The Pear Tree
Every morning my Dad looks out of the kitchen window at a large pear tree adjoining our house and a neighbour. It is a flowering and fruiting pear, and the blossom emerges prior to the leaves, approximately end of March or early April every year.
Pretty much every morning my Dad says, “You know that tree used to have beautiful white blossom flowers all over – but this year it never bloomed.” Depending on the time of year he would say either ‘this year’ or ‘last year’ – and he has said this in excess of 1000 times now.
This year I took a photograph of the tree when it was in its fullest bloom and it was truly magnificent. I even took my Dad outside and up close with the tree, in the hope that this would cure his repetitive comment. This was, however, to no avail – the comments just keep on flowing. However I do say to him, “Well it did Dad, actually – and here’s a photo of it. Thing is, the flowers were only there for about a week and then they began to fall.” This gives him the chance (each day) to move on from the loop of the repeated comment.
The Kettle Accident
Now, I’ve often wondered why it is that he keeps averring the lack of blossom…until today, when I got one of those glorious lightbulb moments!
In the year of his 90th birthday (2009) he had an accident in the bedroom whilst making a cup of early morning tea for my mother. He’d boiled a kettle and then dropped it on one of his ankles. The boiling water severely scalded his flesh and he suffered second degree burns. The pain and shock must have been excruciating and in the midst of helping him and all his crying out, he still insisted that I didn’t call an ambulance. “I’m not going to hospital,” he said. “People my age go in there and never come out!” I complied with his wishes, and although he did receive a doctor’s visit shortly after, the doctor concluded that with our close attention and a daily call by the district nurse (to change the dressing on the burns), my Dad would be better off convalescing at home. This duly happened – and although the skin on his ankle recovered remarkably well with time, he actually spent 6 weeks ‘bedroom bound’. In that time his birthday came and went, and his birthday is in April.
My lightbulb moment (and we always wonder how we’d never realised it before the very day we do) was that, due to his burns experience, it meant that in 2009 he never came downstairs between the end of March and early May, and as a consequence NEVER saw the blossom on the pear tree! And as far as he is concerned – because he never saw it, then it never happened.
The other point here is that the traumatic imprint of the kettle of hot water accident has overprinted all occurrences of pear tree blossom in short term memory since that date. He could remember what the pear tree did look like in full bloom in 2008 and before – whilst in 2010 and 2011 – although he has experienced seeing the blossom (even up close), his short term memory has never been written to. The non-year in 2009 now overrides everything.
The facility of writing away memories to short term, then long term, hard and soft-wiring, imprints and traumas, is a fascinating process. Similarly – where and how we stow away (and recall) those memories in our virtual “filing cabinets’ is complex and individual to each one of us.
I believe that the more we come to understand the workings of these processes, the sooner we will be able to better deal with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Whilst chemical interventions are the conventional scientific way at present, it is most likely that the greatest alleviations will come about through neuro- and psycho- science.