“Did you bring your medicine?” my husband asks.
“Of course,” I say firmly. He asks this question of me, not while we’re turning the corner in our own neighborhood, but after we’ve crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel and are halfway up the Eastern Shore on our way to Boston for a two-week vacation. I sit in tense silence, picturing all our morning procedures before we pulled out of our driveway two hours ago. Did I, indeed, remember to bring my pills? “Yes, of course,” turns into “At least I think I did,” and “I always do, don’t I?”
Things that we have done over and over and over again have become so automatic that they are like breathing. We don’t consciously remember doing them, yet we’ve done them just the same. It’s automaticity. It’s what makes you lock your door when you leave the house, use your turn signal when you change lanes, and set the house alarm before you go to bed at night. Sometimes automaticity can be a little scary, like when you arrive at work but can’t remember the drive along the way. You are lost in thought about that morning’s meeting and then find yourself pulling into your parking space, wondering how you got there and hoping you didn’t wipe anybody out along the way.
The trouble is, the older I get, I find that automaticity, which I’ve always been able to rely on, isn’t as trustworthy as it used to be. It’s not working for me anymore. I’ve left the oven on a couple of times and the garage door open once or twice. After just a few lapses, I get anxious that I can’t count on automaticity anymore. I tell myself I need to be more conscious of the things I do, but then memory fails me and I forget to remember to be more conscious. I want to turn automaticity off, force myself to be deliberate about everything I do. (Yes, of course I left the stove on. I intended to burn the house down.)
Automaticity and age are not a good combination. There is a slow unraveling of the process, but as long as any of it is intact, you can’t shut it down. I’d rather be certain that I didn’t remember something than to hope that maybe I did. Am I making any sense here? Tell me I’m not alone in this. Come on—don’t tell me you never walk back to your car to make sure you locked it, and, of course, it is locked. I’d rather think, “Oh, I know I forgot to lock the car.” Then, at least, the trip back to the parking lot wouldn’t be a waste.
My husband used to laugh at me when my memory started to fail. Not so much anymore because of the following incident: Husband walks around the downstairs, obviously searching for something. He looks at the clock, worried he’ll be late for work. Husband goes upstairs and continues looking, then stomps downstairs again, stopping on the landing when wife finally asks, “What are you looking for?” Husband replies, “My glasses.” Wife, with only a trace of a smirk and very little audible chuckling, says, “You’re wearing them.”