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What Happens When We Stop Remembering?

Confronted with her parents' dementia and teenagers' climate anxiety, one woman considers how our baselines shift in the face of personal — and global — loss.

BEFORE THE APPOINTMENT, my sister slipped the doctor a note with a list of our concerns. Our dad was forgetting words, wasn’t walking well, had difficulty communicating, was struggling to use technology. He was more anxious than usual and lost himself in long rants about politics, health insurance, and football. He refused help but couldn’t be trusted to take care of our mom, who suffers from dementia and a rare lung disease. For example, when mom couldn’t breathe one night in early January, Dad wasted precious time scouring the house for the Yellow Pages because he couldn’t remember the phone number for 911.

 When the doctor arrived, he reviewed Dad’s brain scan results, gave him a simple paper test, and asked him to walk down the hallway. Dad balked and muttered something about how he walks five miles a day. He also brought up his law career, his restaurant, his father’s tenure as a heart surgeon. Then he bent forward and lurched down the hallway, shuffling his right foot along the floor. 

“The paper test went poorly, too,” said my oldest sister, Kim, when we talked later by phone. “He couldn’t remember a list of five words, couldn’t recognize patterns, and couldn’t re-create an image.” She sighed. 

“Was he able to draw a clock?” I asked, familiar with the test for dementia.

“Yes, he drew a perfect clock,” she said. “He also had no trouble listing words that begin with the letter B.” 

Nevertheless, the diagnosis was clear. At the end of the appointment, the doctor looked our dad in the eye and said, “You have Alzheimer’s dementia. This form of dementia is terminal; there is no cure, and it will get progressively worse.” 

Earlier that week, a heat wave blazed through my town, breaking Spokane’s temperature record for the fourth time in May. In the space of three days, the snowpack in the Bitterroot and Selkirk Mountains melted from just above normal to 50 percent below normal, anomaly enough to nudge fifty years of data into a new normal that my kids will remember as simply normal. 

 

SHIFTING BASELINES is the idea that each successive generation will accept as “normal” an increasingly degraded and disorganized ecology, until at some point in the future, no one will remember what a healthy ecology looks and feels like. Absent any personal or societal accounting of migrating butterflies, winter snowfall, or spawning salmon, future generations will have tolerated so many small losses in population, abundance, and habitat that eventually they won’t know what they’re missing. Worse, they may not even care. 

I picture people afflicted with shifting baseline syndrome looking like those white doughball people in the movie WALL-E, rolling around their automated spaceship in easy chairs, sipping big gulps, and blithely accepting their indoor reality instead of wondering what happened to planet Earth. 

Maybe shifting baselines is simply a way to measure grief. Another way of saying that we hope our children will love the world as much as we do. And will miss us when we’re gone. 

MY DAD’S ACCOUNT of the doctor’s appointment was different from my sister’s. He recounted it as a funny, bad-luck story. 

“So, I wait months for this guy to read my brain scan, but he doesn’t even mention the brain scan. Instead, he reads me a bunch of words and makes me draw some pictures, and tells me I have—the—uh.” His poor word recall undermines his story. “He tells me I am demented!” He guffaws, as if it’s all a big joke. 

He carries on, constructing a sense-making story as he speaks, wherein he is the only sane person in a deranged world. In his version, the doctor morphs into a fast-talking youngster who can’t read sophisticated brain scans, relying instead on grade-school paper tests for his diagnosis. When Dad runs out of steam, he falls back on his usual refrain, signaling the end of the conversation. 

“Anyway, none of us are getting out of here alive.” 

 

SOCIAL RESEARCHER Phoebe Hamilton Jones says the antidote to shifting baselines is found in our ability to pay attention and to call forth what once was. “Knowing the names of flora and fauna,” she says, “allows us to counter shifting baseline syndrome.” I imagine walking around in my backyard like a schoolteacher taking the daily roll call. Ponderosa pine? Here. Box elder bug? Here. American goldfinch? Here. Calling beings by their names builds familiarity and affinity, helps us notice subtle changes in health, lifestyle, or habitat, that we might wonder aloud about their well-being and mark their absences. 

The International Union for Conservation maintains the most comprehensive resource on global extinction. On a scorching hot spring day, I scour the Red List for critically endangered animals that begin with the letter B.

