The Mind Forgets but the Heart Remembers
Navigating a long-standing friendship through dementia
I stared at these photographs on my iPhone while waiting at the gate for my flight back to San Francisco from Spokane International Airport. A flood of emotions swept through me— joy, sadness mostly, and an ache in my heart.
These were taken in 2014 when my good friend, Gail first disclosed she was diagnosed with dementia. We sat on a bench at the end of the breakwater in Santa Barbara Harbor. From sunset to dusk, we took in the view of the city and the beautiful Santa Ynez mountain. As we walked the long path back to the parking lot, I took a few snapshots with my iPod camera to remember this moment. I resurrected them in 2020 for a class called Arise and Shine with Laura Valenti adding a transparent layer containing her handwriting. Photography’s power to capture a moment and hold it forever echoes my yearning to cease time as she slips further away.
Photography’s power to capture a moment and hold it forever echoes my yearning to cease time as she slips further away.
Back in March, Gail took a long pause before she answered my usual cheerful greeting. “Oh, Hi Stella, ” she replied in a polite but formal tone. A knot formed in my stomach. She used to say, “Oh, Hi sweetie!” without missing a heartbeat. After I hung up, I sensed she was beginning to forget who I was. The moment I dreaded had arrived and I knew it was also time to visit her before dementia permanently severed the delicate strands of memory left between us. By God’s good grace, the Spokane leg didn’t incur an additional cost when I included it in my Seattle itinerary. I pressed my palms together and said thank you. I had my fears and apprehensions before the trip. What if she doesn’t remember me anymore? Was I ready to face this?
The moment I dreaded had arrived and I knew it was also time to visit her before dementia permanently severed the delicate strands of memory left between us.
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No matter how much I psyched myself mentally and emotionally, I felt a pang in my chest when Gail was unable to recognize me. She knew my name but not my face. Only when Mel, her daughter, reiterated that I was indeed Stella, her friend who came all the way from San Francisco to visit her, that her eyes widened and a smile spread across her face. She hugged me. “You came all this way just to see me?” she asked, somewhat in disbelief that someone would make the effort. “Of course! I wanted to let you know I haven’t forgotten you, “ I responded. She took my hand and squeezed it several times. Taking her cue, I held hers while all three of us spent a few hours in the afternoon inside her room.
Conversation loops were inevitable but I answered every recurring question as if it were the first time I heard it. What a joy it was to hear her voice and the sound of her laughter as I told funny stories from the past and my recent travels to Paris and Ireland. I reminisced about the days we worked together in the library at Brooks Institute. She used to tell me that the best part of her job was chatting with students from different parts of the world.
By the time we brought Gail back to the senior care home on the second day of my visit, she had forgotten who I was. The same thing happened the day before. “It’s nice to meet you,” she said in her polite tone after we entered the front door where some of the residents gathered in the reception area. When Mel reminded her again, she hugged me and kissed the side of my forehead. “Thank you for coming all this way to see me.”
Out of the blue, one of the residents chimed in. “I thought Stella was a dog!” and the room erupted in laughter.
It was a bittersweet moment.
The plane reached its flight altitude just as the sun was setting. I looked back on the moment we shared at the Santa Barbara Harbor. I committed then to call her regularly and to send photographs and/or postcards from my travels.
I believe the fragments of momentary joy, love, and laughter shared over the years remain imprinted in her soul.
Who are we without our memories?— a profound question Mel posed while we were on the road. I don’t know the answer. Perhaps my efforts taken as a whole don’t matter as dementia erodes Gail’s mental and eventually, her physical capabilities. But, I believe the fragments of momentary joy, love, and laughter shared over the years remain imprinted in her soul.
The mind forgets but the heart remembers.
To hold the beauty of what is while also bearing the weight of our sorrow limbs that ache for what might have been is the trick of life. To be able to do both things is the key, if not to happiness, then contentment; to a liberation that only accepting what we cannot change can bring. — , The Beauty of What is.
This us really beautiful, Stella. One I plan to read again and again.
This touched me deeply as I too try to find peace between the contrasting experiences of joy and sorrow.