Toothbrush as Mnemonic Device
Memory is a funny thing. This is how it works. Or, more accurately, this is how mine works:
I brush my teeth twice a day. And every time I pick up my toothbrush – every single time – I think about my friend Jim.
Jim was a student in the first class I taught as an adjunct professor at Georgia Southern. He sat on the front row, against the wall of the mobile unit that had been constructed close enough to the baseball field that during those warm spring evenings when we met to talk about business law we could hear the crowds at the baseball stadium roar with enthusiasm when the home team made a great defensive play or hit a homerun.
Jim had been in the Marines before coming to school, so he was older than most of the other students. Not by much, but enough. He’d been to war, real war, and, as I would learn later when he came to work for me and became my friend, real war had made its mark.
After he graduated from Georgia Southern, he got his MBA at the University of Georgia and accepted a job with Johnson and Johnson, the company that makes baby powder and baby shampoo and baby lotion, Band-Aids and Benadryl and Tylenol. At the time they also made Reach toothbrushes and on one of my visits he presented me with a plastic bagful. Assuming that I followed recommended protocol and changed my toothbrush every three months, that bag lasted about four years.
Four years during which Jim changed jobs a couple of times. During which he and I took a trip to New York City – saw the Braves play the Mets at Shea Stadium, ate brunch at Tavern on the Green, hiked all over Central Park, and had a stranger take our photo on top of the Empire State Building. During which the demons with which he had struggled for years tightened their grip on his will and his soul.
It’s been over 20 years since Jim and I became friends, over 15 since he gave me the toothbrushes, over four now since he died.
Yesterday I was at Walmart looking at toothbrushes, marveling at the vast array of colors and handles and bristles. I was uncharacteristically indecisive. “It shouldn’t be this difficult,” I offered to the woman standing beside me and also staring blankly at the singles, the doubles, the four-packs, “to pick out a toothbrush.”
I finally made a decision, based – I have to admit – more on color than on claimed efficacy of tartar-removal, and last night, as I squeezed the toothpaste onto its stiff new bristles, I remembered Jim. As I always do.
I know more about Alzheimer’s than I ever wanted to know. I have watched it steal the minds of the two women who loved me most and I have learned in the watching that the connections the brain sometimes makes between totally unrelated objects can be simultaneously uproariously funny and heartbreakingly sad. What I have concluded, however, is that no matter how jolting and disconcerting it might be to me to hear a dog referred to as a chair, there is, to the speaker at least, always some rationale, some logic behind the mis-spoken word, the confused syllables, the misaligned sounds.
And on the basis of that conclusion I have further decided that if I, as a result of genetics or too much aspartame or any other vile attacker, succumb to Alzheimer's at some point in the future, I will most likel refer to my toothbrush as Jim. No one should be concerned. I will know what I’m doing. I’ll be remembering.