Balebreviceps hillmani (Bale Mountains tree frog)

Batagur baska (northern river terrapin)

Batagur kachuga (red-crowned roofed turtle)

Batagur trivittata (Burmese roofed turtle)

Bokermannohyla izecksohni (Izecksohn’s tree frog)

Bombus franklini (Franklin’s bumblebee)

Bostrychia bocagei (dwarf ibis)

Bradypus pygmaeus (pygmy three-toed sloth)

Bunolagus monticularis (riverine rabbit)

Burramys parvus (mountain pygmy possum)

 

I stop at ten forecasted extinctions. 

 

Patrick Robinson / Unsplash
 

THE NEXT TIME I saw my dad, I sat with him and tried to call forth his better qualities. “Dad,” I asked him, “Remember when we sailed across the Straights of Juan de Fuca in thirty knot winds? We were scared and seasick and you stood at the wheel in your yellow rain gear with a leg braced against the high side. You watched the horizon and reassured us that the boat was made for wind. You taught us how to find joy in the crossing. Do you remember what a good captain you were?” He smiled for a moment, remembering, but then frowned and slid into an incoherent rant about how he shouldn’t have to endure another rainy Seattle winter.

 

THE YELLOW PAGES, I tell my teenaged kids, “was a giant floppy book that we kept in the kitchen near the phone, and it was printed on thin yellow paper filled with local business listings. Government listings, including numbers for emergency services, were printed on blue paper, and household phone numbers were printed on white paper, in a separate book called the White Pages.” They look at me with blank stares. “When we needed to call a business, to say, get their address or hours, we’d find their phone number in the Yellow Pages.” As if it needed to be said again, I added, “because there was no internet.” 

The kids drifted off, but I lingered in this pre-internet backwater where we used to keep a stool next to the kitchen phone and a list of phone numbers taped to the wall. How did we make plans? How did we know where to go? How did we find each other? 

When it’s my turn to check in on my parents, I stand at the window and watch the sail boats come and go from Shilshole Marina. From here, the Puget Sound paints a dark strip that, on a clear day, reflects the Olympic Mountains to the west. It’s not my childhood home, but it offers the same captivating view. My dad sits beside me in a chair, with his back to the windows, and swipes at his screen with his giant arthritic finger. He jerks his chin back. “What’s this!?” 

He stares at the phone with a finger poised over the screen. It could be anything. Literally anything. A headline from Apple News, a photo story set to music, an email from Office Depot, his MyChart account. 

“Why are they sending me this?” he asks nobody. 

“Dad,” I say, “Look out the window.” 

 

WHEN MY SISTERS and I were younger, Hama Hama oysters were nothing special. They clattered on the beach under our feet, common as rocks. In summer, we’d gather them by the bucketfull and lay them out on a hot grill and watch the saltwater sizzle off their shells. With a gloved hand, dad would pick a steamed oyster off the grill and pry it open with the dull, two-inch blade of an oyster knife. He’d jettison the top half of the shell and slice the oyster from its tether, and hand it to whomever of us looked ready. I would hold a warm shell in my two hands, the smooth pearl of the interior holding an impossibly soft and grotesque mound of quivering flesh, and tip it down my gullet like a baby bird. 

“Atta girl,” he’d say, gesturing with his oyster knife to the setting sun. “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

If memory is a way to combat loss, what happens when we cannot hold on to our memories?  

WHEN WAS THE world at its best? Some pre-human moment? Or perhaps post-human, but pre-enlightenment? Post-enlightenment, pre-colonial? An especially good snow year? 

By many measures, life on earth has never been better for humans. Global life expectancy has increased thirty years since my grandparents’ generation. Fewer of the world’s population lives in poverty. More of the world’s population has access to education and health care. An increasing number of women around the world can own and inherit property, work, and vote. More people, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, can legally marry and adopt children. And yet, we are full of discontent. Our nation’s children are anxious, lonely, and fearful for their futures. 

We know that we are wreaking havoc on the planet, and we cannot stop tearing down the rainforests. We are sad about the orcas, but apparently not sad enough to dismantle the systems that threaten them. Where, exactly is this mysterious baseline located? Is it in the past? Is it a fantasy?

 

FOR COLLEGE GRADUATION, my dad presented me with a fly rod, reel, and many-pocketed vest. The following afternoon, he taught me to cast, and that summer, he took me on my first flyfishing trip down the Yakima River. For the next several years, he’d gloat over his own luck—and skill—with fly-fishing until I began catching my own fish. The first time I outfished him, he called me a chip off the old block. When I began outfishing him regularly, he cursed and flung his line on the water. The very last time I fished with him, I pulled in my line when my catch outnumbered his. He never expected to stop winning at life, and I didn’t want to be the cause of another loss.

