When My Uncle Lost His Memory, I Held Tighter To My Own
Before my uncle lost his memory completely, we watched the ravens from his kitchen window in Unity, New Hampshire. On snowy days they hopped from trees to the barn to deep drifts that ran up against a wing of the house my uncle built with his own hands. By this stage, he couldn’t remember exactly how he’d done it, the calculations by which he’d fashioned each joint and measured each board. But he could still enjoy watching the ravens in flight.
“Do you remember the raven at the museum? The one I held?” I asked him.
During college summers I had worked at a natural history museum in upstate New York that housed rehabilitated wildlife: muskrats, porcupines, river otters, owls, red-tailed hawks, and a beautiful pair of ravens. Every day I would bring out some of these animals and talk about them on my headset in front of a crowd. When my family visited to see me working, I chose the ravens because I knew my uncle liked them.
“Yes.” He nodded. Then he paused, looking at me. “We knew someone who worked there. Who was it?”
“It was me,” I said.
“No.” He said, more uncertain now. “It was a girl. Who was she?”
I didn’t know how to tell him that the girl had been me before my transition. After two years on testosterone I looked very different from her: My shoulders were broader, my voice deeper, and my beard had grown in some, but it would take another year to fill out beyond patchy hair on my jawline. I’d gotten top surgery the previous fall, after which I stayed with my aunt and uncle on the futon in their library, mostly zoned out on painkillers for the better part of a week. He’d even driven me on a cold day in November to get the drains removed from my incisions, although he probably shouldn’t have. Traffic was heavy, and we got lost. As my uncle’s anxiety mounted I could see he was forgetting things. I had to coach him through several left turns, telling him when to yield and when to go.
I spent a lot of time running away from the woman I used to be. But lately I’ve been thinking more about her: who she was, what she liked to do, what she thought she stood for.
At first I was pleased that I completely passed as male in my uncle’s eyes. Here was the perfect family member: someone who totally accepted me for who I said I was. No memories of me as a little girl, no leftover names from my earlier life. My male pronouns came easily to him, because when he looked at me he saw only what was in front of him.
But now I’m not so sure. I spent a lot of time running away from the woman I used to be. But lately I’ve been thinking more about her: who she was, what she liked to do, what she thought she stood for. It’s not always easy to remember. I don’t mean that the memories are fraught with trauma; I was a relatively happy adolescent with friends and second-place ribbons from small-town track meets. I mean that the memories don’t float up as easily as they once did. Probably this is just what getting older is like. We leave the house, the town where we were born, and start forgetting all the little things that made it ours. We graduate from high school, from college, and put it all behind us. Or maybe memories need to be embodied in order to be relived, and this body I’m in now has lost the key.
I’ve heard many stories about my uncle over the years, but stringing them together chronologically is difficult. I know he was born to a family that scraped out a living from a valley in Montana, and that he has a sister who is outgoing and gregarious, her brother’s stark opposite. I know he married young to a woman in Seattle, and they had a son. And I know he left them, but kept in touch. I don’t know if that was after he enlisted in the Army, where he trapped rats at Utah’s Dugway Proving Ground to serve as subjects in chemical weapons tests. I’m pretty sure it was before he backpacked around the Middle East, stopping off for awhile in Greece where he played an extra in The Day the Fish Came Out, a 1967 film with a bioterror plot that definitely did not launch Candice Bergen’s acting career, and the only time I’ve ever seen my uncle without his full gray beard. I don’t know where or when or how he amassed his knowledge of carpentry, but most likely it was a slow accrual of skill honed while building barns across the Northeast.
By the time I entered the picture, my uncle had already met my aunt — my father’s sister — while taking a photography course at the University of Rochester, and they’d been living in their secluded hilltop paradise for many years. My mom and dad and I drove from upstate New York to visit three or four times a year: Labor Day weekend, after summer had simmered long enough to make the pond swimmable; Thanksgiving, when we roasted a goose, a turkey, and a chicken and arranged them in a V on the table; February, when we used President’s Day as an excuse to huddle around the woodstove and watch the snow fall. There was no television, no internet, not even a computer. We joked that we would watch the microwave for entertainment, but usually we were happy reading quietly in the same room, or sometimes playing Trivial Pursuit, which my mom always won playing on her own against the rest of us.
Nothing could disrupt this routine. The gatherings continued after I moved to Massachusetts for college and places were set at the table for friends. They continued after I changed my name, albeit with a few more tense moments and tears at first. They continued with a new member when I introduced them to the man I would end up marrying. And they continued even when my uncle could no longer remember when we were coming and could only watch in bemused silence as conversation unfolded around him.
In Norse mythology, Odin the one-eyed god is frequently depicted with a pair of ravens, one perched on each shoulder. The birds flew around the world every day and returned every night to report back to their master the events to which they bore witness. Their names were Huginn and Muninn: thought and memory. Odin says he worries that Huginn might not come back one of these days, “yet more anxious am I for Muninn.”
It turns out that Odin probably didn’t need to worry about Muninn or Huginn. Ravens can hold grudges and remember old friends for at least three years. They can reproduce more sounds than a parrot. When a raven hides its food, it pretends to hide it in one place before storing it away somewhere else to fool onlookers. And ravens use tools: hooks, string, pointy objects, anything that can help them get to food tucked away in tight corners.
When my uncle started losing his memory, I didn’t notice at first. Maybe he didn’t either. When you’ve lived in the same house for 30 years, one you practically built from the ground up, your body easily follows its own routine like a worn path. For a while his hands continued fixing things: a loose hinge, the shower, a porch railing, anything that required a power drill. To those who saw him a few times a year, like me, it wasn’t obvious that he was struggling.
