided to “force” her to read a book.
My mom has read a lot in her life. She did Letters in college and she used to teach three languages. I’ve recently found an old note she wrote to a famous local newspaper complaining about the extremely low pays for teachers and the utter disrespect with the children that didn’t have what to eat in the public schools she worked at. I was amazed by the quality of her prose and deeply proud of her. I was also very sad to realise such an intelligent woman did not write anymore — and did not even read. I decided to try to stimulate her, so I bought new books. I told her the story of the books to see if she would get excited about them and she did, so I was confident. But she wouldn’t read. Eventually, she told me she couldn’t see well. I took her to an eye doctor and made new glasses. She kept complaining, so I took her to a new doctor, made new glasses and even bought a magnifying glass. Still, she would not read. I bought her a Kindle reader and with great effort (kind of) taught her how to use it in the most basic way. I set it up with huge font sizes, internal lights on, a leather case that automatically wakes and sleeps the device, and even bought her a cushion pillow to hold it. Yet… I then implored her to read for just a week, any amount she wanted to read, but that she did it every day. Just for that week. And I would visit her every day to check upon her reading. She complied and that’s when I saw the truth. Most of the time, she wouldn’t even remember the name of the book! She could never remember what she had read the previous day and she could only partially recall it after she resumed reading. After a few minutes through the reading session of the day, I would ask if she could now remember and she would say “Yes, of course”, but that never convinced me. I am pretty sure she was deducing the gist of what had happened in the story based on what she was reading at the moment. She was clearly forgetting most of the details. In fact, I now believe that in any given reading session, she forgets what she has just read a few pages before.
I can only imagine how uninteresting the story must become. She can’t keep current events within the higher framework of the plot. She can’t remember who are the characters, let alone their backgrounds. How can she keep the drive to read if she forgets the story even while reading? How can I expect she will want to read again the next day? With ever decreasing interest, she ends up simply forgetting to read. Instead, she watches television all day. And forgets what she has watched. And life becomes boring and featureless, and time loses its importance; everything seems to be now, or so long ago it feels like a dream. She lives in a limbo of peaceful forgetfulness; of steady existence that doesn’t bother her nor excites her. Not dying, but not really living. Just being.
It is easy for a son to let a mother fade into oblivion like this. She doesn’t really want anything or, if she does, she quickly forgets it; so she hardly complains. It is easy not to go visit her. She never calls — although she seems to want too — because she forgets to do so. More than that, actually; she is forgetting the importance of calling the people she loves. So it is easy not to call her either. She is forgetting the most basic emotions of life; she could hardly feel the loss of her best friend’s husband when he died recently. I don’t mean necessarily she should feel so much for him, but for her friend. I imagined she would rush to the phone to call her when she received the news, yet she seemed to not give much importance to the fact. She is forgetting the value of life and death. No wonder she can sit their doing nothing all day. Is it a grander design to make us care less about life and also about death as we grow old, just because the latter approaches? Can’t we be like Zorba, the Greek, and feel ever more rushed to enjoy life exactly because it is ending? It is easy to just maintain her life and assume her time of really living has passed. All she and we have to do is give time the chance to flow — until it doesn’t anymore. It is easy for a son to just carry on with his life and let his mother end hers in silence.
I want her to remember and I want her to get excited again. I want her to crave for new knowledge or, at least, for experiencing the new worlds a book provides, being it a philosophy work or a Shakespearean tragedy, being it a modern novel or a Homeric poem. I want her to enjoy life, even if from her armchair. I don’t want her to watch useless TV and to be contented with it! I want to have what to talk with her — in a real conversation, you know, not me in a monologue. Because what can she talk about if she doesn’t do anything nor read nor remember? She only repeats the same trivialities about how the dog recognises the sound of my motorcycle when I pass, how the garden insists on growing so fast. At least, I am glad she doesn’t remember all the crap she watches on TV. But I am convinced that without remembering, we can’t enjoy. We can’t cherish our moments — not fully — because we usually frame our emotions in the context of our recent experiences. If we were sad yesterday and now we see this beautiful sunrise, we feel so well that we sigh with relief, as if finally freeing ourselves from last night’s ordeal. If we, instead, see beautiful sunrises every day, as if we were in Paradise gazing at an eternal dawn, we would soon stop feeling much (that’s why Paradise can’t be so dull). She lives in everlasting moments or dreaming about a past long dead. I doubt there is a complete solution; a lot of this is just part of life and I must accept it. I also don’t want to sound like I am not grateful — I am, a lot. The simple fact that she can still see the sun shining is a blessing. But I want to try to make her life better. It makes me anxious to see her in the twilight of her life and not enjoying it to its fullest. Maybe this is all just wishful thinking; but I want to teach her about the places and images of the ancient.
I went to her home the other day and took her outside. It was a gorgeous sunny day and we sat by her pool in the garden. I told her about the Art of Memory and what I have been doing about it — or dreaming to do. It was not the first time we talked about it, but I know I can never repeat myself too much with her, so I proceeded. I told her how we can better remember by conjuring images about facts and exaggerating them, turning them into something wonderful or funny or terrifying. These images would then be placed on well-known locations, as if forming a journey along which she would be able to see them and recall the information encoded. Her home could be her own Memory Palace. I told her we could try it one day. Maybe we could read a book together, a simple one, and we could try to remember it using the Art. She liked the idea, although she found it all too complicated. Would she try now? She said that she sure would.
I realised I had nothing in mind at that moment and I had not brought any book. In fact, I realised that I should think this idea through with more care, lest I spoil our first trial. I should go home first and browse the Web for a simplified version of some classical work of literature that would be easy and at the same time enjoyable. But I didn’t want to lose the momentum I had gained, so I decided to conjure one or two images with her and see how she behaved.
