It happens with old people. In the middle of a conversation, some subject comes up and the characters involved become vague and fleeting. There is a scramble to remember details: there was a girl always in high heels, what was her name — it’s at the tip of my tongue.
Such confusions are dismissed as “senior moments.”
When slowed down by a memory lapse, we resort to speech tics like “hmmm” or “you know” as we vainly search for the continuation or ending to a story we begun. Call center operators who are trained to sound like natives of Nebraska are provided gap-fillers like “let me see,” or “I’ll have it for you in a sec.” These are preferred to “teka teka” which gives away the nationality of the disembodied voice as somewhere farther East of Hawaii.
The amnesiac gives out clues to capture the fugitive data, like previous claims to fame of the missing name (she was a bold star who fell on hard times, and now takes tricycles to visit friends) or past affinities (ex of a congressman from the Visayas). Somehow, bits of peripheral information cling to the memory.
The conversational quiz show has the listener feeding possible answers which are batted away like pesky mosquitoes (no, that one was married to a basketball player) until the correct name pops up — yes, that one. At this point, the narrator has already lost track of his story.
Memory lapses come with age, fleeting butterflies escaping the mind’s net. Forgetfulness (or the convenience of not having to remember) is brought about by the availability of “external memory storage” just a Google search away. Phone numbers don’t need to be memorized as these can be called up from a directory and dialed with the push of a button.
Telling jokes always requires a proper punch line. A forgetful comedian needs to be accompanied by a finisher to supply the right ending, especially after a painstaking build-up. This is probably why old comedy routines required two persons with the straight man providing the push to move on and get to the finish line. With the now more common solo stand-up format, it is just one person who must make sure no blanks are unfilled and the flow of the narrative is uninterrupted, except by laughter and applause.
Even a social situation can turn into a quiz show. A faintly familiar looking stranger accosts us and seems to know the details of our life. (Are you still in advertising?) Seeing our blank stare, the brazen acquaintance invites us to struggle with an identity crisis — You don’t remember me? This social encounter puts the pressure of proving familiarity on the one who has little recollection of it.
One way to end this impasse is to brazen it out. Of course, I remember you. Wow, you lost so much weight. It’s her turn to swim for dry land — you’re not still working for that werewolf, are you? If she offers no clues to jog your memory, just mention the first name that comes to you — Hey, I really thought you were Lavinia. You look so much like her, ha, ha, ha — you are Lav? What did I say?
It is a sign of familiarity when two people can finish each other’s dangling sentences with appropriate endings. Either the person is truly a soul mate who thinks on the same wavelength, or someone who has heard your story so many times with the same blanks that need to be filled. This is what happy marriages are about.
It is a sign of growing dementia when one is routinely challenged by blanked out memories. Names of people, dates of appointments, and even favors received are simply gaps that one can fall into. A narrator’s vacant stare and shortness of breath are all the clues the partner needs to come to the rescue. (She’s a new nurse.)
Somehow, memory failure exempts distant events. The color of the curtains in one’s childhood bedroom or the height of trees one used to climb when curiosity and agility conspired to make us reckless are all too vivid.
What happened 50 years ago next year is still fresh in our minds. Is it ancient history? Not to those who lived through it… and still remember.
TONY SAMSON is chairman and CEO of TOUCH xda