Monday, May 31, 2010

Day of Memories

When as a youngster I first heard about the American Memorial Day, the term seemed puzzling. I had just started learning English and the word obviously was derived from memory. I found out the meaning in no time, but to this day I think of memories, memorizing and keep the day as a somber reminder that so many of us, especially the elderly, are falling victims of dementia. Of course the Finns have their day to remember the ones who paid defending their country with their lives, but we call it a day to remember the fallen. In America, it has been a long time since we actually have defended our country: the deaths have happened far away from home on foreign soil, as a result of our involvement in affairs of other nations, or our financial or political interests. Originally the Decoration Day, this special day was meant to honor the Union soldiers who had died in battle.

I am a pacifist and only believe in armed battle when defending one's family and home country from foreign aggression. Wars have no victors, just losers. Terrible acts take place but only the losing side is made to pay for their sins. Just a few days ago the only still living member of the Enola Gay crew, the navigator Van Kirk, said that he would be ready to drop the nuclear bomb again as he hadn't lost a night's sleep over the deaths of 200,000 people, mainly civilians. Yes, the Nazis caused horrifying destruction and suffering. How can we ever forgive them for the destruction of the Jewish people and other people they deemed unwanted? But the Allied forces were no angels, either. Cluster bombing of Germany and Japan was more of a test to see what would happen than a military necessity. Yes, we now know that human bodies can melt to a puddle of fat if all the oxygen has been used up, but what good is such knowledge? What if the evil Germans would have won and the British would have had to surrender? The weapons and the scientists in the Third Reich were far superior to the other side, especially in the beginning of the Second World War. What if they had managed to create the first atomic weapon? Would Hitler be the hero of the "free" world?

But let's return to my "Memory Day" concept. Since my mother suffered from Alzheimer's as did one of her two brothers, I naturally wonder if I have the same sad future awaiting. Recently previous theories of the cause of this horrifying condition have undergone a 180 degree turn. We were so sure that the amyloid plaques in the brain were the cause of the disease that all medical research and development of drugs evolved around this concept. Now new information has surfaced and it is very contradictory to the old way of thinking. Oligomers, floating clumps of amyloid, seem to be the cause, at least with mice. The plaques might actually be nature's way of protecting the brain. Some have compared it to the mechanism in an oyster where a pearl is created around a grain of sand, to prevent damage to the life form. By having developed drugs to prevent these plaques we might have made matters worse. Not everyone is ready to embrace the new theory, but when stomach ulcers were first linked to Heliobacter pylori many doctors and researchers laughed. In order to make progress in a dead end situation one has to think outside of the accepted norms for the box. In the case of Alzheimer's we have long known from autopsies that there are perfectly normal people with such deposits and sometimes an early case will present none or very few. Hopefully science will know more before this ever becomes an issue with me.

Although presently many professionals are ready to lump every old-age dementia in the same basket of Alzheimer's, that clearly isn't the case. I have a 99-year-old father who has for well over a decade suffered from some form of dementia but he is still able to talk and carry on a conversation, give ladies flattering comments and so on. After two broken hips he isn't able to walk and there are other signs of extreme age, but clearly the course of the condition is very different from what my mother went through. So, let's not throw out the terms old-age and vascular dementia ("hardening of the arteries"). Different forms of frontotemporal lobe dementia (FTD) are another group of illnesses affecting the brain and a cruel ones as they affect a patient's personality so much.

The mechanism behind memory is most intriguing. What makes us remember a certain event but forget another one? At what age do our first permanent memories form? I was "born old" and can easily remember happenings when I was just two. I also have a very clear image of being in a baby stroller looking up and seeing people, tall as trees, bending down to a closer view. I know that this really happened because I remember the plywood structure of the stroller and my mother admitted that after the war nothing fancier was available. I learned to walk very early, so clearly this would have happened much before. I also remember breastfeeding on what seemed like an enormous source of nourishment. This also had to happen early as my mother was busy returning to her business. Many events are easy to place in a correct time knowing when they happened. The summer home was being built before my second birthday. We didn't have a car and took a taxi to see the hole that my grandfather had dug for the foundation for his house. It was filled with water as the fall was rainy. I had just turned two. At the same age my mother took me to see our next house and I remember holding onto her hand and stepping through the bathroom. The red and yellow tiles left a permanent impression. Of course they later seemed much smaller than at first sight. On my third birthday by grandpa came over in the afternoon and gave me a gigantic box of Fazer candies, one kilo or 2.2 lbs of them. I remember sitting with him by the kitchen table. On my fourth birthday it was freezing and I went to the sandbox all by myself and felt ever so old. No other kids were out but I had received a pocket knife and was admiring it.

I learned to read fluently at three, not only Finnish but music as well. It is just another language with a different notation, right? As I was far ahead of my age group, I read the daily paper and can remember many headlines from early on. That in turn made me very curious of the world and my love for geography and other knowledge was born.

Today I wish I didn't remember so much. I am an old elephant. Some memories can be pushed to the back burner, but there are people who have wronged me and my family. It is easier to forgive than to forget, but when no apology has ever been offered, there is no reason for forgiveness either. Perhaps when I can go to a gravestone and spit on it, the matter has reached its conclusion. If I'm no longer around, maybe a family member will do so for my soul's behalf. My silent and non-violent war continues.