Human memory intrigues me. I’ve read reports of studies and listened to pieces on NPR about memory. I’m not much for long works of non-fiction, but I do troll websites about memory on a regular basis.
I heard an NPR piece on memory once in which the guest opined that humans often completely fabricate memories. We tell ourselves — or others tell us — that an event occurred, and we construct images to match the accounts to which we cling. We cannot recall details and strain to do so, eventually filling in the missing bits and then “remembering” the happening as a whole occurrence, including the details that we previously “could not remember”. We can no longer distinguish between what we recall and what we’ve added to our recall.
I revisit physical therapy every other year or so, just to remind myself of how to do the exercises that beat back my disability to the point where I can continue walking. During one such course of therapy, maybe ten years ago, my therapist repeatedly admonished me that I should not be carrying a large shoulder bag. She chided me during each session. “It will throw off your balance,” she’d predict. “You tire so easily as it is,” she moaned. I shrugged each time and kept on hoisting the world’s heaviest handbag to and from the affairs of each day.
One afternoon she left me sitting on the table-mat to go and grab my purse from where it rested on a chair with my jacket. She took it over to a scale and weighed it. “Good Lord!” she exclaimed. “This thing weighs ten pounds!” She came over to me and stood with her hands on her hips. “Why do you carry that?” she demanded.
I said, simply: “It’s easier to make one trip with everything than three trips with some things.” She glared at me. She seemed to be thinking about my declaration. Her face softened and she asked, “What do you mean?” She sat down beside me, dangling her legs over the two-foot high platform on which I did my sessions since I cannot get off the floor without struggling.
I thought a minute, then told her, “Well, I need everything in that bag. So walking is really challenging. I fall a lot. The potential for falling is not increased as much by carrying something heavy as it is by making multiple trips. How much I get tired is not increased as much by carrying a heavier purse as it is by walking three times from the car to my office to get everything that I’ll need for the day.” I stopped talking and studied her to see if she understood.
She seemed to follow me and asked, “Why don’t you get someone else to carry the stuff?” A fair question. “Sometimes I can, but sometimes there isn’t anyone to carry it so I have to get it all in, out, up, down. So I just plan for the eventuality that I won’t have help at either end of a journey.” We sat for a few minutes. She looked at me, then, and said, “So you carry a lot of stuff because the risk of falling carrying a lot of stuff is less than the risk of falling making three trips?” I nodded. She looked away, across the room, and then back at me. Suddenly, she laughed.
I didn’t see the humor and said so. “Oh, no, that’s not funny,” she assured me. “What’s funny is that I’m so used to being able-bodied that it never occurred to me that you might have to make such complex decisions about daily ambulation.” Then she laughed again. She stopped, looked at me, and then suddenly we were both laughing. We’d look at each other, get control of ourselves, then burst out howling. We struggled to regain our composure, to reforge the professional calm between us, but then we’d think about her feeling stupid and my feeling clumsy and we’d start laughing.
The other therapists and their patients started drifting over to find out what caused such amusement. We tried to tell them, and they just shook their heads. Eventually, we got a hold of ourselves, and sat, smiling at each other, just smiling. After a while, we continued with my session for that day. When I left, she walked me out to the elevator and placed her hand on my arm to say goodbye. As the elevator door shut, I heard her chuckling to herself.
I clearly remember that day: I can tell you the color of my pocketbook and where the work-out table was situated in the therapy room. I know the mat on which we sat was orange and the therapist had short brown hair with big curls. I remember an older woman watching us from across the room. I recall the conversation vividly; I can hear our laughter. I feel the connection.
Is any of that true? Is none of it? Did I fabricate some details? Did she really understand?
I might have created the memory from my own longing to have that moment. I don’t think so; but I don’t really know. I’ll take the memory as it is. Times like that convince me that I can be a person who sees things from the brightest side, and that’s all right with me.