Another Perspective

Losing Words

What's a mind to do when the brain freezes?

By 11.2.07

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I just tried to send my wife an e-mail, telling her I had bought dinner for us from a restaurant. It took a solid two minutes for me to remember the word for what I had ordered her: bruschetta.

This has been happening to me more and more frequently. Until yesterday, I took it with some equanimity. Okay, so I could never seem to remember -- what's the stuff that's the essence of yoghurt? Acidophilus. Okay. But yesterday, I called in a takeout order to a restaurant, and the girl on the phone asked me for my phone number, and I started to recite it -- and could not remember the last four digits.

"Okay, use this one," I said, and started to recite my cell phone number -- and I forgot the last four digits of that one, too.

Gone. Just plain gone. I just printed out some information I needed for a short trip, and hurriedly scribbled my phone numbers down on it while I could bring them to mind. They came back. All these things come back.

At least temporarily.

A COUPLE OF DAYS AGO, I WENT SHOPPING. I had run out of one of those ingredients you keep in the refrigerator forever, it seems, like you'll never run out of it. Use it in pasta puttanesca, for example. The little green things, just a bit bigger than beebees.

Lucky I knew where the grocery store kept these things, in the display aisle with pickles and condiments. Capers, that was it. I couldn't bring the word to the fore till I actually saw the bottle.

In an all-too-common variant on this forgetting process, I kept grasping for the word and getting another one that I knew was wrong: shallots.

Maybe pressure brings on this difficulty, kind of like the way you end up hitting an awful golf shot just because you have to hit it over a water hazard. I got on the phone with a restaurant again the other day, so we'd have an easy meal at home after my wife and younger son had been away on a day trip. And I panicked, worried I wouldn't be able to remember the name of the dish I wanted to eat, and would be forced to babble at the girl on the phone about pasta triangles with chopped tomato sauce on them, and so forth.

Lobster ravioli. Got it. But it was a close call.

MAYBE THIS HAPPENS TO EVERYBODY. Maybe I'm just fraying at the edges. I have always had an extraordinary memory. When I used to write books, I could envision a passage from any portion of the book in progress, and then simply recite the book from that point. If I make note of a quote from a book I'm reading, I can remember what portion of what page -- right or left -- it's found on, and approximately where in the book I need to open to find it.

That doesn't even take account of the hundreds of songs -- words, chords, and melodies -- I've memorized without even trying.

And, for some reason, I remember sequences of numbers. On a vacation once, I changed clothes and drove ten miles to a golf course, and, when I got there, found I had left my wallet in my other trousers. I could, however, remember my credit card number, so I didn't have to go back and get the wallet.

But something has changed. I find myself in a room, and I don't remember why I went there, and I fumble for something in the brain. And I stand there stupefied. Not for long. I cover it up.

So long as you don't notice the blank look in my eyes.

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.

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Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.