When Working Memory Retires
by Tom Crowley
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
In Brian’s sixty-sixth November, a quarter inch of new snow lay on his jogging path, and thin ice reached into the Canyon River at his left. The packing company called this place The Valley of the Jolly Green Giant, and the fields to Brian’s right, plowed and empty now, would green again in spring with the peas, spinach, and corn that the company froze for city folks who couldn’t grow even dandelions or bindweed, who barely understood that the packaged greens they ate were plants with cycles of germination, growth, and reproduction, cycles like ours that — if the crops weren’t harvested — would then decline toward death.
Brian, like everyone who had ever lived here, again saw Minnesota’s November sunrise slightly pinking the horizon’s gray. At thirty-nine degrees he ran at sunrise, as he had three or four days a week for thirty-three years, each of his five miles now needing thirteen or fourteen minutes, not fast anymore but, as the local farmers said in accents laced with their grandparents’ tongues, “purdy goot — fer an olt guy.” And in deeper snow Brian would continue his cross-country routine on ancient wooden Splitkein skis.
His cerebellum managed his running feet while his cerebrum pre-ran today’s lecture to eighteen students in Memory and Cognition. He’d compare “episodic memory,” recalling past episodes in one’s life, with “working memory,” recalling where one is, and what’s next, in stepwise projects like making dinner.
Inevitably, some student would ask about multitasking two or three processes simultaneously, and Brian would answer with a question. “You mean, like studying for an exam while fixing a complicated dinner and watching the evening news? Anyone have an example?” Someone usually then told of burned chicken breasts, a midterm D, and a disgusted date that the person had hoped to bed.
Then Brian’s beautifully-clear slides would display the dorsal-lateral prefrontal cortex, home of working memory, which is, he’d say, “impaired by normal aging.” That section would close with a New Yorker cartoon of an old man using a cane to leave an office building. Its caption: “When working memory retires, so should its owner.”
Next, he’d show the hippocampus, its connections, and its role in episodic memory. Then he’d move from anatomy and neurophysiology to clinical memory impairments, frontotemporal and Alzheimer’s dementias.
Before his next few classes, Brian would meet with several students to help them choose and understand recent scientific papers on memory, papers they then discussed in class, teaching their fellow students. While teaching, a few always described a grandparent who no longer recognized them.
Brian believed “You are what you produce.” His products included Carson graduates who knew the procedures and principles of science generally and the central role of brain biology in human behavior. His knowledge, commitment, humor, and infectious conviction that learning about brain was sacred and fun, together with the students’ experience of teaching, all made Memory and Cognition so popular that several ground-glass guys, including now-Professor Charles Anderson, had done neuroscience minors just to take it.
Brian worked to maintain that popularity. Carson provided photos of students registered for each professor’s class. Several times each week he covered names below the photos to practice recalling them. Just before finals he usually knew about three-quarters of them, but he was disappointed that he, who chose to teach at a college where senior faculty knew students’ names, recalled none a month later.
* * *
In December, the darkest month, Hjalmar Gustafson, coughing, spitting into a handkerchief, and reeking of tobacco, came to see Brian, now sixty-seven years old. Hjalmar, while Carson’s Chair of English, had published four volumes of deeply moving poems on the gritty, drunken lives of Nordland’s rural poor. Many faculty members knew that years before, Brian, Marta, and Hjalmar’s wife, Kristen, had initiated an “intervention” leading to Hjalmar’s thirty-day alcohol rehab, membership in AA, and sustained sobriety.
Hjalmar said, “Brian, Charles Anderson thinks you walk on water, so I need you for another intervention — on him. I hired him because he is a great writer, but the U of M said that when he was supposed to supervise a grad student, the ‘supervision’ was sex and beer. In my hiring interview he said it nearly wrecked his marriage, and he’d learned his lesson. But now I’ve got complaints that he’s twice arrived for class drunk.”
Despite some trepidation, Brian, worried about Charles since that two-beer lunch, joined the interveners. They convened in Hjalmar’s office an hour before Charles’s arrival. Hjalmar introduced Mac Riley, underfed, care-worn, his T-shirt displaying an equilateral triangle: at the top, Drink2Much; lower left, GetHelp; lower right, OrDie. An Intervention Specialist from Mankato’s Sobriety Center, a thirty-day live-in program, Mac coached them on how to help Charles, who of course was shocked when he found both Angela and Brian in Hjalmar’s office with this stranger.
Mac introduced himself, described his job, and said, “Hjalmar, will you start?”
Hjalmar said, “Charles, you’re my most promising Assistant Professor, and you’re a great writer. But students complain that you’ve arrived at classes drunk. You and I both owe them better than that, so if you don’t enter Sobriety Center with Mac today, stay the recommended time, attend AA afterward, and keep sober, I’ll fire you immediately.”
Charles shot back fast and loud, “I have a right to know which students...,” but Mac cut him off, saying, “Angela speaks next, then Brian. Then it’s your turn.”
Angela said, “After that awful mess with the grad student and our counseling, I came here because I still love and respect you — when you’re sober. But now you’re drunk about four nights a week. You know my dad was a drinker and died driving into a bridge pier.” She stiffened, clenched her teeth, and said, “I will not live like that again! So either you do everything Hjalmar just said, or I’m gone the next day.”
“Brian?” asked Mac.
Brian said, “Look, Charles, I’ve known you since you were a freshman, and I supervised your teaching other students then. You already stood out, and I know you’ll be a great teacher. But I watched you drink two beers just before a class, and teaching our students is an enterprise too noble for that. Do what Hjalmar just ordered, or I’ll never talk to you again.”
