The “geography of memory.” That’s the intriguing metaphor driving Jeanne Murray Walker’s fascinating memoir. It’s odd to think of memory as having geography, but Walker’s tale is a vivid but mystical landscape of the depth and breadth, cracks and fissures, ebbs and flows of the impact of memory–and the loss of it–on our sense of self and our connection to those we love.
Walker’s prose is lively and thought-provoking. She’s an accomplished poet and essayist (and professor of English), so while it perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise, one still feels fortunate to come across a contemporary memoir that reads like literature. She draws the reader slowly toward her life and consciousness–as if gently coaxing us into a coming tragedy. We come to feel the vibrant love between a daughter and her mother, the increasingly difficult navigation of siblings around the emerging struggle over the question (as Virginia Stem Owens once put it), “What shall we do with mother”?, and we feel the brace of the existential challenge of identity which comes with the loss of memory. For Walker, her mother’s dementia, ironically enough, unleashes for her a steady stream of her own childhood memories. As she grapples with her mother’s decline, she begins to understand her mother–and herself–with deeper layers and thicker textures. The geography of memory.
Human personhood and identity is a funny thing. While, theologically, Christians affirm a certain sameness of personhood and ultimate identity (for example, we are all created in the image of God and are God’s creatures), our narrative identities shift with the plot of our lives. Furthermore, our identities shift with our interactions with others in that plot. And as our parents age and face something as challenging and life-altering as dementia, our personal reflection on these fluctuations of plot configuration and characterization speed up with a vengeance. We think about the brevity of life, the inevitability of death, and we’re faced with the prospect of children becoming caretakers of parents (and the converse: parents being looked after and fussed over by children). With Alzheimer’s, we think about what memory means and how narrative constitutes our selves. And we think about what it means to cope with its loss in those we love. Memoirs like Walker’s, which express in poetic depth the “geography of memory” can help us do that–and give us a shot in the arm of poetic courage.
As I think about my own mother, standing in the waters of Alzheiemer’s, the coming waves increasing in daunting intensity on the horizon, and as I reflect on father’s challenges in caring for her daily and the challenge of sustaining a coherent narrative–and identity–of love, freedom, and hope in the midst of unrelenting change and constraint, I’m thankful that Jesus knew of the challenge of identity that comes with the territory–the geography–of human finitude. His honest words to the disciple he loved reverberate:
“Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” (John 21:18)