My mother was born without a middle name. Her maiden name would become her middle name someday anyway, her parents reasoned. So many assumptions — her desire to marry, to take her husband’s name, her very sexuality — all written into the blank space of every form she filled out for the first 25 years of her life.
Fifty years later, she no longer remembers that name, or her married name, either. Her name has retreated to a place she can’t reach, along with how to drive, tell time and use a fork.
I’m glad she no longer remembers what it was like to have her father tell her he would not pay for college, because it wasn’t worth it for a girl. She has forgotten that she applied anyway and waited tables to pay for her Ivy League degree. She couldn’t have known then — and no longer knows now — that a quarter-century later her own daughter would wait tables at the same restaurant while attending the same college. Maybe she had already decided then that she would not tell her children that story so that they wouldn’t hold it against her father. She told me only after he died.
Then she forgot it.
After she started forgetting, I learned of her struggle to conceive, and her heartbreaking miscarriage. She has forgotten how we stood in my kitchen while she described searching in the university library for information on an experimental procedure the doctor recommended, how she could find articles only in veterinary journals. She forgot the shame of those struggles. Thank God for that.
She forgot, too how she was passed over for promotion after promotion at work, as her male teacher colleagues moved ahead of her into administration. She doesn’t remember it was another school district that gave her a shot, promoting her all the way to superintendent. She doesn’t know that only happened after she had accumulated three more Ivy League diplomas.
She forgot the time my brother threw a chair through the living room window, and the fury on my face when I shouted at her so hard that my throat was raw afterward.
Some of her forgetting was linear — a steady erasure from the present backward. She would come back from a walk with my father and be unable to explain where they had gone. Then she forgot what happened yesterday, and then last year and all the years before that disappeared too. She remembered people in the abstract long after she was unable to recognize them in person. “I’m looking for my brother Dick,” she would say to her brother Dick.
She forgot every one of the 25 places I lived after I left home. She couldn’t relax, she explained while visiting yet another grad school hovel, until she could picture the places where each one of her children fell asleep.
There was a long phase while she was forgetting — before she had completely forgotten — when she knew something was missing. She would ask to go home while sitting on her living room couch. Watching her grandchildren sipping Shirley Temples while the rest of us placed dinner orders one evening, she looked sad. I asked her if she needed something.
“It’s just …” she said, waving her hands searchingly, as if she could pluck the words she needed out of the air. “All these people, with their family. My family is far away.”
We were, in those days, already so far away. I was glad when that phase of forgetting became forgotten. The linear progression brought its own awful comforts: This too, we knew, would pass.
But in other ways, her forgetting was concentric. She forgot who she was supposed to call, and then she forgot how to make a call. Soon, she forgot everyone she would have called, and eventually she forgot what a phone is for. The circle around the things she forgot kept expanding. No one knew how big it could get.
When she moved into residential care and we saw a woman — casually, like it was teatime — try to eat a roll of Scotch tape, we realized how big it could get.
By now, she has forgotten all the things we know about her, and all the things we don’t. She’s forgotten all our secrets. And she’s forgotten all her secrets, too, the stories that were only ever her own.
Every once in a while, though, she remembers. A few months ago, I was driving her someplace, keeping up banal, one-sided banter. “We’re thinking of getting a dog,” I said as I approached a stop sign, tapping the turn signal and looking to the left for traffic. “I know that’s a crazy idea. They’re a lot of work.”
“It depends on the dog,” she said: five words of such logical, precise coherence they nearly stopped my heart. But by the time I glanced over at her, she had already forgotten.
Some days, it seems she has forgotten everything. But there’s this: If you offer her something to eat, she says thank you. She asks everyone nearby if they want some. When I sit beside her, she picks up the soft sleeve of my sweater and rubs it between two fingers. She shows me her sticky hands so I will help her wash them. If my children hum the first six notes of a favorite childhood song, she’ll sing the final note. And when they laugh, she laughs back. She’s forgotten everything, but she hasn’t forgotten that.
For a long time, I thought the hardest part would be when she forgot me. But it turns out that when you are loved so much for so long, the love is left behind, layered into your bones. Love doesn’t reside only in the lover, I’ve learned. It settles in the beloved, permanent and alive.
I know this, because even though she has forgotten — even though I am forgotten — all I have to do to feel her love is think about it. And that, it turns out, is worth remembering.
Cynthia Miller-Idriss is professor of education and sociology at American University. She lives in the District with her husband and two daughters. They still don’t have a dog. Find her on Twitter @milleridriss.