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57 Memory vvv The computer at my work desk flickers on, casting a blue glow across my hands. I have come in to work early to see what an Alzheimer’s brain looks like. My grandfather is dying from the disease, and I want to know what is happening to his mind. I type in “Alzheimer’s” and search for images. The pictures haunt me. One image shows a slice of a healthy brain next to one with advanced Alzheimer’s. The normal brain is peachy and ringed with curving folds, a river delta. In comparison, the Alzheimer’s brain is shriveled and hollow. Dark spots and holes puncture the lobes. The absence. In the Alzheimer’s brain, the thick pink folds of the healthy brain have become gnarled, garish stubs—stunted, withered, and shrunken. Channels of dendrites and axons have been severed from the neurons and dissolve into obscure hazy clouds. Saved on my desktop is a digital copy of a Willamette River map that has become a central image in my research: the river in 1854 next to the same river in 1975. In the 1854 map, channels meander their way across the valley floor. They curl, arch, fold, and coil to create a unique pattern. Channels extend outward or loop together to form islands. The 58 Meander Scars 1975 map shows the same river, but it’s shriveled and disconnected. Tiny dashes show the faint suggestion of where river once moved across the land in dazzling sweeps. The absence of channels isn’t like dark holes. It is marked by the glaring white of the page. So much page, so little river. While staring at the image comparing the Alzheimer’s brain to a healthy one, I read an accompanying article. It says our experiences create patterns in the types of signals zipping through the brain. These unique patterns are how the mind codes our memories and sense of who we are. Alzheimer’s tissue has fewer nerve cells and synapses than a normal brain. Over time, nutrients and other essential supplies can no longer move through the cells, and the cells die. Alzheimer’s literally simplifies the mind. My grandfather’s self is dying. I get up, shut the door to my office, and quietly cry. vvv Grandpa had been falling. Sometimes he’d be taking a walk and suddenly lose his balance. We’d all assumed his legs were getting old. But it wasn’t just age, we found out. “Grandpa has Alzheimer’s,” my mother said, sitting at her kitchen table, her head lowering, as if to tell a secret. Apparently, during a routine checkup at his hospital in Florida, my mother’s father had wandered off and became disoriented, soon frightened, and realized he didn’t know where he was or why he had left his home in the first place. How could it be? Grandpa had danced at my cousin’s wedding a year ago. He had just visited from Florida to attend my brother’s high school graduation, smiling in praise like everyone else. Days later, I called the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association and asked a woman to tell me, in the simplest terms, what causes it. “We’re living too long,” she said. “Oh I see.” I quietly thanked her before hanging up. How cruel of the world to take away a person’s memories. All those pathways carved into my grandfather’s brain by people and places, all those experiences nestled into neurons, all the stories, lessons, and 59 Memory memories, taken away. Do the channels of the brain really disappear? What happens when you can’t recall an experience anymore? Do you unlearn a lesson? Do you un-become yourself? My grandfather’s disease is even more mysterious because I don’t know much about his life and the experiences that anchored his memories in the first place. I can count on two hands how many times I’ve seen him: he’s always lived in Illinois or Florida, which means I’ve had to thread stories together into a makeshift map of who he is. His lifeline isn’t always straight in my head. The dates are often wrong, and important events of his life come in chaotically, like tributaries entering a stream. I’ve collected impressions of him, two-dimensional artifacts, piecing him together from stories told and retold, from old photographs of a tall, handsome man with a dazzling smile, crisp blue...


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MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
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