Finally even his hands lost their direction. Taking into account his trouble remembering words and familiar tasks like setting the table, his frequent disorientation, and subsequent depression, the doctors diagnosed my uncle with Alzheimer’s. The severe tremors in his hands led to the addition of Parkinson’s. But then he started having hallucinations: He would see black dogs that weren’t there and homeless men in the corner of the living room that made him sob with pity. Hallucinations are a key indicator of Lewy body dementia, which progresses much faster than Alzheimer’s. About two years after he received the correct diagnosis, he was gone.
The first time I spent more than a few hours with my uncle’s son from his first marriage was when I stayed in his apartment while attending a conference in Seattle. This was before the verdict of Lewy body, but words no longer came easily to my uncle, and we all knew something was wrong.
The day before I was supposed to fly home, Michael took off of work. He took me on a tour of everywhere he’d ever lived as a child. We parked outside brick bungalows and he pointed out where he used to smoke with friends in the garage and the windows he crept out of to go to house shows. I could see my uncle in these stories: yelling at his son for staying out late and getting in trouble; fighting with his wife as a young man who felt stuck inside a concrete jungle when all he wanted were some trees. It was easy to imagine the gentle, sometimes gruff man I knew losing his temper, even though I’d never seen it myself.
Almost every story I’ve heard secondhand about my uncle takes place in the woods. Stories about canoe trips he took with my father, when the blackflies were so thick they had to swim through the water with the boat over their heads, or about cooking wild salmon over an open fire on his honeymoon with my aunt in the Olympic Peninsula. In these stories, I see him with his tools, supplies for days, with his pipe in his pocket and a compass on a string around his neck like he used to wear when we went kayaking off the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia. But in Seattle he wouldn’t have needed any of these things. What would his hands have held aside from a vague sense of idleness?
As Michael drove us around the city and around steel-gray lakes on our way to every spot his father might have trodden on, I recognized in the driver’s seat another person gripping tight to memory.
I was on the phone with my mom recently when she mentioned that the one-year anniversary of my uncle’s death was coming up in August.
“No,” I said, so sure of myself and amazed at how wrong she’d gotten the timeline of events. “It was two years ago at least. Maybe three.”
“I don’t think so.” She said.
If I counted my uncle among the dead even while his body was still here, what did I do to the girl who used to live inside my body?
As we counted through the milestones — the first violent outburst when we knew he couldn’t keep living at home, the first time he struck one of his fellow nursing home residents, the first time he fell, the first time he got pneumonia — it became clear that I was mistaken. I’d convinced myself that his death began when his memory had completely fled, even though his body was still around.
I’m quite certain my uncle would have preferred dying over lingering even the few years he did without his mind. But one thing does trouble me: If I counted my uncle among the dead even while his body was still here, what did I do to the girl who used to live inside my body?
I think if I could answer this question I’d be able to better remember my own stories. My first period. The day I started birth control. The first girl I kissed. The conversations my mom and I used to have. All the strong female friendships in between that I’ve let fade quietly away. As a writer, the loss of these memories bothers me, and so I’m trying to reclaim them the only way I know how: by putting this body’s hands to the keyboard to try and write my way back to all the people I’ve lost track of.
Sometimes I visit my aunt by myself. When it’s just the two of us, the hole my uncle left is less noticeable. We move at a different pace: We go on slow walks or or pick cherry tomatoes from the garden or just read together. But because she now keeps up the farm by herself, there are also long periods when I am on my own.
On my most recent visit, while she was mowing the lawn, I walked into my uncle’s shop. When he was alive and healthy, the shop was where he smoked cigars and had nightcaps with friends, but most of all it was an orderly shrine to his love of “possibles”: screws and shims and little pieces of plastic or wood that might find a use one day. He kept them in neatly labeled drawers, in cupboards, and in old yogurt containers. As he declined, his own organizing system perplexed him. He couldn’t find things that he had carefully stored away. Many times he encountered an object he had used hundreds of times, but could no longer remember what it did. The system deteriorated. Today there are still pockets of order in the shop, but they’re in the hard-to-reach corners buried behind stacks of plywood. The rest has settled into a tidal wave of odds and ends frozen in time.
Alone in his shop, I started collecting objects. At first just a few, but soon I was dumping out screws from one of the yogurt tubs and filling it with new things: a minuscule awl, a filigreed metal clip, a nub of wood with marks from a pocket knife, a magnifying lens that snaps into a tripod, an iron railroad spike. I picked my way around the shop, bird-like, stopping whenever something caught my eye. I had a vague idea that I would amass as many “possibles” as I could, and later I would go to a tattoo artist and have him ink them on my body. I wanted to inscribe a permanent memorial to my uncle on my skin, something so I would be reminded of him every time I looked at myself in the mirror, so I would stop forgetting. The ephemera he left behind seemed like a good enough subject at the time. And it was all I had.
Since coming home, however, the yogurt container has sat untouched on my dining room table. I emptied it out once to review my treasures, but they’d lost some of their importance. Removed from his shop, the possibles were no longer that; they were simply bits and pieces of a life now extinguished, unable to hold onto memory for me. After watching my uncle disappear, and seeing myself go in and out of focus, I suspect that bodies might be the same way. Memories need more than a receptacle — they require an active storyteller whose job it is to stack sentence on top of sentence and carry memories through generations. And if I can do this for my uncle, then maybe I can find a way to remember for myself, too.