 

IT’S POSSIBLE THAT the notion of a shifting baseline contains a fear of change and a fear of death. I’m not saying that we should regard our changing climate with nonchalance because everything dies eventually. But I am seeking more precise guidance about what we must hold on to and what we must let go of. 

In 2021, I participated in a volunteer working group to assess Spokane’s vulnerability to climate impacts over the next fifty years. The process was arduous, speculative, and detailed, but the volunteers and city employees assigned to the task took the job seriously. We did our best to imagine how projected heat waves, forest fires, reduced snowpack, and early snowmelt would affect forest and wildlife ecology, the economy, and human life. Sometimes, a positive impact was cited—a longer growing season, less snow to shovel, fewer emergency room visits for ice-related accidents—and my chest contracted. The scale of devastation rendered silver linings unspeakably naive. “This is so sad,” I private messaged one of the city employees on my assessment team. She responded with a heart emoji.

We proceeded with the exercise in the cerebral, detached way of bureaucrats, describing devastating impacts inside the sterile cells of a spreadsheet. In three months, our group filled six spreadsheets. Each cell contained a shorthand story of loss. Cell D11, for example, described the impact of temperature on the social well-being of the elderly: 

Extreme temperatures will exacerbate existing health conditions. Reduced ability to be outside. Decreased mobility, ability to spend time with others. Increased loneliness and isolation. 

I never once paused to absorb the numbered cells into my biological cells. When the meetings ended, I turned my attention to other pressing matters. Unopened emails, mostly. 

 

AFTER WEEKS SPENT griping about the bleak Seattle winter, my parents found their way to California for a change of scenery. Heedless of my sisters’ and my concerns about their driving, they piled in Mom’s car, promising to learn the onboard navigation system. “You should get a paper map,” I advised by phone, knowing my dad would never acquiesce to such an outmoded technology. A wrong turn near Sacramento added four hours to their journey. When they arrived in San Luis Obispo in February, an atmospheric river passed overhead, dropping record-breaking rain on the California coastline. They spent almost three weeks in a rental house and the temperature never rose above 55°F. My dad called almost daily to complain. He took rain as a personal affront to his God-given right to year-round sunshine. 

It was too much rain all at once, but I blessed the rain that whet the soil, swelled the rivers, and filled the California reservoirs. In my anxiety-fueled climate disaster countdown, the rain bought us time. 

 

Jennifer Arlem Molina / Unsplash
 

MY CHILDREN HAVE come to expect early spring heat waves, spasms of unpredictable wind and rain, dangerously high summer temperatures, and a late summer smoke season. They know their winters are numbered, and they worship snow with frantic intensity. Perhaps shifting baseline syndrome is merely one generation’s nostalgic way of pathologizing the next generation’s necessary, forward-looking stance.

When I was their age, I never had to contemplate the implications of unseasonable weather. An exceptionally warm summer day was just that. Not a harbinger of disaster. My children have rarely read a magazine article or seen a movie about wild nature without an ominous warning of threatened habitats, dying species, and the need to take immediate action before it’s too late. All they know is the scale of their projected loss. 

Last winter, pulling in the driveway after a family dinner with my mother-in-law, my daughter burst into tears and refused to come inside. I sat with her in the driveway and wondered what was wrong. It had been a nice evening. Nanny had made a delicious dinner—she always does—and set a fine table with candles. We had talked about the news, species loss, school, and tossed around a memory or two. Nothing out of the ordinary. I thought maybe my daughter had looked at her phone and found something disturbing or had an uncomfortable exchange with a friend. “What’s troubling you?” I asked.

“I don’t understand,” she said finally in a low voice, fuming into the dark, “how all of you can talk about climate change and then move on to another topic like it’s nothing!” A pulse of heat rose from my chest to my ears. “I’m scared about my future.” She sobbed into her hands and then turned to look at me, her blue eyes ringed in red. “And I don’t feel like anyone is doing ANYTHING.” Then she turned away, fists clutching her breast. “I’m not doing anything.”

