Gabriel García Márquez, in his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, tells the story of a poor Colombian peasant named Garcia who suffers from an Alzheimer’s-like disease that causes an increasing and irrevocable loss of memory. It’s like someone drilled a little hole in Garcia’s head and his memory trickles out, and he can’t stop it.
Garcia tries to push back against this creeping amnesia. He fights against his forgetfulness by making little signs on scraps of brown paper, and he goes around his humble home putting signs on everything. This is a key. You use it to unlock your door. This is a pump. Pump the handle and water will come out of the spout.
But the disease is relentless and unstoppable. Finally, as he realizes that his mind is about to go completely blank, Garcia hurriedly makes two last little signs on the scraps of brown paper, and he stuffs them in his pocket, two things he wants desperately to remember till the very end. The one scrap of paper says, Your name is Garcia. And the other says: There is a God.
Don was a gentle, soft-spoken, elderly gentleman, a member of my congregation many years ago. Three days a week he would go and visit his wife of fifty years, Annie, who resided in the dementia unit of a nursing home. Annie was in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Like Garcia, Annie’s memory had trickled relentlessly away, and now it was all but gone.
There is nothing quite so distancing as the loss of memory. Memory is so much a part of who we are that it is almost impossible to imagine who you would be without it. What if you no longer remembered what it was like to grow up in your family? What if you could no longer remember who your parents were, or how they raised you? If you are married, or once were, what if you had no memory of who your spouse was, or how you met, how you fell in love? If you have children, what if you forgot who they were, forgot that you even had children? If you could no longer remember what it is to be you, would you still be you?
Fortunately, even if we can no longer remember, God remembers us. “Can a woman forget her nursing child, says Isaiah (49:15 ESV), that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” Even if we do not remember, we are remembered by God. Even if you forget, God will not forget you.
Three days a week Don would go and sit all afternoon with Annie. I once asked him, “Does she say anything?” He shook his head. “She doesn’t speak. She doesn’t know who I am. She doesn’t know who she is, or where she is. Sometimes I talk to her, but mostly I just look at her and smile, and she looks at me.”
Don said that he’d read an article once about how newborn babies stare into their mother’s loving face as a sort of mirror, which helps them form a sense of self. In that mirror of their mother’s gaze, the article said, the infant is assembling a reality, an identity, and learning that he or she is loved, and that all is well. And Don thought that maybe, when we are leaving this world, something similar happens in the long exchange of loving looks. “I just look at her and smile,” he said, “and she looks at me.” And he thought that maybe, somewhere deep down in Annie’s darkened mind, there was still a tiny flicker of light, and that in his smile she was sensing the reality that she was loved, and that all was well.
I don’t know if that’s true. But I hope it is. At the beginning of life, for an unknowing infant, a mother’s smiling face is a sign, like one of Garcia’s little slips of paper, that life is good and that you are loved. And maybe at the end of life, for an unknowing Alzheimer’s patient, a loving look is a sign that even though your memories have all but drained away, there are two final things that you need to know. The first is, There is a God. And the other is, Your name is his beloved child.
When you go and visit people in the dementia unit, smile. Even though they have forgotten, God has not forgotten them.