Sunday, May 27, 2012

On the Tip of My Tongue

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.


  1. Well, I struggle with that too. I've always had a tendency to have thoughts and words suddenly evaporate (and if I told you how long I just waited for the word "evaporate" to materialize in my brain, you'd know what I'm talking about.) Ironic,eh?

    Anyway, as I've gotten older, this tendency has gotten worse.

    It definitely concerns me. "Is a time coming where most of it will be gone, or will come back so erratically that I can't control it?" But I've always had a very good memory, and I suppose I've come to rationalize that I have so much crap stored up there, that with more of it there, It's harder for me to access it.

    In the end, I still function fine, though I do occasionally fumble in meetings and such. But the fact is, like you, it's not that it's gone, it's just harder to bring the information forward.

    One thing of note, my eighty-two year old mother has the same tendency, and she's still going strong.

    Here's to both of us having many, many years, sometimes searching, but always finding those words.

  2. Hello, Craig,

    Thanks for your encouraging words. I've always had a very good memory, for certain things at least. So I like to think that maybe I have further to fall than average.

    I second your toast!

  3. Hi, Lisabet. I certainly understand how frightening this is. But based on my own experience (I'm around fifty) and that of various other people I know, I think this level of memory issue is pretty normal and not in itself a symptom of anything serious. I've also heard that a policy like yours of chasing down the elusive words (or other temporarily forgotten items, such as names, book titles, etc.) can be helpful in the long run as well as the short run—it's "good exercise" to help keep the memory fit.

  4. What a beautiful post about a topic that's often on my mind. I can remember watching Iris (the movie about Iris Murdoch) for the first time and feeling a physical sensation of panic in my chest as she began losing words. It's something I'm deeply afraid of. And as with all things I'm afraid of, I try to ease that fear by reading and writing about it. Thank you.

  5. Great post about a topic that's uncomfortably close to home. It helps to see I'm not the only writer deathly afraid of this. Thank you.

  6. It's funny, but just before I began reading your post I'd been sitting here for about two hours rewriting mine and when i stood up my legs and hips and everything hurt, and I'm the same age as you, and I thought "This can't be right, is there something wrong with my body?" and then I read your post here and thought "I guess this is this way for everybody." The thing for you and me is that we don't feel old inside. I don;t know about you, but I feel about 30 years old until I start to move around and then it scares me.

    Your mind is probably all right, we're just getting on, kiddo. I hope.


  7. Jeremy -

    You're just a kid!

    Thanks for the reassurance!

  8. Shanna,

    I'm so happy you took the time to comment. Your story stayed with me long after I'd put the book away. It's so frightening when we lose our memories, because after all, what do we have of the past EXCEPT memories?

    But you're right, sometimes facing one's fears is better than pretending they do not exist.

  9. Hi, Garce,

    Yes, I feel about 27. That's the age I am in most of my dreams.

    I guess growing old gracefully means not complaining about this sort of stuff. And when it comes to the physical - it's not all that hard for me to deal with. But the mental deficiencies are tough, especially for someone who has put all her faith in the powers of her mind, like me.

  10. I think about this a lot. Usually, I can come up with the right word when I'm writing. Sometimes I have to sit and think about it, or even look through the thesaurus, but eventually, I can come up with it.

    Speaking, on the other hand, has gotten much more difficult. I blame writing.

    When I write, I can take my time; I can think and be patient and wait for the perfect word to pop into my brain. But speaking? I have to be on the ball; in the moment; smart and erudite. I think, when you're used to taking your time, coming up with brilliance all at once becomes more and more difficult.

    I've thought about it being an age-related thing, but I really think it's a writing-related thing. Because, after all, we're not really old... I'm just saying.


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