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Out of Order

More memory scares this week. Do they increase when I observe and document them?

Groping for the right word when I’m talking to someone: it happens to me all the time. Snapping my fingers or shaking my head hard usually dislodges the word. This isn’t a new phenomenon for me. I’m an absentminded person who digresses in conversation constantly. Like Holden Caulfield, I’m more interested in conversational tangents that lead to unexpected and unguarded moments. My brain skips ahead of my tongue. Mostly, I don’t worry about it.

When my memory lapses during writing, though, I get a little scared.

I’m talking about the actual mechanics of writing: spelling the words, or even putting pen to paper. In my early forties, I noticed a strange phenomenon developing as I wrote. I’d skip letters in words. Sometimes I’d leave a space, as if a buried part of my brain registered the error. Sometimes letters from the tail end of the word made their way into a more forward position. I saw these errors, and fixed them, immediately. But each time, it rattled me. So much muscle memory is involved in the writing of graphemes, or letters.

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A trusted friend, a generation older than I am, told me the same thing happened to her sometime in her forties. I felt reassured, even though I suspected she was just trying to calm me down. People are always kind to me when the crazy starts coming out. At any rate, the dysgraphia issues continue intermittently. As I wrote out recipe cards for my 22-year-old daughter, I hoped she wouldn’t notice too many words with squeezed-in letters. Maybe this is a normal part of the aging process. It certainly makes me feel old.

Spelling used to be my signature skill, back in grade school and high school. Long before I studied etymology in linguistics classes and in my training as a multisensory language instructor, I simply relied on my memory to instantly produce an accurate visual representation of how a word should be spelled.

In my thirties–or was it my forties?–I noticed my spelling skills were requiring more effort. Sometimes I’d have to stop and concentrate. With time, I could puzzle it out.

This past week, as I worked on my new manuscript, I came to a dead stop after writing a sentence that included the word “pouring.” For a minute or longer, I stared at the word. I suspected it was wrong, but couldn’t produce the correct spelling. I had to look up the definition of “poring” to realize that was the word I’d meant to use.

Misusing a homonym is a whole new arena for fear. I just don’t make these mistakes. It’s like forgetting the name of the town where I grew up.

Rattled, I packed my work bag and left to tutor a 12-year-old student that evening. I’d made a mental note to find out if he had a smart phone, so as I unpacked my materials, I asked him. “Yes,” Charlie said, folding his hands on the table and looking at me expectantly through his black-rimmed glasses. (He is the sweetest kid. Ready for anything I throw at him.)

The problem was, I had no idea why I’d even wanted to know. I stared at him for a few long moments, riffling desperately through the odds and ends of my memories to find a reason for the question I’d asked. But I couldn’t retrieve the memory. The Charlie file was locked. Or dumped on the floor. Or scattered in the wind. Choose your metaphor.

I laughed it off, but it wasn’t until the next day that I remembered why I’d asked. I’d wanted to remind him to use his smartphone, if he had one, whenever he encountered an unknown word in his readings. 24 hours passed before I remembered. Not exactly lightning recall.

These lapses were on my mind yesterday morning as I unloaded the dishwasher. The tedious question hovered, as it often does, at the edges of my consciousness: are my lapses a normal part of aging, or signals of the first stages of Early Onset dementia? I’d tossed half the silverware into the flatware organizer before I realized I’d put the spoons in with the knives and the knives in with the forks.

My heart lurched. Bungling daily tasks you’ve performed a thousand times before is a red flag for serious memory loss. I read it in my husband’s AARP Bulletin.

I’d hardly noticed my son walking into the kitchen to get some breakfast. Following the path of my stricken gaze, he grinned, and suddenly I realized I might be all right after all.

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Since the time he was very little, my youngest watched a lot of science programs. Around the age of 8, he’d heard about the brain benefits of altering your daily environment. He insisted we all sit in different chairs at the dinner table each night, changing our perspective to stimulate our neural networks.

For a year or two, he also periodically switched the order of the knives, forks, and spoons in the flatware tray. He thought it was hysterically funny to watch me pull out the tray and re-sort the silverware I’d placed in what was the correct slot just the day before. “It’s good for you!” he’d protest when I scolded him. Like any harried mother of three young children needs that kind of stimulation.

The twinkle in his eyes as he glanced at the silverware drawer brought the memory right back. In another year, he’ll be away at college. The youngest bird leaving the nest.

The aging process can take my spelling skills, my writing skills, my executive function. But I hope to God it never robs me of the memory of my son’s face as he waits with gleeful anticipation for me to overreact to his silverware shenanigans.

 

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