Elizabeth’s Fig, Remembered
Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer
The piece of paper pictured above is the same document discussed by Krista and Dr. Alan Dienstag in our recent program about Alzheimer’s disease, written by a woman suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s. You can really see how the author, Elizabeth, struggled to finally articulate the simple, poetic recollection:
I can remember picking a fig from a tree in Athens. My lover watched me with delight.
Elizabeth wrote about this memory while she was participating in Lifelines, a writing group for people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. The Lifelines Writing Group was a collaboration between Alan Dienstag and the novelist Don DeLillo — and from Dienstag’s account, he was skeptical about the idea at first. However, DeLillo sold him with a simple statement, which Dienstag writes about in his essay reflecting on the Lifelines experience:
Writing is a form of memory. The phrase stayed with me for some time. I repeated it to myself and told it to others with whom I worked. I realized that for all of my work with people with memory impairments, I had thought very little about memory. To the extent that I thought about memory at all, it was in fact about the loss of memory. It had never really occurred to me to think about other forms of memory and the possibilities inherent in them.
I found myself gripped by the story of Lifelines, both on hearing his interview with Krista and then later when I read his essay. On an intellectual level, his account touches on the value of writing, the complexity of memory, and the power of collaboration — all things that I find fascinating.
But I think the real meat of the story is how it really gets to a deeper existential fear that we all share on some level — one that doesn’t require an Alzheimer’s diagnosis to experience. It’s something we also touched on recently with our program with Mercedes Doretti: a fear of disappearing. While Doretti touches on the emotional trauma caused by the disappearance of family and loved ones, Dienstag’s account of the Lifelines group gets at the horrifying prospect of losing one’s self.
This is why seeing these documents can touch on such a deep level — Dienstag calls them "acts of remembering," to me they’re small stones cast in a battle for the vanishing self, a battle that is in some ways won with every person that reads one of these memories.
Here’s another memory written by Charlotte, an 84-year-old participant in the Lifelines writing group. You can also read part of it in her handwriting here.
I remember the first time I walked with my parents on the bridge that went to Brooklyn. It was hard for me and I fell very often. My father would pick me up and carry me for a while and put me back to walk It took a little time to learn to walk all the way but I did. I remember as I write this about the cat that lived with us who also like to walk and when he saw us ready to go he was right with us and we loved it.
I carried a love for walking all through my life, and even now when things go bad I walk and things seem to get better.
I hope I’ll be able to walk as long as I live.