The other day, I carved out an oasis in a week that had far too much in it. I made a date with my friend Karen to meet for an hour and a half in the middle of the afternoon. Karen and I have been friends for 30 years. Our friendship has had many incarnations in that time, but one consistent aspect of our relationship has been playing games—Backgammon, canasta, boggle, all kinds of cards, and our mainstay, Scrabble. We’re well matched which makes for a good contest—our combined total is often 700 or more, and depending on the year and the time, who wins flips one way and the other. We share life over the Scrabble board.
In the years since I became a mother, I’ve never gotten enough Scrabble. It takes an hour to play a game and playing one game just whets your appetite and warms your word brain up so you just have to play two. And if you play two, why not be sated with three? And who has three or four spare hours to play Scrabble with a friend when you have kids and a home and a mother in town, a business to run, classes to prepare? I’ve been Scrabble starved for much of the last 17 years.
So I was delighted on our intergenerational family cruise to be introduced to a new word game called “Quiddler.” It’s played with a tall, beautiful deck of cards with gorgeous letters on them; it’s easily learned and it’s fast; the ten rounds that make up a game can be played in 20 minutes. You don’t have to concentrate either. You can talk about life or watch a movie or be interrupted and the game continues easily. It’s brain candy and it stretches all your neural pathways, demanding flexible thinking as you reform the words into different combinations in your hand.
I’m not going to go into the rules here, because this story isn’t about Quiddler; it’s about what happened while we were playing Quiddler. Karen looked up from the eight cards in her hand and casually remarked, “We should play 13.” I looked up blankly. I had no idea what she was talking about.
“You remember, don’t you? 13? We played it all the time when you had cancer.”
I’m rummaging around in my memory banks, but all I come up with is an empty vault. I have no idea what she’s talking about.
My distress must show because Karen tries to help. “Remember? First jacks are wild, then queens are wild, then kings are wild. We played it all the time. You played it with Barbara. You played it with me. You used to play it with Lizzy all the time.”
This is no help at all. 13? Jacks wild, then queens wild, then kings wild? A game I played for hours with people I love best?
I am falling into a vast chasm, skating on a blank slate of forgetfulness. I can’t fake it with this one. And why should I? I’m sitting with one of my oldest, dearest friends. “I don’t remember,” I tell her. “I have no memory of that game whatsoever.”
Karen resorts her cards and fans them out again. “I’m out,” she proclaims as she lays down the words, “QU-I-E-T” and “Z-A.” She discards an “E.” I pick from the deck, play “A-X-L-E” and “H-E-X,” and discard a “CL.” She gets the ten-point bonus for longest word and wins the hand. I deal out nine cards for the next round.
“Well, I guess if you’re going to forget how bad it was to have cancer, you’re going to forget some other things from that time as well.” Karen pauses, looks at me with that compassionate smile she does so well, but then the game player in her asserts itself again, “13 is a really is a good game. We should play it.”
“You’ll have to teach it to me all over again.”
February 14th marks the two-year anniversary of my last chemotherapy session. Chemo sucked; there’s no other way to put it. But Lizzy was 10 when I was diagnosed; Eli was 14. I wanted to live. I went for the biggest guns the doctors had to offer.
I don’t remember much about those months when dripping poisons saved/almost killed me. I do remember that I could not eat. Food repulsed me. Everything tasted like rusty nails. And I remember living in the eternal now. I liked it there. I was freed from daily responsibilities. My only job was to be sick and to survive it, to try to get better.
Now, two years later, I am full throttle back on the wheel of life. I run a business. I teach students. I edit books. I parent children. I am a grandma. I am a wife. I’ve gained back half of the 40 pounds cancer took off my frame. I never dyed my hair again and I sport a spunky white streak in the corner of my forehead. My taste buds have returned. I no longer have to sleep every afternoon. I can now sustain enough concentration to read a book, to read many books. But my memory is full of crevasses that are not even lightly covered by snow. I think (and try not to think), “If this is how my memory is at 53 and cancer doesn’t kill me, what will I be like when I get old?”
On second thought, maybe my loss of memory is a way that I am old. Right now.
I’ve been thinking lately about the fact that my father went to law school when he was 59. The fact that Abe did that seems more remarkable to me the older I get. I cannot imagine going back to school. I can’t imagine three years of law school. I cannot imagine having the drive, the intellectual curiosity, the ambition, the stamina, the follow-through, the interest, and most important, the brain cells. I just don’t have them anymore.
Is it from chemo? The cancer? Or is it menopause? A combination of all three? Does it matter? Not really.
Memory was never my strong suit, except perhaps in 7th grade when I memorized the names of all the presidents, the capitols of every state, and all the words to Arlo Guthrie’s 20-minute epic song, Alice’s Restaurant. From there, it’s been downhill. As an adult, losing the mediocre memory I had is scary. It’s embarrassing. I sign up a new student on the phone and say, “I look forward to meeting you.” And she says, “We already met. I took your class four years ago.” Oops.
Loss of memory is a hidden disability. It doesn’t show on the outside but it is something I have to deal with every single day. Losing my memory has narrowed my world and shaken my confidence. I am not the same “self-starting dynamo” I used to be. That’s how Tom Miller, the program director of KRBD-FM, described me in a letter of reference he wrote for me when I left my job as a public affairs director and talk show host for Alaska Public Radio 25 years ago. Self-starting dynamo? That was another Laura. Another lifetime.
The Laura I am today has to write everything down to stand a chance of remembering. Even then, I frequently look at the notes I’ve written and think, “Now, who was that?” “Whose phone number is this?” Or “What was that I was supposed to do?” My life is more about compensatory strategies and consolidation, less about trail-blazing and creativity. I have lost my zest along with my neurons. And it isn’t easy to make peace with the fact that it may not be coming back.