When Alzheimer’s, Not Satisfied with Its Current Host, Went After My Memories, as Well
Nonfiction by Josh Denslow
Josh Denslow talks about memories, Futurama, and how to process loss.
The guest house was a blind box containing three possible scenarios. Just beyond the closed door was: 1. What I wanted to see. 2. What I expected to see. And 3. What I actually saw.
What I wanted to see was a large room with an IKEA bunk bed, my drum set, my wife’s keyboards, my standing desk, hundreds of books shoved wherever there was free space, and a closet full of my decades-long pursuit to own every Futurama figure ever made, no matter how limited the run, still pristine in their individual boxes and full of irreplaceable and, by now, rather valuable pieces.
What I expected to see was a broken glass introduced into this milieu. My wife’s aunt, affectionately known as Tita, who at that point was about halfway through a 10-day stay with us, had moments before entered the main house to say she’d broken a glass and could I please help her clean it before any of my three sons stepped on it.
What I actually saw was a room ransacked. Had we been robbed, and Tita neglected to tell me? Bookshelves tipped to the floor, the plywood backing pulled free and thrown across the room. Covers of hardcover books completely removed. Broken picture frames. Upturned buckets of toys. Clothes strewn everywhere.
But my eyes were drawn to the closet standing open across the room. The entirety of my Futurama collection now on the floor. Boxes ripped apart. Figures dismembered. Stamped on. Crushed. Tragically piled as if it were a funeral pyre awaiting a match. Something inside of me slumped, an organ letting go of its hold, perhaps — or maybe dread just weighed more than my hope. Because standing there, staring at my nearly two decades of work, hundreds of hours perusing Futurama message boards about upcoming releases and scouring eBay for auctions and scavenging the San Diego Comic-Con for hard-to-find figures and exclusives, I was depressed in a way that I’d never felt before. Whatever had happened in this room had broken something inside of me, as well.
The immensity of what I was seeing was so overwhelming that I could barely get out the words: “What is going on?”
Tita, 70 years old and with a hip so painful she could barely walk, looked up at me with her large, bewildered eyes, her brain-cell connections having degenerated to the point that they were disrupting her normal mental functions. Which made her oblivious to the wreckage behind her, oblivious to the degree to which I’d stopped functioning, oblivious to the pain I felt. Oblivious because, at that point, neither of us knew that she had done it.
“I broke a glass,” she said and pointed to a small frame at her feet.
For the uninitiated, a blind box is when you buy a toy in a series, but because of the way it’s packaged, you don’t know which toy you’ll receive until you open it. It’s like the principle of quantum superposition. The toy in the box exists in multiple states. It could be the last one I need to complete the series. It could be the “chase” figure, with a 1/96 chance of showing up. It could be a common figure that I already have four of. But the toy inside does not choose a definite state until I observe it.
Which I do by opening the box.
When I opened the door to the guest house, my Futurama collection chose its definite state. Utterly decimated. And even as I stood there in shock, I wondered how upset could I allow myself to get. I was proud of my collection, of course. It was part of who I was. The hunt for figures was just as much a part of the collection as the figures themselves. So, it wasn’t only the collection itself that was destroyed, it was the memories that were associated with each individual piece. The way each was found and acquired. I knew Tita didn’t understand what they meant to me. But would anyone? Was it possible there was a limit to how much they could mean, therefore prohibiting me from showing too much outward emotion?
They were just toys, right?
My Futurama collection — started on a whim almost 20 years ago, when the show was still struggling to find an audience — had moved with me to three different states. It had come along when I got married and hung around for the birth of all three of my children. It had spent years in plastic tubs until it finally got to live in the closet in the guest house, perfectly stacked and categorized, still growing slowly by a piece or two each year, and serving as a great conversation topic at dinner, while admittedly, a moderately embarrassing one for my wife. It was the most outwardly nerdy thing I had, and it was immense.
I had every licensed Futurama toy ever made. I would challenge people to go on eBay and find something that wasn’t currently in my closet. No one had succeeded. I had everything created by Moore, Toynami, Kidrobot, Pop!, and a bunch of one-off things including wind-ups and board games and minis. Oh, and the variants! If something came in more than one color, I had them all. Or with different accessories. I owned every Comic-Con exclusive, the entire run of comic books, and a two-foot version of the robot named Bender that was now currently on the ground with an arm and a foot broken off.
I couldn’t tell you exactly how the collection started, or when I’d decided I would keep it going, but I now saw exactly how it ended.
And although the executor of its destruction stood before me, I was convinced at first that we’d been robbed, even though it seemed strange that the computer and the television and my drums and my wife’s keyboards were still in their appropriate spots. Hours later, after the police had come and questioned Tita, it still didn’t seem right. There had to be something we were missing. I didn’t want to believe what my wife and her mother were telling me because I was still grappling with how this could happen to me. I was personally assaulted in this transaction, and I wanted to make sure I had all the facts.
Then, the next morning, the bruises appeared on Tita: around her eye, under her neck, and on both of her arms. Scratches on her hands. And she was so stiff that she could barely walk.
There was only one scenario that made sense, a blind box with only one possible outcome, no matter how many boxes I opened: my wife’s aunt had destroyed my collection. For years, my wife’s family had whispered about Tita’s lapses in memory, but it seemed impossible that this frail, old lady could cause that much damage. The cop, upon inspecting the room the day before, had said to me, “I think your guest did it. Alzheimer’s can make people do crazy things and give them strength you never thought possible.”
“Was anything stolen?” Tita had asked me before going to bed that night, her right hand kneading her aching hip.
Alzheimer’s affects about 10 percent of people over 65. Scientists don’t fully understand the causes and there is no cure, but they are fairly sure it is genetic. My wife’s grandmother died from it, and there is pure terror in my wife’s eyes if she even thinks for a minute that it could happen to her. It is a frightening thing to lose your memory. Those memories make us who we are.
