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The Magic of Memory

Last week I visited a friend’s dad, I’ll call him Mr. H. Mr. H has Alzheimer’s and dementia.

He came to the door well-dressed, crisp chinos, and button down shirt. Mr H didn’t know me, but graciously welcomed me in to his home because I was with someone he knew well, and loved—my friend’s longtime girlfriend, Barbara, with whom he is very close. Mr. H was overjoyed to see Barbara. Also in the room, his caregiver, Evelyn. She was a warm woman and it was clear they had a comfortable, respectful relationship. It did not take long for Mr. H to tell us that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and he even brought out a medical form from a recent doctor visit that listed on the paper — dementia in one box, and Alzheimer’s in another.

That was the extent of our conversation about Alzheimer’s. I told him I wanted to hear his stories of what life was like in West Philly, and the changes he has seen in 62 years of living on Pine Street. He eagerly recounted the good ol’ days. He talked of how every one knew everyone and that there existed this warm feeling of community. It certainly countered the current narrative in black neighborhoods of broken families and fatherless homes.

In talking to this gentleman, it struck me as misguided to focus on what was lost. Yes, Mr. H repeated himself several times in asking, “did I introduce you to Evelyn, my caregiver?” But how could I ignore all that he remembered, and with just a bit of prodding, was eager to share?

He regaled us with stories from long ago of the neighborhood, when fathers gathered at Fairmount Park for Father’s Day events to play baseball, or barbecue. In fact, he was a ball player and had even been approached to play by a Baltimore team. His stories went back even further. He fought in the Korean War. He told us about sleeping in little hutch like shelters. Listening to his stories reminded me of my dad and his stories about Korea.

And just like that—the power and mystery of memory started to work it’s magic. As he was talking about Korea, I was listening, but I also drifted to thoughts of my own dad. He would have been about the same age as Mr. H. What pops into my head is a picture in my dad’s photo album from Korea. You’ve seen the type, black lacquer with a map painted on the front of Korea and Japan. As a child I was fascinated by that photo album. When Dad died more than a decade ago, the photo album became mine and I haven’t thought about it in years. But just like that, Mr. H’s stories brought back memories of those pictures of my Dad in his uniform and a little boy standing next to him in one of the photos. As a teenager, when I wanted to imagine a more dramatic life than the one I led in suburbia, I would look at that picture and imagine that little boy was actually my Dad’s son, and that I had a brother somewhere. I’d imagine that I would find him one day, and we would undoubtedly get along better than I did with my two younger, pesky brothers.

Can you imagine all of those memories rushing back as this gentleman was telling his story? Later that night I thought about the visit. What Mr. H had lost: the ability to recall whether he introduced us couldn’t hold a candle to all he remembered. His history. His service to country. His ties to family and community. That is what is important, especially for this man who sees so much changing around him—the old neighborhood, his wife of 64 years gone, estranged from his son, his daughters long grown, with lives of their own. For him, memories of the past may be a good refuge.

Of course telling his story brought back precious memories for me and my Dad. Just one more example of how stories and memories are the ties that bind us.

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