My name is Michelle Urbick. Virginia is a dear friend of mine, and I have served as her editor for this blog since she began writing it in 2017.
I visit Virginia regularly, and we often touch on topics that relate to her writing. The last time I visited I “surprised” her a bit with my arrival—we’d planned the date and time together, and I’d confirmed it the day before, but she had just woken up and hadn’t looked at her calendar yet—and of course, could not rely on her memory to know I would be coming. (She was gracious and flexible, and made it clear I was a pleasant surprise, and our chat over coffee proceeded as intended.)
Virginia has written a lot, in different ways, about what it feels like to live with memory loss. On this particular day, I became curious about what it feels like to forget what you’re doing while you’re doing it (versus forgetting a word or an idea you had, which has more often been written). I asked Virginia this question, and as we spoke about it she jotted some notes to herself in the back of her journal, because she thought it might be something she’d like to write about.
I emailed Virginia after our chat to share a few notes I’d written about this idea, and reminded her about the notes in the back of her journal. When Virginia replied to my email, it was clear to her that the idea was lost—even with the notes we both took, she wasn’t able to pull the ideas together again to write a post like she planned.
That’s when we hatched the plan for me to write this post—to share a sneak peak into what Virginia means when she says “writing is becoming more difficult,” and also to convey the answer to the question—do you ever forget what you’re doing, while you’re doing it?
Below, using my words to label Virginia’s experience, is my best approximation of Virginia’s answer.
The feeling can be compared to the experience of going upstairs and forgetting what you were there for. (Even those of us without memory loss can relate to this feeling, I’m sure!) When I asked Virginia if retracing her steps—for example, going back downstairs to where you had the thought—would help jog her memory to recall the information. Here, I think, is where the experience of memory loss diverges from the more typical experience we share as adults whose minds aren’t quite as sharp as they once were. Virginia answered that to go back and “retrace” helped at one point, but not anymore. These days, naming it as Alzheimer’s softens the knowledge that the information is gone, and it is completely out of her control.
She shared an anecdote about an interaction with Keith recently, when Virginia said, “I wish I could remember [a certain detail],” and Keith kindly but simply reminded her, “but you can’t remember.” Virginia said this brief reminder helped her to quickly make peace with the realization that this detail was gone for good, and accept it rather than resisting and persisting in wishing she could get that memory back.
It reminded Virginia of a friend she had when she was younger who was blind, and had been so since she was very small. This friend didn’t feel sorry for herself; she accepted her condition and her limitation as her own reality, and operated accordingly, without self-pity or regret or explanation. Virginia feels an element of that now, because the memories are not hers to keep, and her condition is out of her control.
Another detail that arose in the conversation is Virginia mentioned that sometimes if she forgot what she was doing while she was doing it, the emotion of what had happened before remained—even though the context was missing. I found this to detail to be both interesting and insightful; I can only imagine how disorienting this might feel.
A final noteworthy detail was a moment in our conversation when I asked Virginia a clarifying question about whether she’d ever experienced something, and she looked at me over her coffee cup and said in a good-natured tone, “Ah! That’s a memory question.” In other words—I was asking a person with Alzheimer’s to remember something specific.
With this in mind, I will leave you with a thought I’ve had many times in my interactions with Virginia, that might be of use to those of you who love and care for someone with memory loss. Relating with her is an ongoing exercise in being in the present moment—not the past or the future, but right now. Because of her cognitive condition, she’s less and less capable over time of going on the “typical” conversational journeys of revisiting what has already happened, or anticipating what will happen (I truly never realized how often we do this until my conversations with Virginia)—but there is very rich conversation and interaction available when I meet her right where we are and don’t try to be anywhere else, or pretend any different.