My first encounter with Alzheimer’s had come only five days earlier when Tita arrived and asked me at least a dozen times about our nonexistent fourth child and seemed truly surprised to learn, every single time she asked, that she wasn’t leaving in the morning. The word amongst her family was that they were hoping by acting like nothing was happening, the problem would magically go away. It was like bizarro Peter Pan; if you don’t believe in it, there’s no dementia, no dementia! So even though we were calling it Alzheimer’s in our house, Tita was actually undiagnosed.
Before she left, we decided to tell her what she had done. It didn’t seem to bother her at all. “Okay,” she said. Then she blinked. “Am I leaving in the morning?”
I still hadn’t properly expressed my true grief aloud. I didn’t know if I could. Or should. What was the appropriate level of sadness for hunks of plastic shaped like characters from my favorite TV show? Even after two days had passed since the incident, I couldn’t look at the pile. I didn’t know the full extent of the damage. I didn’t know which figures had been destroyed and how many of those would never be available again.
But Tita slept each night in the room she’d destroyed, unaware of the havoc she’d wrought. She spent hours every day playing with my three boys, spoiling them with chocolate and television, all the while keeping an eye out for that missing fourth child whom she’d gladly have spoiled, as well. She was such a dear presence in our house that the boys continued to ask about her weeks after she left.
I was going to have to deal with the guest house, clean it, organize it, put it back together. Relive all the memories that each figure in my collection brought to mind. The accidental discovery of a hard-to-get building-block Bender at a Toys “R” Us for five dollars. The comic-book store in L.A. that happened to be around the corner from Rough Draft studios where the Futurama show was animated, and my mad dash to buy new figures as they arrived in the store because they only received one of each for sale. The scramble to find the best eBay deals on the exclusive figures coming out of Comic-Con each year. All the times I underpaid. All the times I overpaid. All in an effort to be complete. And here was this woman who would never be complete again, with no one to clean up after her and put things in their proper place. We all watched sadly as she returned to her home state to continue her slow decay until she no longer remembered how to be herself anymore.
My memories of the collection, once a source of great happiness, were now being tinged by sadness. Acquiring the alternate shiny version of a wind-up Bender was now replaced by the thought that I’d never be able to acquire it again. The memory of that Bender in its pristine condition would only ever be a memory now. But for Tita, her memories weren’t being tonally shifted, they were being erased. What makes us who we are is not just our memories, but also our ability to understand loss. To truly be me, I needed to know what I had, and what I didn’t have. Alzheimer’s takes away the ability to know what you don’t have, what has been taken from you. I finally glimpsed the terror that my wife felt at the mere mention of the disease.
Still unable to decide how bad I was allowed to feel, I then started to feel bad for being angry with Tita. Sure, I had a lot of broken toys, but since there was no cure for Alzheimer’s, she had no chance of ever getting better. But she still remembered the mechanics of how to feel bad for me. She asked the right questions, offered the appropriate facial expressions, but she wasn’t hardwired to think too much about stuff. Alzheimer’s or not, my Futurama collection was just stuff, and Alzheimer’s or not, she was never going to mourn its passing like I would. So, should I then be more upset about my stuff, or about the injustice of a world that could see fit to slowly eradicate a mind?
There’s a great line in the episode of Futurama entitled “The Luck of the Fryrish.” In a flashback, the child version of our main character Fry sneaks into his older brother’s room and comes across a Breakfast Club album, to which Fry remarks, assuming his older brother has somehow attained a higher emotional range, “I can’t wait until I’m old enough to feel ways about stuff.”
Oh, Fry, you naïve pizza-delivery guy whisked from the past and propelled one thousand years into the future, your likable face now crushed behind dozens of action-figure boxes in my closet — don’t you know that no matter how long any of us live, we never, ever, figure out how to feel ways about stuff?
Memories are slippery and deceptive. Every single one is colored by perception. False memories have sent innocent people to jail and fueled decades-long family arguments. They certainly infiltrate politics and history books. But memories also bring us together. Good ones strengthen relationships and bond people together for life. I still remember a video taken at our wedding of Tita in close-up, her daughter behind the camera. In the background, my wife and I are posing for pictures after the ceremony. “You should go over there,” Tita’s daughter says offscreen. “You should be in some pictures.” Tita stares at the camera for a long time, no expression on her face. Then finally, “No.” That might not sound all that funny, but trust me, it kills in my house. There are people whose presence in your life, and in your memories, require them to be in more memories. As many as they can.
And now Tita would always be linked with my Futurama collection. It was impossible to look at it without thinking of her. The only way to move forward was to embrace it. Seeing the collection would forever call to mind the image of Tita standing amidst the destroyed figures, staring down at the broken frame at her feet, overwhelmed with concern that my boys, the three who exist and the one who didn’t, would step on broken glass. I can now appreciate how this memory will subtly shift over time, but I will always have it. For Tita, the memory was gone. I was devastated by the loss of the collection, but that’s nothing compared with the devastation of losing the moments that comprise a life; the very fabric of what makes us human. Of losing the ability to comprehend your own actions. The devastation of losing a mother, an aunt, a friend.
So, what can I do? Maybe I’ll try to replace some of the figures that are still available. Rekindle the thrill of the hunt. Or maybe it will remain in its current state forever. But while I figure it out, I will continue to find the perfect Futurama quote for every situation. I will watch old episodes and name obscure peripheral characters. And at any time I choose, I can close my eyes and bring up a mental picture of my collection at the height of its power. Stacked from floor to ceiling, organized by creator. A gleaming, perfect tower of items no one truly needs, all in mint condition.
I hope more than anything, that my brain allows me to keep that memory forever.