What My Elderly Mother Is Teaching Me About Evolution

First of all, my 91-year-old mother would be very unhappy to know that I wrote a blog post about her (if she knew what a blog post was). She is a private, proud woman of an era when news of one’s personal business didn’t extend much beyond chatter at church and the general store.

301px-Origin_of_SpeciesSecond, my mother would be equally unhappy to know that I’m associating her with the theory of evolution. At one time maybe, in her youth, she may have accepted Charles Darwin’s discovery of natural selection without feeling that it threatened her Catholic faith and spiritual outlook on life. But not in her old age. Only God and His mysterious ways matter to her now, and that’s fine.

My mother is more than entitled, at this stage of her life, to do/think/say just about anything she wants. I say “just” because Mom can still be imperious and peppery and she still scares me. As a mother of eight, grandmother of eleven and great grandmother of six (soon, seven), she’s had to lay down the law many times, and rightfully so. But she’s slowing down more and deserves a free pass.

Since May is the 50th anniversary of Older Americans Month, and Mother’s Day is approaching, there’s something I need to tell my mother next time I see her – that she is still teaching me important lessons about life.

That would please and surprise my mom, and I’m a dope for not telling her by now. I just visited her this past weekend in Pennsylvania. She still lives in the house where I grew up, and has excellent 24/7 care from a core group of caregivers with whom she’s formed a trusted and loving bond.

Although Mom is very fortunate to have the resources and support structure to stay at home, her big old brick colonial-style house grows larger and more obstructive as her frail body shrinks and loses mobility. Just days before my visit, my older siblings, who still live in the area, had ramps installed in her house. The ramps were placed over three sets of small steps that my mother can no longer negotiate on her feet.

So the past week has been stressful for her. Mom is rapidly transitioning from a walker to a wheelchair, and is doing so with a level of dignity and grace that I don’t possess. Darwin might nod knowingly when I say I have some of my mother’s traits but I lack others of hers I wish I had, including her emotional strength.

Darwin didn’t know anything about genetics or DNA, but his genius was in understanding the function of inheritance and its role in natural selection as the modification of inherited traits over long periods of time. As Darwin put it, natural selection preserves or creates “favoured races in the struggle for life.”

OAM Logo -- thumbnailWhat my elderly mother is teaching me about evolution, in particular, is how it affects memory as we age: As Mom’s short-term memory falters, more of her long-term memory emerges. And its vast store of wisdom and family stories is something I’ve neglected for too long.

Mom frequently frets about the loss of her short-term memory – she’ll pause in the middle of a sentence and sigh as she searches her mind for a forgotten name or date. “Damn, what’s the word…” she’ll say. Then she’ll apologize and look distressed, which makes my heart ache.

I always try to assure her that it’s no big deal to forget names and other short-term stuff. She knows how lucky she is to have as sound a mind as she does, with no signs of senility or Alzheimer’s disease unlike several of her friends both alive and dead. Still, it’s hard for her, knowing how much we have to repeat things to her lately.

Evolutionary biologists see short-term memory and its limited capacity as a survival mechanism that allows us to pay attention to a relatively small number of immediate concerns (predators approaching, where to seek refuge) so that we can make rapid decisions effectively.

301px-Mothers'_Day_Cake_cropIt makes sense to me, therefore, that short-term memory generally fades in the elderly, especially in those who are less active or retired. They are no longer looked to as often to make quick and important decisions, and that’s as it should be, because – hopefully – their welfare is ensured by loved ones and/or the community. They’ve earned their rest and our enduring respect.

So as my mother’s short-term memory weakens, I find her plumbing her long-term memory more which, by contrast, is very good. The farther back she goes, it seems – 50 to 60 or more years ago – the more vivid the memories.

Ask my mom about her first date with my late father – in 1948 – and she can tell you what day of the week it was (a Monday), what my dad wore (a bulky green tweed suit that his mother had bought him in New York), what kind of car he drove (a red Ford convertible) and how long it took him to call my mom after the date (a week and a half, because Dad drove to Virginia to break up with another girl before continuing to date my mom). My parents were married less than a year later.

Ask my mother where she went to dinner with my siblings a day or two prior, and she may not remember.

Colorful_spring_gardenI enjoy Mom’s old stories even when they jar, when she drops the long-gone into conversations of the here and now. In a phone call a couple of weeks ago, I told her how my one sister gave me a good idea for a baby gift for my niece Beth’s new baby. And Mom said, “oh yes, that’s the same kind of gift I gave to Bill and Nelly when they had their baby.”

“Who?” I ask.

My mom’s older cousin, Bill, and his wife, Nelly, when they had had a baby over 60 years ago. I said I don’t remember them.

“Oh heavens, Dear, that’s right,” Mom said, “they both died long before you were born.”