 

DURING COVID, when my kids disappeared to their bedrooms and spent long, unsupervised afternoons on their devices, I was sure shifting baseline syndrome would infect them. To protect them, I harangued them to sleep outside with me. My friend Evan said that humans lost their connection with nature when we moved inside and forgot to consult the night sky. “The night sky,” Evan said, “is there to remind us of our cosmic insignificance.”

For several delicious weeks, my son, then in middle school, slept toe to toe with me on the back porch along an L-shaped couch. When the coyotes howled into the empty night, my body froze, not wanting to interfere with the imprint of sound on his memory. I wanted him to remember that coyotes once sang him to sleep. 

 

ALZHEIMER’S DEMENTIA is sometimes called the long goodbye. A person diagnosed with the disease may take ten years to physically die. In the first stage, they have difficulty remembering words and names, they misplace their keys/phone/wallet, they lose the ability to plan and make decisions. In the middle stages, they might forget where they are, where they live, where they went to high school. They might grow paranoid or develop compulsive habits. They could start wandering. In late-stage dementia, they cannot dress themselves or bathe, they cannot control their bladder or bowels, and they may lose the ability to swallow. 

My mom is entering the middle stage, and my dad is still in the first stage, but sometimes my mom snaps to attention and makes all the plans and finds all the missing keys. The sad thing is, they both have the wits to understand what’s happening to them. They mourn the effortless ability they once had to remember. 

If memory is a way to combat loss, what happens when we cannot hold on to our memories?  

 

ONE STAR-FILLED night, I searched the sky for the Big Dipper. When I found it, low on the horizon, it looked dim. I remembered it being brighter. 

That’s the problem with memory. We remember everything being brighter. Then again, it is equally possible the stars were brighter in childhood than now. The uncertainty between real and anticipated loss unsettles me more than anything.

 

LATER IN THE summer, my parents flew by themselves to a wedding in Wyoming. Kim, who had been doing most of the caregiving at the time, tried to talk them out of the trip. “What if you get lost on your way to your hotel? What if one of you falls?” she asked. 

My dad blew her off. “You can’t bubble wrap us, Snook,” he said. “We know how to fly in a goddamn airplane.” 

But on their return, he recounted their difficult trip home. “Our—our—damnit—our squares didn’t work,” he said. 

It took Kim several hours to untangle the story. Their “squares” were phones, which they had forgotten to charge. Dad went to the front desk of their hotel and called the 800 number for Alaska Airlines, but lacking any information except his name and destination, the airline couldn’t tell him when his flight departed. Not thinking to call me or my sisters for help, he and my mom went to the airport at 6:00 a.m. and waited. Their flight left seven hours later. In all that time at the airport, they had forgotten to eat. 

Under my dad’s care, my mom has lost thirty pounds. Her flesh hangs on her body like drapery. They are both from a generation that considers all weight loss good. “I weigh less than I did in high school!” my dad boasts, wearing bike shorts that hang loosely from his former linebacker waist.

 

OCTOBER, WHEN THE temperature dropped into a comfortable range and the leaves turned gold, I made it a priority to get outside. Each time I grabbed the leashes, the old dog eyed me warily and the young dog sprinted to the door. I could not seem to get enough of the cool air, the searing reds and blazing oranges. I hiked all my favorite trails, biked along the river, and scoured the garage for my fly rod. Sure enough, my hands remembered how to cast, tie on flies, and mend the line. When I caught the biggest redband trout I’ve ever seen, I sent a picture of it to my dad. 

Then I let it go. 

There is still so much of the natural world to discover, so much still to love. 

 

LATER, MY DAD called to say he’d lost his iPad. He wondered if I knew where it was. 

“I don’t know where it is, Dad,” I responded. “I live five hours away.” 

“Oh,” he said, audibly heartbroken, “I was hoping you could find it for me.” 

We were on FaceTime, and he was holding the phone to his ear, which was hairy and full of yellow wax. “Hang on,” he said, and the picture went blank. 

“Dad?” I echoed. “Dad?”

I dialed him again three times, but he didn’t answer. I pictured him staring at the phone, helpless, alone, and unreachable.   

 

MAYBE SHIFTING BASELINES is simply a way to measure grief. Another way of saying that we hope our children will love the world as much as we do. And will miss us when we’re gone. 

Heidi Lasher is a freelance writer whose essays have been published in Litro Magazine, Cagibi, Cream City Review, Prairie Schooner (forthcoming), and others. She is currently working on a book of essays about paddling the Spokane River in the crux of middle age. You can find her at www.heidilasher.com.