By Lisabet Sarai
It happens more and more often these days. I'll reach for a word, and it isn't there, or at least I can't grab hold of it. Usually there are traces, ghosts that taunt me from the murky depths of my memory. I'll be able to tell you what sound begins the word, or how many syllables it has. If my husband suggests alternatives, I can easily dismiss them. That's not the word I'm thinking of, I confidently assert, but the specific item of vocabulary I'm seeking remains inaccessible.
This happens not only when I'm writing but also when I'm speaking. I'll trail off, unable to summon the word that's dangling there on the tip of my tongue. Occasionally, I'll come out with a related term, knowing that isn't what I really mean. Sometimes these substitutions are bizarre.
I'm an author. My sense of self is inextricably entwined with my ability to weave worlds out of words. I've always been able to rely on my extensive vocabulary. I barely thought about it. Now I worry that my verbal facility has begun to desert me. And that's terrifying.
Is this part of the normal process of aging? I'll be sixty soon, but that doesn't seem that old compared to my ninety year old aunt, who still follows politics and who told me, the day after Obama was elected, that “she felt as happy as if she had a new lover”. Are these lapses the first signs of a more serious deficit, Alzheimer's or some other form of dementia? In the case of the former, I've read that keeping your brain active appears to have some prophylactic effects. I teach kids in their twenties and write computer software; surely that's active enough, isn't it? But it's all a crap shoot, I gather, and worst of all, there's no cure for what the media suggest is an epidemic.
In the past, when I imagined getting older, I expected declines in physical capabilities. I can picture myself blind, deaf, unable to walk, even paralyzed. I've always consoled myself with the notion that however limited my body becomes, I'll still have the life of the mind. I'll be able to read, or listen to, books. I'll be able to write, even if I have to dictate my stories as opposed to typing them.
Now, as with increasing frequency I struggle to grasp the elusive word, the exact term to express both the meaning and the mood I'm trying to set, I glimpse another, far bleaker future – one in which the glorious universe of ideas and their multifaceted expression in language gradually crumbles to dust, until my head is filled with sawdust like the scarecrow of Oz. I honestly think I'd prefer death to that sort of half-life.
Shanna Germain has a magnificent story in The Mammoth Book of Threesomes and Moresomes, entitled “Remember This”, that treats this theme with tremendous sensitivity and depth. A woman joins her husband and long-time female lover in an ecstatic but bittersweet encounter full of echoes from the past. Although she's barely in her fifties, she has a genetic predisposition to memory loss. She comforts herself with the thought of the poison she's secreted from her lovers, not ready for that step yet, but knowing she won't have to endure the dissolution of what is precious.
And of course Garce's much acclaimed tale “An Early Winter Train” goes even further, showing us how desperately sad the physical shell becomes when the mind has mostly departed. These days I can't even think about that story – it's too frightening.
And yet, here I am, penning this blog post, obviously with some verbal memory left. Perhaps I'm overreacting. I sometimes joke that I know so many words, I could forget half of them and still have a normal vocabulary. I know my laughter's a defense, though.
The other thing is – the words aren't gone. I can't deliberately summon them, but later they may sneak up on me, bubbling up from my unconscious while I'm thinking about something completely different. It's as though the glass between my conscious intent and the depths where language resides has grown cloudy – almost like cataracts of the mind.
I try not to think about it, because honestly, I find it too distressing. Instead I muddle along, pretending there's no problem, hoping that I'm being alarmist. And when a word escapes, I chase it, unwilling to let it get away.