April 2018

Monday, November 9, 2015

A Rose by Any Other Name

Friday at the assisted living facility where I'm doing my social work practicum, I could not recall "Juliet's" name. I was leading a poetry club that I love and wanted to thank Juliet and "Ernie" for bringing poems to the group, so I said thanks to Ernie and…and I blanked. I looked at Juliet and tried to dog paddle to her name, but I was sinking, and she rescued me. She was gracious and assured me that it was okay, but I felt awful. 

I know that stress impacts recall. More people were attending than we had seats for, so the last person to come had to sit on his walker. Juliet pointed out that this was a good problem to have, and we all agreed to meet in a larger room with more seats next time. 

I once witnessed my dad have this problem. A couple of years after I came out as a lesbian, my partner Ann and I attended a dinner celebrating my dad's work as president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Our family sat at a round middle table, and throughout the dinner doctors came up to meet the family and thank Dad for his work. 

This was the first time that Dad had introduced Ann as my partner instead of my "friend," and he was clearly stressed. Each time, he began the introductions with Ann and me and then went around the table. Each time he got to my little brother, he blanked on Matt's name, and Matt introduced himself. 

Surely, Dad knew Matt's name just as I knew Juliet's. It wasn't that we didn't remember: it was that we couldn't find the name in our brains. Our search engines were on the blink. 

I started having problems with word and name recall after radiation for my second brain tumor. I can usually find a way around it so that people don't notice. Once, soon after radiation, I was sending an email to colleagues and couldn't think of the word "split," so I rearranged the sentence and used the word "bifurcation" instead. I got some grief for that one. 

From time to time, this difficulty with recall happened before my brain tumor diagnosis. As a public high school English teacher, I generally had anywhere from 32 to 41 students in each of five classes, and remembering all those names was challenging. Once, a female student who had the same last name as the male sitting beside her raised her hand, and though I knew her well, I had no idea what her name was. My mind raced but was completely blank. It wasn't like her name was on the tip of my tongue. It had been momentarily deleted. I tried to laugh it off, but she wasn't amused. 

Another time, a student asked me for a bathroom pass, and as I was filling it out, he said, "That's not my name." I looked up and was completely blank. If this weren't his name, I had no idea what was. He must have originally registered my stress in trying to get his name right because then he said, "I'm just kidding." I laughed, but I wasn't amused. 

When Shakespeare's Romeo reflected on his own Juliet's name, he considered how ridiculous the feud was between their families and mused, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet."

True, but there is a lot in a name. After all, Romeo and Juliet died. And knowing their names is how we let people know that they are part of our lives. Generally.

But now, in this assisted living facility, most residents have memory issues. When I see someone I know, I use their name and say hi and tell them, "It's Mary." I've been there since June, and they seem to sense that they know me even if they don't know my name.

But Juliet doesn't struggle with memory, or at least I haven't noticed it if she does. She's a great reader of poetry and advocate for the poetry club. She has woven herself into my heart. And I want her to know that she's part of my life even when I don't recall her name. (I think she knows that, but I want to be sure.)

I believe that these brain tumors have aged me more than my years, and now there's this new awareness of this limitation. Perhaps, like my other limitations, there's a gift here, in this case a gift of empathy in recognizing my brain's fallibility. Another resident--one with a great wit and significant short term memory loss--told me on Friday, "You have no idea how hard getting old is." 

Though I don't know all of it, maybe I know some. 

I think I'll share this with Juliet. 

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