Waking up with no memory
I was honestly planning to write about this Research Digest post this weekend, which found that walking through a doorway, say from your living room to your bedroom, increases the likelihood you’ll forget anything associated with what was going on in your living room. Weird, right?
But then I called my mom on Friday and she told me a bizarre and painful story. My savta (grandmother) must have walked through some sort of mega doorway in her sleep, because she woke up the other morning with no memory. I decided that if I’m writing a blog about memory, then I should probably entertain a change of blogging plans. Since Steph wrote about her Deadjournal this week, I figure we can get personal on this blog…
My savta lives in Israel so this whole story has traveled by three or four mouths across thousands of miles, but here’s what I know at this point. She went to bed one night, not feeling well. When she woke up, she didn’t know where she was (an elderly care facility on her kibbutz), she didn’t know what day it was, and she didn’t recognize my aunt, who still lives in Israel and visits her almost every day.
Now, before I get into the specifics, let me provide a little background. My savta is about 80, give or take. She’s a tough-as-nails Holocaust survivor and so far, she has outlasted my saba (grandfather; not a Holocaust survivor) by more than a decade. She is mostly blind, mostly deaf, loves sleeping pills, and is stubborn as hell, but she’s not senile or in any other way demented. Mentally speaking, her worst offenses include telling the same stories repeatedly and having a pessimistic world view. She is getting old, though.
Between the deafness, the blindness, the sleeping pills, and a crazy neighbor who keeps killing her cats with rat poison, my savta and our family recently decided it would be best if she started sleeping at the kibbutz’s elderly care facility instead of in her home. And, strangely, with more supervision of her medical regimen, my mom said my Savta has actually been more lucid and less repetitive lately than she’s been in years. I can’t affirm this first hand because my savta and I speak to each other in a pretty crude mix of Hebrew and English, so we only ever say the same thing to each other on the phone anyway, but I trust my mom’s account on this.
When the caretakers discovered that my confused, crying savta could not a remember a blithering thing about herself, the first thing they guessed was that she must have had a stroke. But a trip to the ER and a CAT scan found no sign of one. With the most obvious diagnosis off the table all of us have been reviewing and repeating her list of symptoms, trying to make sense of them. Frankly, the detachment of this process makes me feel a little bit like House, but really, it’s hard to think about it any other way.
First of all, to be completely accurate, she hasn’t lost all of her memory. She still remembers Hebrew and she remembers some random things from her past. She does not, however, remember where she is, and even if you tell her, she forgets again in a few minutes. She does not remember how old she is, and when you tell her she expresses surprise that she’s so old (this breaks my heart). I don’t know if she remembers her name or if she remembers my saba. I’m too afraid to ask.
Now here’s where the symptoms get more complicated and contradictory. She barely remembers my aunt each time she sees her, but a cousin from France just happened to be in Israel when all of this happened and when she came to visit, my savta not only smiled at her as though she recognized her, she spoke to her in English! My aunt can’t be sure if my savta actually knew who our cousin was or if she was just being polite. From what I can tell, my savta has already forgotten the encounter. But for someone with so much memory loss, the fact that she can remember her fourth(!) language (aside from Hebrew, she speaks Romanian and Yiddish) yet not reliably recognize her daughter is astounding.
Another oddity surfaced the next day, we’re told. Apparently, the caretakers and my savta’s sister (my great aunt) brought her to her house hoping that being in a familiar place would calm her. Instead of bustling to her kettle to make herself instant coffee or bee-lining to her bedroom to fuss with her things to be sure no one had touched them — the way she always does — she just sat on the couch in her living room looking around at the well-worn room as though she had never seen it before.
My savta’s sister is the younger one and she has previously written in a memoir she created for the family that if it weren’t for my savta, she would not have survived the 500-mile death march from Basarabia to the concentration camps. To say my great aunt is devastated by my savta’s condition would be putting it lightly, according to my mom. Evidently, her anger, heart break, and frustration over what she cannot control are being directed at my savta’s sicko neighbor, who stands accused, most recently, of killing Olaf, another one of the stray cats on the kibbutz who had opted to make his home with my savta after his predecessor disappeared mysteriously. Last I heard, my great aunt was on the war path.
Meanwhile, my savta is fully aware that something is wrong. She knows she has lost her memory but is powerless to recall things once they’re gone. She keeps asking the people around her, who she does not really remember, for medicine that will fix her, but they have nothing to give her. In fact, they’ve taken her off most of the other medications she was taking, hoping that one of them would be the cause of her memory loss.
My general assumption is that if you lose your memory in such dramatic fashion, some traumatic event is typically the cause. Since the doctors have ruled out stroke, as well as her regular medications, the next step is a full psychological evaluation. Given that most of her routines were upended by her move to the care facility, maybe she is suffering some level of subconscious distress? Based on her lucidity just weeks after moving to the care facility, we think she was accidentally over medicating herself when she lived on her own. Maybe she is suffering some strange reaction to a shift in dosages?
The speculation can go on for ages. My mom and I have had to actively stop ourselves every time we talk on the phone. We are hoping the psych eval will reveal something that none of us can see.
We have had plans to go to Israel in December since August. For me, it will be the first time I’ve had enough time off to visit since entering the working world. I haven’t seen my savta in more than two years and I’m terrified that she won’t recognize me. My throat feels thick and my body feels crumbly when I try to imagine walking up the path to my her home and not being met by her overjoyed recognition, her raspy voice saying how much she “meessed” me, her smushy embrace that always leaves her make up on my cheeks.
We’re still sort of hoping her memory will come back just as suddenly as it disappeared — that she’ll backtrack through the metaphorical doorway.
When Steph and I started this blog, our fascination with memory had less to do with medical conditions and more to do with technological memory and archiving. I feel weird and uncomfortable that my family’s pain is relevant to this blog in such a literal way, but obviously I’m compelled to share this story even if I’m not ready to analyze it objectively. At the same time, if anyone has had a friend or family member experience something like this or has any ideas about a cause, I’d love to hear from you.