The two of them stand in the shadows—shoulder to shoulder, side by side. I gaze at their backsides, for their faces are fixed on the black and white images moving on the screen before them. I sense sadness in their shadows. I am very young, for as I reflect on the date it is November 1963. I am 22 months old.
This is my earliest memory: my mother and my grandmother mourning the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
What resonates more powerfully than the death of a president is the memory of my mother standing next to her own mother, her “Ina” in Tagalog. The image that I remember was from my grandmother’s only visit to the United States from her homeland of the Philippines.
My memory shadow of their shoulders touching side by side reflects my mother’s relationship to her mother despite the miles between them. My mother’s heart was continually tied to her own mother’s heart, whose name was Caridad, which means “heart” in Tagalog. As a young woman in the Philippines, her mother was her deepest confidante until she left her side in 1959 to seek a better life in America as the wife of a Filipino US soldier who had fought in World War II in the jungles of the Bataan Peninsula.
This memory etched in my mind is the last time my mother would stand shoulder to shoulder with her own mother. Five years later my mother would return to the Philippines for the first time to observe her mother’s funeral.
This first memory of mine is interlaced with even more meaning one year after my own mother’s passing. For my mother lost all her recall of all her treasure of memory. I lost my mother to Alzheimer’s long before she passed.
When the first remnants of memory loss emerged, my mother came to live with us. And over the next ten years, I would observe the slow progression of her memory loss and cognition . . . like drops of water running through a sieve until the water is gone and the sieve is empty . . .
save for the moment in front of you.
The present moment.
This is the only gift Alzheimer’s leaves.
The joy of being present.
Of gazing into the eyes of a loved one.
One who sees nothing else.
No past. No future.
No scars. No pain.
No mistakes. No failures.
Those eyes empty of memory but full of love,
unconditional, all-encompassing love,
were a balm to the pain of realizing
she did not know where she was,
what day it was,
my children’s names,
All that remained in that brain entangled in amyloid plaques was love.
And love alone.
If during these times we suffer from memory loss in wishing things were the way they used to be
perhaps memory loss
is the best way to restore
living in the present moment.