Recently the legendary coach Pat Summitt has disclosed to the world that she has been diagnosed with early onset dementia… a condition that will likely take her cognitive capacity and even her memories from a figure who has been revolutionary not only for women’s basketball but for all of sport. In true Pat Summitt spirit, she told the Knoxville News-Sentinel, “There’s not going to be any pity party and I’ll make sure of that.” But the sports world and many who look up to her are shocked and grieved by this news.
Coach Summitt’s recent diagnosis shines a light on a growing concern in our country – the mental health of our aging population. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, an estimated 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease. This number will increase dramatically as the Baby Boomers age. Alzheimer’s and dementia in general robs its victim of more than ability; it takes something more precious: identity and the ability to relate. There are few families today who do not know the grief of saying goodbye to a loved one long before they die because of the affects of Alzheimer’s or dementia. Of Coach Summitt, Wetzel describes this grief well:
“… this is one cruel disease. What a life this woman has led, and for her not to be able to sit back for decades to come and enjoy every last memory? What an impact this woman has had on so many other lives, and there’s a chance she won’t get to appreciate it, or recall it? And how brutal is it that a woman of such accomplishment, wisdom and impact might have her career cut short, robbing any number of players that would’ve enjoyed her guidance.”
Memory and forgetfulness are important theological themes especially in the Hebrew Canon. Forgetfulness leads to isolation from God and usually ends in disaster. In Deuteronomy, the people of God are implored no less than 20 times to remember and not forget… the poignant irony of a book written by a people who have forgotten and are trying to remember who they were called to be. The Psalms too are filled with the relationship between memory and salvation (Psalm 50:22 ‘Mark this, then, you who forget God, or I will tear you apart, and there will be no one to deliver.’) The Psalmist often declares she should be saved by God precisely because she remembers (“Look on my misery and rescue me, for I do not forget your law.”, Psalm 119:153)
If memory is so important to our continued life and even salvation, what does that mean for those who “forget” through Alzheimer’s and dementia? Are they destined to “depart to Sheol” with the wicked because the have forgotten themselves and God?(Psalm 9:17) Will God forget them because they have forgotten God?
God’s apparent forgetfulness is perhaps of more importance to the Psalmist than her own.
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hid your face from me? (Psalm 13:1)
Why do you hid your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? (Psalm 44:24)
On many occasions it is God’s remembering that saves God’s people. Noah is saved from the Ark because God remembers; Rachel and Hannah were given children; Moses is sent to save the Israel from slavery. My favorite passage is God’s own proclamation in Isaiah.
Can a woman forget her nursing-child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. (Isaiah 49:15)
Ultimately our hope is not in our own memory but in God’s. And when we can no longer remember for whatever reason, God will remember us and through remembering will re-member us through the Resurrection (remembering is re-membering, a great line I learned from Stanley Hauerwas… I think!)
Just as it is God’s promise to remember, I think it is also the church’s task to remember especially for those who have forgetten. When powers and principalities forget who is really in charge of this world or forget the needs of those they are called to serve, it is the church’s place to stand up and help them remember. This week Martin Luther King’s Memorial in Washington D.C. was dedicated. It is our responsibility to remember his words and legacy. When our grandfather looks at us with confusion in his eyes and asks, “Who are you again?” it is our bittersweet burden to remember for him not only who we are, but also who he was and through God’s grace and remembering he can become again.
As Jesus was struggling on the cross to take his last breaths, the criminal dying next to me had only one request, “Remember me.”
“Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Something worth remembering.
 Dan Wetzel, “Dementia diagnosis won’t stop Pat Summitt,” Yahoo! Sports website (http://rivals.yahoo.com/ncaa/womens-basketball/news?slug=dw-dementia_diagnosis_wont_stop_summitt_082311)
 “2011 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures” (http://www.alz.org/downloads/Facts_Figures_2011.pdf)
 Ibid. Wetzel