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Memory Is Everything -- Until You Lose It

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"Memory is everything. Without it we are nothing," observed neuroscientist Eric Kandel, winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking research on the physiology of the brain's capacity for memory. Memory is the glue, Kandel said, that binds the mind and provides continuity. "If you want to understand the brain," his late mentor, eminent neurologist Harry Grundfest, counseled him, "you're going to have to take a reductionist approach, one cell at a time."

Cell by cell, Kandel took the brain apart. Had he dug a bit deeper, he might have found that memory isn't all that it's cracked up to be. While memory offers delineating context and perspective, it doesn't define us. Definition is found in the spirit, in the soul, but one must dig for it. An unexamined life, Socrates once said, is not one worth living.

I was in a circumspect mood on the way with my wife Mary Catherine to snug Camden, Maine to celebrate her 61st birthday last summer, contemplating the ebb and flow of my Early Onset Alzheimer's. We stopped off for the night in Portland, a maritime city set on a hill downwind from the Atlantic. Early the next morning outside the red brick Portland Regency Hotel, the seagulls were dive bombing the downtown in a mock scene from Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece, The Birds. The sun was bright at 6 a.m., lighting up the cobblestone streets; the air was crisp with a hint of fall on this pure, idyllic morning. Even the Portland Press Herald breathed of innocence. Its lead headline on the local and state page reports, "Dunkin' Donuts Tries New Paper Cup."

It's a story about new paper cups designed to mimic plastic foam by keeping the coffee warm in the cup, "cool on the outside." I was feeling cool on the inside this morning, as I looked about me and began to drift, caught again in a time travel. Soft music from the Regency lobby drifted outside to a nearby park bench where I sat with my back to the sea. Oldies were playing. I heard the Lennon/McCartney song Yesterday and was drawn to it.

Yesterday, I was flushed with hope; today I'm adrift in thoughts and images I can't seem to control. They rule me. Often, I just go with the flow. I've acquired a few techniques along the way. One of them is to learn from nature.

You can smell the sea on the road outside Camden. West Penobscot Bay with the secluded archipelago Fox Islands in the distance at the edge of the Gulf of Maine frames a swath of blue that runs endlessly in a way to make one think the world is flat. The archipelago, with its jewels Vinal Haven and Hurricane Island, was first inhabited in 3300 B.C. by Native Americans called The Red People. The rocky coast of Camden and neighboring Rockport, an artistic, cerebral, town of about 3,000 if you count the living and the dead, is a place of mind-numbing perspective. Nature overwhelms here, bringing one to the realization they are surrounded by something much larger than their essence. There is great security in knowing this, even more for those with Alzheimer's.

Sitting by myself on a porch in Rockport with white columns, mahogony railings, and 180-degree views of the bay, I come to understand that I'm not alone. This classic Maine cottage, owned by my brother-in-law, Charlie Henderson, a retired Chicago money manager, stretches the definition of cottage with its 6,000 square feet of downeast elegance. It seems to me more of a biblical ark -- 300 cubits long, 50 wide, and 30 high -- than it is a home. As I look out over a remnant of the world's animals, I spot the graceful flight of two osprey. The majestic sea hawks, weighing about four pounds, with wing spans up to six feet, have a human element to them in instinct and in species. Ospreys are the single-living species in the animal kingdom that exist worldwide. A bird of prey, they mate for life; are nesting home bodies, tediously caring for their young, and they have voracious appetites: a diet of freshly caught fish. I watch the pair of ospreys practice diving runs over the bay. They fly in circles in tighter orbits, almost like the cone of a tornado, then they strike with wings tucked in an explosion to the surface of the bay. They snatch their prey with fighter-pilot visions from behind, and with sharp talons that act as fishhooks, lifting the prey to the heavens in aerodymamic flight with the fishhead first. Then it's back to the nest for supper. The nest, the size of a Volkswagen bug, sits atop a spike on a 50-foot pine with a commanding view of West Penobscot Bay. My brother-in-law tells me that the nest was destroyed four years ago in a pounding nor'easter. The mating ospreys rebuilt the nest the following spring, twig by twig. The mother, he says, sat in what was left of the nest, while the father flew in building materials. She was cawing at him as if to complain, "Wrong size!"

But like humans, the eyes and instinct for survival of ospreys are often bigger then their stomachs. The Irish poet William Butler Yeats used the wandering osprey as a symbol of sorrow in his 1889 work, The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems. At times, its prey is so heavy that the osprey can't lift it. Their fish hook talons can't release, and they are pulled to the sea and drown.

Nature has taught me legions today. Even in death, survival is ever pursued.

Greg O'Brien's latest book, On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer's, will be published this summer. He is also the subject of the short film, "A Place Called Pluto," directed by award-winning filmmaker Steve James, online at In 2009, he was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer's. His maternal grandfather and his mother died of the disease. O'Brien carries a marker gene for Alzheimer's.

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