(Mom still talks like the 1930s and ’40s Hollywood screen actresses she watches in movies on TCM, her favorite cable TV channel.)

Later on, Mom told me more about her cousin, Bill, what a hard life he’d lived and how his parents – my mom’s Aunt Ann – had lost everything during the Depression. They split up the children to go live with different relatives who could take them in (Bill and his sister went to live with my mom and her parents). I knew none of that. My mother has seen so much in her life, and I’m ashamed of how little of her past I know.

What Mom is teaching me about evolution is that long-term memory endures in our elders, and for a reason – to pass on wisdom and lessons learned, to tell of calamities survived and endured. And, to recall milestone moments of a life well-lived, of what that individual valued and cherished.

In other words, Mom’s long-term memory is a treasure trove that I need to honor  — and mine – more often. It’s about time.


Transforming Terror’s Negative Space

Z010456-R01-016-6AOn this crazy, chaotic Friday, I write this as we await a conclusion to the manhunt for the Boston Marathon attack’s “suspect number two,” whose older brother was killed in a shoot-out with police last night.

It’s the end of an awful week that began at one of America’s most iconic sporting events, a celebration shattered by the terror and devastation of two bombs that killed three people and wounded close to 200.

Apart from the pain we feel for the victims and their families, what remains for all Americans is the uncertainty and fear that comes with knowing that terrorism is still a part of our reality. With that reality comes the question of what we do with terror’s “negative space.”

What do I mean by that?

Negative Space exampleThe concept of negative space is well known in several disciplines but can be hard to grasp. It’s not actually negative in connotation; it’s often meant by what is not as opposed to what is. It’s easiest to see in photography, where sometimes it refers to a predominant background that forms part of the subject (as in the photo above). Sometimes, negative space becomes the subject when that space is seen in new light (as in the images to the left). In language, it can refer to what is read between the lines, or to the spare form of a poem.

When it comes to terrorism, I see negative space as whatever our psyche confronts in the aftermath of terror’s physical destruction. We don’t have complete control over it, of course, but over time we do have choices to make, and we can reshape and redefine that negative space.

It’s hard to consider something like negative space in relation to an event like the Boston Marathon, which is such a tremendous physical as well as spiritual accomplishment.

I emphasize the spiritual because, if you’ve ever completed a marathon – I ran the Tucson Marathon in December 2000 – you realize that what you achieved physically is maybe only half the matter. Amid the challenges of training – long, lonely runs, injuries, illness – you learn that you need to get your head right.

In other words, you need to tap into your spiritual side – your soul, your consciousness, your life force – to fortify yourself mentally so that you’ll stick to your training, you’ll learn to be patient, and hopefully you’ll find a way to develop zen-like consciousness that can sometimes turn physical pain and drudgery into bliss. I was lucky enough to experience a few moments of bliss during my own marathon experience, after having overcome two major set-backs — a pesky injury and a sudden illness — during my long journey of marathon training.

Any distance runner good enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon understands the importance of spiritual development in running, and likely runs marathons for the spiritual as much as for the physical benefits.

Runners’ family and friends may not fully share in the zen-like vibe that comes with regular distance running, but what they see is inspiring, and they want to support it. So they gather to watch and wait and eventually greet their loved ones with jubilation at the finish line.

Imagine how shocking and spiritually crushing the terrorist attack was for all of the people at the  Boston Marathon there to just celebrate life.

Those injured or killed, and their families and friends, experienced a level of tragedy and loss that I do not understand and I am not attempting to express here.

But for the rest of us, the Boston Marathon attack was an assault on our spirit. We were its object as well, and we rightly see that terrorism continues to threaten our way of life.

It’s hard to fill terror’s negative space with nothing but the fear that terrorists strive to foster. In policy terms, it’s hard to resist the desire for ever tighter security measures that may ultimately infringe upon our rights and freedoms.

But so often we also find that, in the face of terror, our spirit finds strength.

In President Barack Obama’s remarks yesterday at the Interfaith Service in Boston, he quoted a scripture passage telling us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us.”

The President expressed the nation’s collective grief for the victims and their families, but he also spoke of the storied Bostonian resolve as “the greatest rebuke” to those who perpetrated the attack.

In terror’s negative space, we can – and do – replace fear and uncertainty with compassion, love, and power.

And that is how our spirit endures, and finds a way to carry on.

Like 78-year-old Boston Marathon runner, Bill Iffrig, who was seen getting knocked down by the first bomb’s shock waves just yards from the finish line. Luckily, he suffered only a scraped knee. He was helped up, brushed off and he made his way to the finish line.

[If you’d like to donate to the families of those killed or injured in the Boston Marathon bombings, Governor Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Tom Menino set up a fund called The One Fund Boston, visit their website by clicking here. For more ways to donate, go here.]