I gave her a random scene to imagine. I asked her to assume we were reading a book about ancient Egypt and that there was a scene when Cleopatra attended a party. Could she picture Cleopatra in her mind? She couldn’t. I could have shown her a picture from Google in my cellphone, but I decided instead to try to activate my mom’s imagination by just using words. I tried my best to describe Cleopatra — or the stereotypical image I have in my mind — and also to turn the very spot we were at into an oasis in the desert. This last part was not that hard and she began to imagine the scene, but Cleopatra had no real body or face, she said — she could only imagine the attributes I described, not a real physiognomy. So I asked her to picture her mother. I explained how images get much more memorable when we associate them with known people, specially those who arouse an emotional response from us. She kept staring at the far side of the pool where there is a tall plant quite akin to a palm tree and where there is a nice shade. There she saw grandma. She said she could see her dancing by herself and then she mimicked those kind of movements you would expect from Hawaiian hula-hula dancers. I laughed and said that was not Egyptian. She shrugged and said “But that’s what she is doing”. She could not see her entire body at once, though; she could picture her legs dancing and her face, but not all of her connected into one person. That’s weird, I said, but that’s also OK. And she said she was barefooted. I asked why and she replied she didn’t know. I am sure my grandmother has never danced barefooted, at least, definitely not in a party. She always dressed in an impeccable way, always with high heels, always matching every piece in perfect composition. She wouldn’t dance barefooted. That’s why I loved it all! My mother was really letting her imagination flow, she was actually seeing the images in her mind’s eye; and most importantly, she was seeing it placed exactly on the far side of the pool, by the shade where I had told her to put it– not anywhere else.
I then told her about the problem with abstract words and names. Concrete objects, those we can touch or grab, are much more picturable. I asked her to think of an abstract word and she said “noise”. How would she picture it? She didn’t know. I then reminded her of the neighbour across the street and his drum practice. Was it loud? “Oh yes, but he has to practice to get good, because it is so hard”, she said. OK, but does it bother you? “Not at all, only when I am watching TV”, she replied. So I asked her to imagine the noise he produced. Could she? Yes. She began doing this TU-TUM-TU-TUM noise with her mouth. You see, you remember it because it aroused you somehow. In a bad way, when you want to watch TV; and in a good way, when you sympathise with his effort of learning. But we can do better than that. What if he played so loud that the entire house began to tremble and she couldn’t hear her own voice? She distorted her face. What if it was so loud that those Chinese plates hanging on the wall would fall and shatter into pieces all over the floor? “AAAHHH”, she screamed, terrified. Yes! That’s the kind of emotion I needed. “If you have to remember the word noise”, I said, “you remember the drumming so loud that your Chinese dish explodes from the wall”. “AAAHHH”, she screamed again.
What about names? Imagine we want to remember the scene from Iliad when Achilles is so furious he wants to kill Agamemnon. “Have you seen Troy, the movie?”, I asked and she said no, but I am quite sure she had. I was pleased, anyway, because I wanted to use the “substitute word” method with her, I didn’t want her to easily see Brian Cox and Brad Pitt like I could. I explained that when a word is too abstract or when it is a name, we could try to find more concrete substitute words based on sound resemblance. For instance, the number “3” could be a “tree” and “Jim” could be a jar of “jam”. But what the heck does Agamemnon sound like, I thought. Gifted with a terrible imagination, all I could think of was “melon”. He would now be “Agamelon, the king” and she would picture him as a huge melon with a long beard and a shining crown rolling down her garden. Could she? Not really, she said, but I kept going. OK, but we need Achilles too, how would she picture him, I asked. “Tall, blond and beautiful”, she said. Great, but was that something really memorable, was she so “alive” that a tall blond man would arouse so much emotions, I wondered, half-hoping she would say so. She said it wouldn’t, but as I write this I realise I should have suggested she visualised Paul Newman; she has praised his blue eyes ever since I was inside her belly! But I proposed instead to use a simple association. “You know how they use the expression ‘Achilles heel’ to denote a weak spot, right? How Achilles was supposedly killed by an arrow shot at him which lodged in his heel, right?”, I asked. She said yes. So I tried my best, “Let’s see our hero ‘Acheeles’ as a huge foot with an arrow across and let’s place him over the stairs that lead to the pool. The huge foot is stumping strongly on the stairs….”. “… and breaking the handrail”, she interrupted me. Yes! “Breaking the rail and dripping a lot of blood. The blood is running down the stairs and falling into the pool and the pool is turning red”. She distorted her face again and said “Not blood, I hate blood”. I said “Yes, blood! Because you hate it, that’s exactly why we’ll use it”. I had helped her to sit by the pool with her legs in the water, because she was too warm. As I proceeded to describe the scene where that huge foot was chasing the rolling mellon down the ramp that protrudes from the facade of the house, I noticed her hands; she was pushing water away from her as if trying to avoid the blood to touch her skin. And I was delighted.
Today, I visited my mother again. It is another pretty day, with bright blue skies and no clouds in the horizon. We sat by her balcony and I threw a ball for the dog to fetch. She began talking about how happy she was for having a son who would find such a lovely house for her. She also explained again how the dog recognises me when I pass by with my motorcycle. Then, pointing to the stairs by the pool, I bluntly asked her if she remembered what we had put there using just our imagination. In a split second, she answered “Oh yes, of course, that big foot chasing that ball, Agamemnon, down the garden. Yuck, and that gross blood all over the pool…”