daily preciousness

Friday, February 04, 2005

the great chain of yesterdays

There’s an old story – a fable -- in the Chinese Zodiac about the Monkey:

One evening some monkeys were playing out by a well. The smallest monkey leaned over the edge of the well and looked in. There, at the bottom, was the round, bright moon! “The moon has fallen into the well!” He shouted.

All of the monkeys gathered around the well and peered down. “We must fish it out at once!” they cried. So they climbed a nearby tree and made a great chain down into the well.

The smallest monkey, at the end of the chain, reached for the moon, but all he scooped up was a handful of water. The surface of the water rippled, breaking the moon into pieces. “Oh, I’ve broken the moon,” he said. The other monkeys scolded him, but soon the water grew still and the image of the clear, bright moon appeared as it had before. Once again, the smallest monkey tried to grab the moon. But once again, he broke it.

By now the other monkeys in the chain were losing their grip, complaining that their arms hurt. Complaining that their tails hurt. Complaining to the smallest monkey that he must fish out the moon right now.

Just then, the oldest monkey happened to look up, and saw the moon hanging in the sky. He called the others, saying, “There’s a new moon in the sky! The old one must have been thrown away in the well!” With that, all the monkeys climbed out of the well and rejoiced at the sight of the new moon.

The moral of the fable is: Ignorance is bliss.

I thought about this fable the last time I saw my grandmother. It was last Christmas. She’s in the old folks’ home, with Alzheimer’s.

Speaking with her, interacting with her, is a difficult experience. On her bad days, she can’t remember anything since the year 2000. In fact, her day-to-day experience is mostly limited to the span of a few minutes. Her memory is like a Chinese calligrapher's brush that has been dipped into disappearing ink: it can only record so much before the images fade into nothingness.

Her short-term memory makes conversation a laborious and challenging.

It’s like a tape that lasts about 5 minutes and then loops right back around again... And we’re back on the same topics. (“How’s your brother? Are you still teaching? Your car running all right these days?”)

Talking with her is a chore because it's so repetitive. Like the instructions on the back of a shampoo bottle. Lather, rinse, repeat. (Who needs instructions for that, anyway?)

The time I spent with her over the holiday, holding her time-worn hands and talking, was equal parts exasperating and heart breaking; to see this woman’s mind just evaporate is such a pity. She used to be filled with colorful stories of childhood summers playing in the cotton fields of north Louisiana. Stories about how her father carried her around when she was stricken wth polio.

She would bounce us on her knee and sing to us about how “Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy” (And If the words sound queer to your ear, just know that it’s a little bit jumbled and jivey.)

Now those memories are gone. Her stories have been silenced by her disease…. And she’s not the whole person she used to be. She exists outside of the near past. She exists in the ever-present now.

It’s almost as if, like the moon in that Chinese fable, her memories have fallen into the well. Each time she tries to fish them out, they break apart as the surface of the water ripples. (Ripples and reflections as metaphor for memory: that appeals to me on many levels.)

In the science of dreams, water is often a metaphor for the unconscious mind. It's a good one, too. Water found in a well is a blessing and a mystery... it makes you wonder, "What is down there?" And I thought about well water when I spoke with her. Well water is cool and refreshing, even in the most scorching Southern heat.

Watching her search for her memories, splashing about, is a painful exercise – the frustration on her face is obvious and she confides sheepishly, “You know, I'm not as sharp as I used to be; I just can’t seem to remember things anymore!”

I wish she didn’t realize this. I wish she had the luxury of not understanding her own diminished cognition.

But most of all, I wish the great chain of my grandmother’s yesterdays extended down to the clear, bright light of her childhood, so that she could tell me about summers in the cottonfields and sing silly songs about mares, does and lambs once again. I wish she could get a tight grip onto her great chain of yesterdays.


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