Memory is everything. Without it, we are nothing.
Google walked off Hard Rock Stadium in Miami with a resounding triumph in the 2020 Super Bowl. Google, as much onomatopoeia as a multinational technology company, had us all soul searching in its heart-tugging one minute, thirty-second commercial about memory—the essence, in the moment, of us all. “Loretta,” seen by the millions watching the clash between the Chiefs and the 49ers and later 12 million views on YouTube, deftly captured a pursuit that keeps one whole.
The emotive piece, as most know, opened with a caring elderly man remembering his late wife with help of voice-activated Google Assistant, a cornucopia of poignant, sepia-toned photos and videos of the couple through the years, as her husband seeks to remember.
“Hey Google, show me photos of Loretta.”
“Show me photos from our anniversary.”
“Remember she hated my mustache.”
“Loretta always said, ‘Don’t miss me, just get out of the dang house…’”
For those watching, if that didn’t hit you, I’m not sure you have a heartbeat.
Many of us, including me over the years, have savored taking cheap shots at corporate America, but “Loretta” was smack down the middle of the field post.
Beyond the millions watching the Super Bowl and millions viewing later on YouTube, “Loretta” struck a consciousness, in gut-wrenching ways, with so many more millions across the planet—the elephant in the room, memory. Yet it’s one thing to have family photos at hand; it’s another not to remember who’s in the photo, the curse of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, a scourge we all fear, terrifying at times to disclose. As Mark Twain once wrote, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”
Google brought all this together, underscoring the yearning to preserve memories and in the process segueing—intentionally or not—to connecting dots in slaying the demons of memory loss. According to Alzheimer.net statistics, “Currently, there are 44 million people suffering from dementia globally. That number is up 22 percent over the past three years when there were 35.6 million people suffering from the disease. The report estimates that by 2050, more than 135 million people worldwide will have dementia, tripling the amount of people who have it now.”
It is a “global epidemic” in the making, as has been predicted, a collective memory loss of gargantuan scope.
In the late 1990s, an iconic song, “I Will Remember You,” written by Sarah McLachlan, Séamus Egan and Dave Merenda, recorded by Grammy Award winner McLachlan, stirred our hearts with wistful memories with McLachlan’s angelic voice.
“I will remember you
“Will you remember me?
“Don't let your life pass you by
“Weep not for the memories”
Memories abound beyond a prized snapshot—in Back To the Future, the photograph fades. While memory is defined by the experts as the brain’s facility to encode, store, and retrieve moments and information, the definition is far deeper than that.
“Memory is everything. Without it, we are nothing,” observed neuroscientist Eric Kandel, winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking research on the physiology of the brain’s capacity for memory. Memory is the glue, Kandel said, that binds the mind and provides continuity. “If you want to understand the brain,” his late mentor, eminent neurologist Harry Grundfest, once counseled him, “you’re going to have to take a reductionist approach, one cell at a time.”
Cell by cell, Kandel took the brain apart. Had he dug just a bit deeper, he may have found that memory is far more complex than an image or a recollection. While memory, in the traditional sense, offers delineating context and perspective, it doesn’t completely define us in all ways. Definition, I believe, can also be found deep in the spirit, the place of the soul, but one must dig for it. “An unexamined life,” Socrates once said, “is not worth living.”
As a family caregiver on Cape Cod for my mother, who died of Alzheimer’s, and my late father, diagnosed with dementia at end of life, I know firsthand the blind spots in a photo. I’ll never forget showing my mother Virginia, late in Alzheimer’s, a photograph of her eight surviving children, and yet she could not name one of them, including me, who was sitting next to her.
Year later, Alzheimer’s has come for me. No pity here, please; let’s just find a cure. Alzheimer’s, and other forms of dementia, not only threatens the Baby Boom Generation, but our children and grandchildren as well. The clock is ticking in this fight for memory.
Here’s what my mother told me to remember in this fight: “Take good notes, take no prisoners in this journey, and walk in faith, hope, and Irish humor. When you let go and let God,” she said, “you become a shell of yourself, and that’s a good memory…”
Bridging the gap between the mind and the soul, a close friend and neighbor, Dana Condit, recently left behind memories, beyond prints or frequent trips to Key West that will help sustain his wife Gayle, a selfless caregiver during her husband’s courageous 19-year bout with the disease. On the morning of Dana’s death, Gayle let the dogs out at 6 a.m., returning shortly to the house. The phone was ringing and ringing. Gayle reached for it, then realized the phone line had been disconnected two years ago; it had been cut. She immediately went to the bedroom to check on her husband. Dana had just passed away. “I felt he was calling me to let me know he was leaving, and that he would be in safe hands.” Gayle expressed at Dana’s burial in the Cemetery of the Sea Captains off pastoral Lower Road in Brewster on the Outer Cape. On the night of Dana’s death, Gayle checked a clock on the mantle above the fireplace. It had stopped at the time he died.
Lisa Genova, a close friend and author of the New York Times bestselling novel “Still Alice,” tells the story of her elderly grandmother, Angie, who suffered for years from Alzheimer’s, and was the impetus for Lisa’s powerful novel, later made into a movie, for which Julianne Moore won an Academy Award for Best Actress.
