You never forget how to ride a bike.
It’s called a procedural memory, a knowledge learned at a young age that becomes so ingrained, you don’t have to consciously think (how to walk or swim, how to write or tie your shoes, not to touch a hot stove). This information is stored in a specific area of the brain, and is always accessible, but here is a secret:
You can forget how to ride a bike.
If something happens to the brain, that information can be lost. Thankfully, aside from traumatic brain injury or early onset dementia, you don’t have to worry about losing those little gems, but as you get older, the guarantee expires.
The other night, my dad (aged 92) tried to pull a casserole out without an oven mitt. I swatted his arm away, avoiding a visit to the ER, but he seemed confused by my interference. He said it never occurred to him that the dish would be hot.
Dad struggles with word retrieval. He forgets to eat lunch. He can’t remember how to make the microwave or the television set work, and like the hot casserole dish, I’m caught off guard as each of these procedural memories expires.
My dad taught me to ride a bike. I never imagined that one day, he wouldn’t be able to ride one.
I thought convincing him to stop driving was the biggest challenge, until I had to stop him from ordering random things off the internet. I allow him as much independence as possible, exercising patience when he pushes back, but he is getting close to the point where sleeping is the only thing he is allowed to do without supervision. With each adjustment, I’m careful not to blame his limitations. Instead, I repeat that we are facing these changes together, and the new rules are not meant to punish or control him, but instead to make things easier on me.
As his world shrinks, my compassion grows. Who will pull a casserole out of the oven for me when I’m older? Will I know when it’s no longer safe to drive? How will I react the day I hop on my bike and can’t make it go?
Middle age is like standing at the pivot point of a seesaw trying to balance memories of boundless youth against the limits of aging. Until, one day, it’s time to get down and let someone guide you home.