The Miracle of ‘Finding’ Lost Memories

A few months ago, over seventy people crowded into a friend's house for my wife Marja's surprise seventieth birthday party. She actually had no idea it was coming and was flabbergasted when we walked in, especially when she saw her brother, who had traveled from his home ninety miles north of Toronto. Two of my stepsisters and a brother-in-law from Cleveland also showed up. It was lovely, even for me, who seldom enjoys parties.

The number of people was staggering. We're not part of large communities: our small church of perhaps fifty people, our families, and a few of Marja's former students. But Marja means so much to so many people, and a large percentage came. Ten days later, both of us are still basking in the joy of that gathering. Marja still mentions it at least daily.

In the two days before the party, we also surprised Marja with the arrivals of our two children who weren't already in the area. Laurel flew in from California and Kai from Seattle. Our younger daughter Karin had returned earlier in the week from her fifteen-month stay in Delhi, and we were still elated by that. It was delightful to have our little nuclear family together again for a few days.

For me, the most beautiful aspect of the party was the several weeks beforehand as I combed through our photo albums and loose stacks of pictures to find photos of Marja from different phases of her life.

Especially wonderful for me were the pictures from her adolescence and early adulthood. I'd forgotten how beautiful she was. A gentle, yet powerful spirit emanates from those pictures. I kept thinking: How could a woman so beautiful have been interested in me? I don't remember realizing at that time the depth of her spirit, so the pictures were my own surprise party.

I scanned the pictures into digital images and sent the files to Laurel. She created a beautiful slide show that looped continuously throughout the party. Every time I looked, there was a cluster of people gathered around the monitor.

I suppose we become used to the beauty that surrounds us and it ceases to be startling or, too frequently, even apparent to us.

Marja and I have been together almost 45 years, and so often I forget the beauty between us. Every once in a while, though, it will suddenly break through. Each time it comes as a wonderful surprise, although never so powerfully as when I was selecting those pictures for the show.

My ongoing wonder—at both the numbers that showed up and at my relationship with Marja—reminded me again how much my cognitive decline has opened me emotionally. I doubt that this depth of joy could have broken through to me before.

Oh, I'd been intermittently aware of and grateful for the gifts I've been given. Intellectually, I would have known the importance of the party and recognized its joy. I would not, however, have experienced it so intensely. The depth of the joy has been a miracle.

Editor’s Note: David’s journey with Mild Cognitive Impairment was chronicled in “Fade to Blank: Life Inside Alzheimer’s,” an in-depth look at the real lives of families impacted by the Alzheimer’s epidemic. His story continues on his personal blog on AgingCare.com. 

An author and former physician, Dr. David Hilfiker was diagnosed in 2012 with a progressive mild cognitive impairment. His doctor thought it was Alzheimer's but additional testing proved this initial diagnosis to be wrong. Now David must learn how to come to terms with the reality of worsening cognitive issues that appear to have no cause.

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