My friends and I laugh when we can’t remember the names of a TV series or old movie stars. We keep the conversation going anyway, knowing sooner or later someone will blurt out,”Paul Newman!” who starred in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with um, what’s her name? Oh yeah, Elizabeth Taylor.
Memory isn’t the only part of the brain clogged up. It takes longer for us to get the punchline of a joke. And we worry about the one who stops getting the punchline altogether. Processing information requires sifting through a lifetime of brain clutter. It simply takes more time these days.
When I first became aware of the rummage sale in my head, I consulted Dr. Google for tips on decluttering. Dr. Google assured me that indiscriminate shopping, getting lost, difficulty with numbers, language, dates, names and places are all part of the normal aging process called cognitive decline. Researchers say eat right, exercise, socialize and learn something new.
And consult a neurologist.
I called the Mesulum Center for Cognitive Neurology at Northwestern University. “Someone will call you back,” the receptionist said.
“Can’t I just make an appointment?”
“No. Someone needs to talk to you first.”
“No. Someone will call you.”
I missed the callback. Called again. Missed again. And again.
Processing TV news had become difficult. I couldn’t connect information from one sentence to the next. To understand morning radio, I had to stop getting dressed, sit down with a cup of coffee and listen. Reading was clunky. Some words on the page faded. Some didn’t. I went to the eye doctor three times within six months. She insisted my vision was fine.
A friend told me about a new choir for people with early-stage memory loss. The organizers sought volunteers to help people with the music and to round out the choir. No audition or experience required. I’d never read sheet music or sung in a choir but I love to sing. So I signed up.
The first day I hesitated to accept my songbook. Would I remember to bring it to rehearsals? Would I even remember the day and time of rehearsals? People asked me what “part” I sang. I had no idea.
“I have to sing the melody,” I said.
After a few warm-up exercises we started learning an Oklahoma medley. Alice, sitting next to me, noticed I was having trouble. The music was running ahead of me—I couldn’t catch the words. She pointed to the soprano lines and pulled out a yellow marker to highlight them.
“Sing the notes with the stems pointing up,” She whispered.
That was 2018. I mark my own music now, never forget a rehearsal and can find my place on the sheet. Months of practice pulls the music closer, though I never feel concert-ready.
In December 2022 our repertoire included songs in five languages. Each deja-vu rehearsal seemed like a new beginning. I rarely got my voice to attach the foreign words to the notes. But on concert day, my brain latched onto another dimension. I sang perfectly.
I’d say I really cleaned up.