In a pivotal moment in the film Still Alice, the protagonist, a professor of linguistics (played by Julianne Moore), desperately searches through her mind for the word "lexicon", and not finding it, deftly substitutes it with "wordstock." We're all familiar with that sense of not getting the right word at the right time, and most of us don't have the vocabulary (or presence of mind) for such a quick replacement act. I had a similar "elder" moment a few weeks ago when the word "traverse" escaped me completely, and made its way back into my head almost a full week later, when I least expected it.
In the case of Alice, losing words was a sign of early onset Alzheimer's, but in most cases it is just normal (or chronic) forgetfulness brought on by having too many things in one's head. I often complain to friends that I feel like my mind is a basket full of unnecessary shopping while in my hand is a list with less than one-tenth of the items checked off! Losing track of appointments, forgetting where things have been put, mis-remembering people's names, forgetting birthdays, anniversaries, addresses and phone numbers...the list goes on. And then of course there are all the things I have lost, including money (and I don't even gamble).
But there are different kinds of loss and different levels of intensity of loss. These are all just things, after all, and the regret they bring about is usually fleeting, a pang of material absence that is quickly resolved. I pack away with a little more care the memories these things hold and console myself that it was really the memory that I treasured, not the thing, and get on with my life.
And then there is the other, deeper kind of loss, that we can neither avoid nor prepare for. The loss of people from our lives. We all have our share of that kind of loss, some, tragically, earlier than others. That's a loss that has no compensation other than, again, memory. And perhaps we should not think of it as loss, because we are left with something because those people were part of our lives, something that would not be there if not for the person who left us with those memories. As one of my friends so beautifully put it, "much of life is lived in absences". But the physical absence counts for a kind of presence, one that is often much more keenly felt that the touch of a hand or the pressure of a shoulder against yours.
So maybe the real wisdom about losing (and much else) is to be found in the words of an old Simon & Garfunkel song: "preserve your memories, they're all that's left you."
And when, like Alice, one doesn't even have those--maybe that is when we are truly defeated.