In “Nana’s” later stage of Alzheimer’s, one of her daughters, Mary and her husband Barry, came to live with Angie outside Boston, and cared for her with great devotion. “My Aunt Mary was a brilliant caregiver,” Lisa says. “She would get up at two in the morning to cook breakfast for Nana, who was confused about the time of day. Nana would tell her: ‘This restaurant has the best food!’”
One night in July 2002, over a dinner of steak, corn-on-the-cob, and salad, Nana looked up from the table to the living room and engaged in conversation with someone—though there was no one Mary could see.
“Who are you talking to, Ma?” Mary asked.
“Peter,” Nana replied. “I’m talking to Peter.”
“Is it St. Peter, Ma?” Mary asked.
“It’s just Peter,” replied Nana, shifting her gaze to the kitchen to where “Peter” was now standing.
Nana’s gaze followed “Peter” as he walked into the kitchen.
Then there was a pause.
“Ok,” said Nana, “One…Two…Three!”
And with that Nana’s head slumped into her plate. She had died.
“My grandmother had nine children, all married, some remarried, around 30 cousins, and there isn’t a Peter in the entire family, not one,” said Lisa, who has just completed her fifth book, one about memory, titled “Remember,” to be published soon by Random House. “I believe she jumped into whatever is next for her soul.”
My maternal grandfather, George Walter Brown—we called him “Daddy George,” as kids—departed in similar fashion; the memory still resonates with me today, and gives me chills.
Born and raised in Manhattan, my grandfather was an earnest man who had owned several Upper East Side brownstones, and munificently forgave missed rents and mortgages during the Depression with a heart the size of SoHo. He and my grandmother Loretta (an irony not lost on me with the Google commercial) eventually moved north to the suburbs in Rye, Westchester County, where they lived on Rye Beach Avenue in a classic red brick two-story home, a short walk from Rye Beach on Long Island Sound at the mouth of New York Harbor. George and Loretta followed the path of other close relatives, maternal and paternal, as family kin began arriving generations ago from the old sod, from places like Dublin, Derry, Wexford, County Clare, and Belfast.
Once or twice a week, my mother used to take me and two of my sisters, Maureen and Lauren, to see my grandmother and Daddy George. Grandma was petite, short, and thin, a woman of incalculable resolve—perseverance that she clearly passed down to my mother. Daddy George was handsome, gentle, and erudite, an intellectual in his day—small in stature, large in bounty. He didn’t talk much during our visits; Grandma did all the chatting, distracting us with sandwiches and desserts, piping hot chocolate in winter in a tall steaming glass, and in summer, fresh lemonade and blackberries from the backyard. I spent much time with her in the living room, doing homework, snooping around, and playing with her dog, a Mexican Chihuahua named Poncho. Mom, meanwhile, sat on the couch visiting with her father, trying to make conversation. The moment always seemed awkward.
In time, I began to realize that something was terribly wrong with Daddy George. His sentences were becoming shorter as his voice trailed off. He didn’t recognize us on occasion, and he gazed a lot in withdrawal. Often, he just shook his head in an acknowledgment when asked a question. I thought he was hard of hearing.
There were times, my mother told me later, when her dad, in great confusion, would walk to the Rye train station without telling anyone, taking an express to Grand Central so he could stroll the streets of the Upper East Side—a place that made him feel whole. He was trying to go home to his office on 28th Street. The local New York cops knew him, and would phone my grandmother, then make sure he returned safely. No one seemed to grasp what was happening.
Daddy George, doctors said, had “hardening of the arteries,” the cipher in those days for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. “Your grandfather is very sick,” Mom would tell us.
I’ll never forget the day we came for a visit, and all the dining room furniture, including the mahogany table on which I had done my grammar school homework, was gone—replaced with a stark hospital bed. Daddy George could no longer walk up the steep oak stairs to the second floor, and was confined to the bed.
The deterioration had a solemn impact on me. My grandfather, who had been slowly waning before us, was now in a deep slide—in the rear-view mirror of his dutiful wife Loretta, who cared for him like a trained nurse; my mother, who adored him for all he was; and my sisters and me, who felt the pull of a family tree. We loved him. A photograph of Daddy George, sepia in tone, in a suit and tie in his professional Manhattan days, hangs in my office today; it’s the same photograph that I hung on a wall at the foot of my mom’s bed in the nursing home months before she succumbed to Alzheimer’s. “You look like your grandfather,” my Mother often told me.
Weeks before his death, Grandma on her loving morning rounds was astonished one day to see Daddy George sitting up in his hospital bed. He spoke for the first time in months, and said in muted tones that he was aware of all she had done for him; he thanked her, and told her that he loved her. It was a last expression of love from the soul—testimony that those suffering from dementia and other mental handicaps still observe and can retain memories far longer than one might imagine. My mom rushed over to the house immediately to speak with her father. Doctors counseled that the enlightenment was fleeting, a last flow of blood to the brain or a remnant brain cell flashing a final distress signal. Daddy George quickly fell back into the abyss.
I will never forget the day he died. Still haunts me. When I returned to the red brick house, the hospital bed was gone and the dining room furniture was back in place, as if nothing had happened, yet I knew that nothing would ever be the same.
Memories. They stir the soul. Google is on to something…
Greg O’Brien, a member of the UsAgainstAlzheimer's board, is author of On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer’s. This post appeared in Psychology Today.