Charles, now teary and ashen, said, “You three are the most important people in my life, and I didn’t realize how far I’ve strayed. I’m so sorry.” Then he added, “I really do need rehab, and I’ll definitely do what you ask, but I’ve got three crucial classes this week. No one else can teach them, so I can’t start until next week.”
Hjalmar said, “Go in with Mac today, or you’re done here.”
Angela said, “Ditto, or I’m gone tomorrow.”
Brian said, “Ditto, or we’re done.”
Charles entered Sobriety Center, stayed the course, joined AA, and remained sober.
* * *
Brian’s was among the first labs to study Octodon degus. Like Alzheimer’s patients, as these small, friendly Chilean rodents age, their brains develop abnormal beta-amyloid deposits, neurofibrillary tangles, and impaired neurotransmission. When those appear, memory and cognition decline. “You are what you produce,” and Brian had helped produce an important animal model for studying Alzheimer’s disease.
Lab Meeting was today, eight-to-nine a.m. Brian, now seventy, had learned this morning that his grant application was unscored, but he’d need a few days to wrestle his own sadness, embarrassment, and shame before telling his staff that their jobs and his productivity would end in three months.
Brian started the meeting. “Our ad got two applications from high-school seniors who can feed and water our degus over the Christmas break but, Marlene,” — he turned to the research assistant — “you’ll need to show those kids how to care for our critters.”
Marlene, really smart, now applying to grad schools with her new Bachelor’s degree in psychology, scrunched her face in consternation, shook her head, and said, “Well, yeah, but remember, you told us that last Thursday, and I met with them yesterday.”
Blushing, Brian said, “Oh... oh, of course, right,” but he didn’t remember at all and thought, A few idiocities like that and nobody will work with me. His feeble cover: “I’m sure you did great.”
He turned to the two undergrads who set up behavioral equipment, moved animals, and kept meticulous records. “Crystal and John, any problems this week?”
They looked at each other, paused, then Crystal said, “ Ninety-Two might be sick. He hasn’t socialized with the others for three days, and his weight is down five percent.” The meeting addressed Ninety-Two and other issues, while Brian tried to hide his shame about the unscored application and that staggering blank on last week’s meeting.
* * *
That evening, Brian needed comfort food; he ate early and alone at Hanson’s Diner: a Bud Light, meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy, Jolly Green Giant frozen peas, and Anne Hanson’s apple pie. Nordland had no movie theater, and it was twelve miles to the nearest one in Faribault. He didn’t know what was playing, and he didn’t care, so long as it took his mind off “unscored” and his stunning memory lapse.
After dinner, Hanson’s lot was dark, damp, cold, and a half-inch of still-falling light snow had accumulated. A mile through Nordland, ten miles down MN 3, and then a mile through Faribault took twenty-two minutes. Brian had done it a hundred times, and he arrived at Faribo West Mall just after seven pm.
The movie was awful. The big guy in the tight suit planned to destroy the White House, and the one who talked so fast wanted to stop him, apparently by crashing and exploding cars; meanwhile the too-thin woman with pneumatic breasts worked for both guys, or maybe for one while spying on the other, but who cared? Brian just needed a distraction from that disastrous email and meeting.
When he left the movie at 9:15, the snow was three inches deep, still falling, and a frigid wind was blowing it almost horizontally. He couldn’t remember where he’d parked and, in tennis shoes, he wandered for ten minutes before finding the car. Locating the window brush under the front passenger seat took five more minutes. He’d worn no gloves, and cold snow melted on his hands as he wiped the windows.
He left the Mall, heading toward MN 3. After nearly fifteen minutes he crossed I-25 on an overpass. That seemed wrong, but he drove another five minutes to check. Then a green sign said, “Le Sueur 18 miles.” That definitely was wrong, so he turned right onto a road marked “Rice County 10.”
The snow was heavier now, and with no idea where he was, he worried. Fortunately, Siri knew everything, so he pulled over, took out his iPhone, held down the white button, then heard dear Siri’s reassuring, “How can I help you?” This day had taught him he needed help. Maybe Siri could.
He said, “Siri, guide me to...,” then paused. Damn, he was blocking on his own home address, the smaller place he’d bought after Marta’s death.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t get that. How can I help you?” He pushed the white button again, hard, and thank God, Siri’s screen disappeared. Maybe she hadn’t noticed his forgetting. He whipped his memory for that address, but recalled only the one he’d shared with Marta.
No lights or cars moved on Rice County 10.
Brian’s brain said, A memory expert who can’t recall names... Grant application is trash... Idiot with his staff... Couldn’t find his car... Forgot his address... Lost!... Not just working memory, serious impairment... Prognosis: crap.
Brian had served proudly as a professor, teacher, researcher, expert. Now lost and alone, he needed Marta, missed her as though she’d died that morning. Or Willy could’ve helped, if he’d lived.
The thought of dementia so nauseated Brian that he left the car and stood in the headlights’ brightness, facing the ditch, his right hand bracing on the cold right front fender as cold wet snow melted on his bald spot and on his soaked shoes, wetting his already cold feet, and then he vomited meatloaf, potatoes, peas, pie — even gravy — mostly into the ditch’s snowy weeds, but some splatter messed his trousers and shoes.
Freed then of that, but without water, he spat and spat, unable to wash away that ghastly stomach-acid taste before returning to the car, weeping, angry, defeated.
After about ten minutes, he thought to turn on the overhead light, twisted to pull out his wallet, and pressed again the cellphone’s white button. “How can I help you?” Pleading, lost, alone, he said, “Siri, guide me to” — and read from his driver’s license — “981 Carson Avenue, Nordland, Minnesota.”
Then Siri took Brian home.
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Tom Crowley