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It would be great if I could call up a neuron to fire on demand…

It would be great if I could call up a neuron to fire on demand; to connect its spidery ganglia to the axon of another neuron; and so on and on, until I could place and clearly envision a memory that I’d like to re-examine. For instance, I would love to be able to locate in the clutter of my home that old address book that I kept for years as we moved around the world.  I want to remember the faces and names of the wonderful people we have enjoyed.  Question:  what did I do with it?  Surely, I didn’t throw it away in one of my previous downsizing, de-cluttering binges.  And which was the CD I used to play while driving, the one that had the music that could make me pull over and just listen or sit in the garage until it ended?  It’s somewhere amongst the multitude of CDs I’ve collected over the years, but which one was it?

Well, there are things and then there are memories.  Certainly, they are usually connected, but things are, after all, disposable.  I may grieve the loss of my favorite pottery bowl, but I will always remember its associations and why it was my favorite.

What brought on this particular meditation was a neuron firing at some nearby neurons and producing an image of Mrs. Dorothy Grady.  All of a sudden, and apropos of nothing at all, the wonderful Mrs. Grady (who I could never forget) emerged from the murky depths of my memory bank.  Why Mrs. Grady?  Well, there is somewhat of a connection.  I had been contemplating the truly miserable job of packing, downsizing, perhaps even moving.  Now I’m no stranger to moving.  In the first 30 years of marriage, I had already moved 20+ times.  Do the math.  I had looked around my household at all my accumulated treasures (and more than some accumulated trash; at one point, I actually had the corsage I received when I graduated from college!) and tried to decide what things I really need and am willing to clean.  Some stuff would have to go to family, and some would have to go to the Thrift House.  Some – sob! – would have to go out with the garbage.

I had looked around my household at all my accumulated treasures and tried to decide what things I really need and am willing to clean.

If you’ve ever had to pack up and move, you know just what a heart-wrenching – no, soul-wrenching experience this is. You are, after all, dealing with memories:  Mama’s iron frying pan; the collection of carefully de-wrinkled Christmas wrap; the picture frame I made in 3rd grade Girl Scouts; a whole drawer-full of miscellaneous pens bravely advertising businesses that had folded 20 years ago; a dried and discolored corsage still attached to its college-colored ribbons; and my vast collection of coffee mugs and CDs.

(Aside:  in one trans-national move, I discovered that I had packed the bottom half of my artificial Christmas tree.  The top half was in never-never land, as in never, never to be seen again.)

So let me ramble over to Mrs. Grady.  I’m sorry to say that when I met her she was dying.  She had inoperable liver cancer, and there was really nothing further to be done except to keep her comfortable and listen to her memories.  But her daughter was worried:  Mrs. Grady had begun to drift away, entering into a state that was something between a deep sleep and unconsciousness.  She asked if perhaps Mrs. Grady was receiving too much pain medication, but no, liver cancer can cause periods of mental twilight.  Consciousness flickers in and out like a firefly, sparking little vignettes of memory and then winking out.  The poisons that the liver normally clears from the body begin to accumulate and the brain dutifully tucks them away in its cortex.  But unlike my de-wrinkled and soon-to-be recycled Christmas wrap, the brain can’t just toss out the poisons.

If you’ve ever had to pack up and move, you know just what a heart-wrenching – no, soul-wrenching experience this is.

Most days, Mrs. Grady was eager to chat, spinning stories of her grandchildren or of her long-dead husband.  There were times, however, now more frequent, that she seemed to drift.  When I asked Mrs. Grady if she was aware of these periods of disconnect, she told me something that is forever etched into my own neurons:  “Oh yes,” she said.  “I’m up here (pointing to her head) doing some cleaning.  I’m leaving, you know.  So now I’m just doing some sorting, deciding what I’m going to keep and what I’m going to throw away.”  She made it sound so simple.  God rest you, Mrs. Grady, and thank you for teaching me this lesson:  the really important things can be found, we hope, tucked away in the neurons.

So now as I look around at my own detritus, clutter left over from a life of many joys, I remember Mrs. Grady and think about what I will always treasure, my memories.  And sparkling there among those memories that I will always treasure is my music – an eclectic collection to be sure, but music that reaches those neurons that connect to the heart.  Thank you, Mrs. Grady.

– E Doyle

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