Memories are not recycled like atoms and particles in quantum physics.
They can be lost forever.
(Marry the night: The Prelude Pathétique, Lady Gaga)

In 2019, decided to watch the Korean movie Romang, I expected to have a good cry. A catharsis is needed when your inner feelings are overwhelmingly chaotic. The movie was about an elderly couple struggling to take care of each other after they are both diagnosed with dementia.

To many people, the most weepy scene was when the son got home and realized how his parents had lived since the day he left, but it was, to me, somehow loosely acted. Personally, I found the part when the two couple intermittently communicated though written notes as they are not simultaneously conscious much more affecting because it represents so vividly how our relationship is disrupted by Alzheimer’s.

Yesterday, Ma called and told me that aunt Nga has started to show the early symptoms of memory impairment. It’s increasingly difficult for her to remember recent events and conversations. This is exactly what happened to my grandma in her later years.

I never asked Ma about aunt Nga, and in our family, we don’t have the habit of sitting down and having intimate, confidential talks, but by chance I knew that she used to have baby with a married man, who was not accepted by my grandpa. They were separated, and she decided to raise her son alone, but the boy died at the age of five or so, and from then on, she didn’t move on with any other men. Aunt Nga and my other three aunts never get married and lived with grandpa and grandma until they passed away. Grandma died seven or eight years ago. I still remembered I carried her corpse in my arms from the sickbed to the ambulance. It was the first time I had really touched and embraced a dead body. After grandma’s death, aunt Nga followed in grandma’s footsteps and became a joss paper trader.

Her life story was far from a fairy tale, and I also believe that she had stopped thinking about living a fairy tale long ago. Without any desire to leave behind a legacy, genetically or culturally, my aunt filled her days with day-to-day gestures. Probably the only thing that keeps her stay sane is the obligation to preserve the family’s custom of ancestor worship, or hương hỏa (香火). Her austere and selfless lifestyle totally contradicts my definition of a life that’s worth living, and it casts a shadow over my future plan.

When my sister forced me to go home and live with parents, I wanted to reject that idea at once because it was really dissonant with my disgust at all the chains binding a person’s free will. However, after reaching a state of financial and emotional independence, putting aside all the words of other people, I started to recognize the limits of my freedom, which are not imposed by anyone but myself. I came to believe that, even to a narcissistic person, life can only be worthy when it is taken seriously, which suggests that abandoning responsibilities could result in regrets. Repaying all the things that were given to us is definitely a burden, but also a must. It is my duty to take care of my parents and my aunts when they get older.

How is it to be a caregiver of an elderly with dementia? Watching a video about Danny Raven Tan, a Singaporean man who has to take care of his mother, I could somehow relate to it.

Sometimes I feel dementia could be a good thing. It’s like a natural strategy for people to cope with traumatic history and loneliness. Someday, my aunt may no longer remember me or sustain her very few beautiful memories, but at the same time, she could let go of all the things that saddened her past.

Photo: Nam Holtz

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