[Story Break] Forgetfulness
—a beautiful poem by Billy Collins

One of the companies I write for is launching new Memory Support programs at four of their Illinois locations. I’ve been doing a lot of research for this project, a lot of reading and a lot of writing. So I guess you could say that memory is on my mind.

That may be the reason that when I read this poem at Time Goes By, it made an impression.

What kind of impression does it make on you?

by Billy Collins

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.



12 thoughts on “[Story Break] <em>Forgetfulness</em> <br/>—a beautiful poem by Billy Collins”

  1. This poem reminds me of watching Alzheimer`s slowly take my father away. The poem makes me sad.
    What are the Memory Support programs about?

    • Sorry to hear about your father, David. It’s difficult to watch a loved one gradually slip away like that. One thing I liked about the poem is that it names some specific things that we all had to memorize at one time, but most of us have forgotten not only the thing itself, but also that we even knew it at all! Reading the poem made me remember, “Oh that’s right, I did used to know that!”

      I’m excited about the Memory Support programs that Providence Life Services is launching. The first one is scheduled to open at Saratoga Grove in March. The programs will use music, storytelling, art, and even food to make connections with people who have Alzheimer’s. For example, if the staff at Saratoga Grove know that Harold was in the Army as a young man, they might play some Andrews Sisters music for him and see how he responds. They might ask if he remembers the first meal he had when he returned home—and then serve that for supper. They might show an old war movie, or look at old newspaper clippings. All those things might stir something in Harold’s memory and get him to respond. And the staff will give that same kind of personal attention to each person in the Memory Support program.

      Physical exercise and “brain games” will also be a big part of the program, because both stimulate the brain. Plus, physical exercise can improve balance, which helps prevent falls, which keeps people from declining faster.

      I’m not directly involved in the Memory Support programs myself, but it’s been exciting for me to learn about them and help communicate them. As you mentioned, Alzheimer’s is a disease that robs people of their identities and isolates them, and these programs help restore those connections. They can’t restore memory itself, but they can help people make connections through memories that are locked deep inside.

  2. It reminds me of the wonderful times I spend ministering to the elderly. Love listening to their stories. And like David it reminds me of watching my Granny struggle with lost stories and memories.

    • I like to think of God as the Author of our stories, and it’s good to know that even after we’ve forgotten our roles, He never does. Those memories are never completely lost because He keeps them, and He never forgets. I also wonder if we’ll spend time in the New Life listening to Him tell us our stories—and once He gives them back to us that way, we’ll never lose them again.

  3. People have always commented on what an amazing memory I have. I never gave much thought of this amazing God given gift untill 3 years ago when I spent 2 months in nursing homes. It was an awful experience for me but an eye opener. So many young people in these places that don’t even know their name or where they are. So sad! It taught me to cherish the moment because nothing is for certain, A persons life can change in an instant. Thanks for posting this story

  4. It makes me think of the things I experienced with my Mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s and it reminds me that some of the things we thought at one time were important, really weren’t.

  5. The Memory Support program sounds wonderful. I know it`s not a cure. I believe it will add to the quality of life for people with Alzheimer`s, and may help their family’s. I`m going to give South Holland some old Western movies that may work with this program. Is there anything else I can do?

    • I think that sounds like a nice idea, David! I think Deana Wilson, the Community Manager at Holland Home, would be the person to give those movies to. And she would be able to tell you how close they are to opening the program there. She’s a wonderful manager, and she is eager to get the program started because she knows there’s such a significant need.

      • Thank you Melanie and David! David and I connected today and I am very appreciative of our great conversation and his donation of the Western movies. Our residents will love them!! I appreciate this dialogue and exposure to the new program we will soon have at Holland Home. I would love to be a resource to anyone who has or is currently experiencing life with a loved one with Alzheimer’s or other related dementias. I would never want anyone to feel like they are alone on this journey. We are all in this together!!

        • I’m glad you too connected! While Holland Home is a community in and of itself, it is also an active part of the larger community—and the church community. And “community” is all about using our resources to meet the needs we see. It’s nice to see that happening!

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