How to Honor a Parent Who Can No Longer Remember Your Birthday
Can you remember what you were doing last Tuesday?
Can you recall a very early childhood memory?
Can you recite a poem that you once knew years ago?
Would you try to cover it up, if you couldn’t remember?
Would you feel embarrassed or somehow inadequate?
Would your friends and family, if they noticed, treat you differently?
Judaism places great importance on memory. Torah commands us more than 160 times to remember (zachor), and on the Shabbat of Remembrance to never forget (lo tishkach).
Never forget that we were once strangers, never forget the Holocaust, never forget to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
We participate in Yizkor, our prayer of remembrance, not only with sadness, but also with delight in the memories of our loved ones who are no longer with us.
But where do our obligations to remember leave those in our community who cannot remember, who aren’t able to “never forget,” who can’t find their special memories of delight, for whom memory is but a distant dream?
These questions hit home for me on Yom Kippur morning one year ago, when my 97-year-old mother suffered a stroke. Until then, she could recount with ease stories from her childhood and conversations from long ago. The memories she shared could make you laugh or cry. Now, a year later, her ability to retrieve memories barely exists.
Adjusting to this new reality has been tough on our family.
When, for the first time, my mother forgot my birthday, I phoned her to say, “Thank you for birthing me.” As a grown-up, I should have just accepted this sad milestone and felt blessed that my mother is still with us. But, honestly, the child in me was very pained. My mother had forgotten the date I was born!
I’ve been very protective about my mother’s dignity, making sure her Facebook friends always see her with make-up and perfectly polished nails, well-dressed and with matching accessories.
I know I shouldn’t feel embarrassed for her, but it is difficult not to be, knowing how her conversations at gatherings had always been so spirited, insightful, and brimming with delightful anecdotes. Now she barely speaks.
When her friends who haven’t seen her for a while ask to visit, I get anxious about what they’ll see, think, and feel. One of them told me that she was heartbroken to see the changes and how terrible she felt for me. I wanted to say, “That didn’t help.” Better would have been: “I see the changes, Kerry, but your mother is still beautiful, inside and out, with the joy of life still shining through.”
I no longer allow fear of their reactions to keep my mother from seeing friends, because it leads to one of the worst repercussions faced by people with memory challenges: isolation.
When I see my mother struggling, I say to her, “It’s hard sometimes for you to find the right words, hard to remember some things. Right? But don’t worry. I’ll help you find the words, and I’ll remember with you and for you. We will remember together.” She smiles.
To help revive her memories, I show her images in my bat mitzvah and wedding photo albums, and from past parties and other events. I also shoot new pictures to share in future visits.
My mother takes painting classes. Sometimes creating art elicits memories in graphic form that are otherwise hidden.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”
How can we can show kindness to people who struggle with cognition?
Include them in our lives and prayers.
Spend time with them, sharing memories, recording their remembrances, and sharing photos.
Give them a sense of belonging, self-worth, and the sense that they still make a difference.
To be kind to others, we need to be kind to ourselves. Take time to think about the narratives of our own life by recording our own memories, images, and words, so if we forget, there will be a record, and our message will not be lost.
One of my ways is writing poems.
Should I forget,
Guide me to that sunset,
The one that slowed my breathing
And filled my unconscious with hope.
Should I regret,
Lead me to those photos,
The ones that showed us smiling
And spilled my pleasure all over the page.
Should I feel beset,
Drag me to my ocean,
The one that raised me, sent me growing
And infused my soul and spirit with life.