When Screen Editor alex was recovering from surgery last year, we watched a bunch of episodes of Adventure Time together. We skipped the episode “I Remember You” because I just couldn’t watch it again without crying. It is one of the best episodes of the show. It is also one of the best depictions of the experience of losing someone to Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. And it is almost viscerally painful to me.
My mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2008, though now I suspect she was suffering from the disease years before she was diagnosed. The last year has been a series of health crises and a terrible, steep decline. She died about two weeks ago, more peacefully than I had reason to expect at this point in her illness. I didn’t necessarily want to write about this, but I am having trouble writing anything right now and there is a deadline and we promise you guys articles. I’m not sure what else I can do and that pain and loss so eerily depicted in Adventure Time won’t get out of my way.
Adventure Time is an animated show loosely organized around the lives and adventures of Finn the human boy and his best friend and adopted brother, Jake the dog, in the land of Ooo. Ooo is a future, post-human apocalyptic earth populated by Candy People, Fire People and basically all kinds of people. I am very fond of the first four seasons and chunks of the fifth season, but there is an almost indefinable change halfway through the fifth season and the show goes from amazing to good. It’s probably related to creator Pendleton Ward stepping down as showrunner. I haven’t been watching Adventure Time as avidly and I spend much of the time I do watch trying to pin down what is different about it. (I do much the same trying to figure out how the comic is different from the show, though now the show has become much more like the Adventure Time comics). In some ways, I think it comes down to the post-Ward episodes just aren’t as “queer” in both senses of the word.
“Marceline, I can feel myself slipping away.
I can’t remember what it made me say,
But I remember that I saw you frown.
I swear it wasn’t me. It was the crown.”
In “I Remember You,” Finn and Jake watch as the Ice King tries to get Marceline the Vampire Queen to write a song with him. As inspiration for lyrics, he brings over old notes, letters and a newspaper clipping over to her house. Initially, the Ice King was introduced as a menace who kidnaps the princesses of Ooo, hoping to force one to marry him. Through the series, we discover that a thousand years ago the Ice King used to be Simon Petrikov, an antiquarian. The Ice King and Marceline had known each other when Simon was still Simon. Simon took care of Marceline when she was little girl lost in the post-apocalyptic landscape, entertaining her, loving her and protecting her from horrible slime creatures. Simon had bought a magical crown that gave him power over ice and snow. He used it to protect Marcy and himself. But the crown was radically changing his appearance, causing him to turn blue and grow long white hair, a long white beard and a long nose. It was also changing his personality. Each time he used it, he became less himself and more manic and frightening. When he took it off again, he didn’t remember what he had done. Finally, though he had promised Marcy never to use it, he wore it one time too many to save her life and became the Ice King.
We see a lot of this history in an earlier episode, “Holly Jolly Secrets, Part II” and a later episode, “Simon & Marcy.” In “Holly Jolly Secrets, Part II,” Finn and Jake find the Ice King’s evil VHS tapes and watch them. Simon details how he acquired the crown, how he is changing and how the visions and the changes in his behavior drove away his fiancé, Betty. In “Simon & Marcy,” Marceline seems much more at peace with who Simon has become. During a break in a two-on-two basketball game, Marceline tells Finn, Jake and the Ice King a story of how Simon and Marcy traveled together. Marcy was sick and Simon tried to find chicken soup. But I feel “I Remember You” so much more strongly than the other episodes. Marceline sings from the notes and letters detailing Simon’s fear that something’s wrong with him and that he is hurting her. The Ice King thinks the song is great but doesn’t recognize his past self. But even now, the Ice King knows there is something wrong with him and that these notes he’s brought over are important somehow. (The lyrics interspersed throughout this piece are from their song).
“I’m losing myself and I’m afraid you’re going to lose me, too”
The episode captures the little snaps of awareness in someone suffering from dementia and the pain of being the one who remembers, and who might not remember enough. With Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, so much of the loss and grief is loaded at the front end. And, if you are lucky, the person you are losing might, like the Ice King, make it through the fear, the horror and their own sense of loss and become happy again. They might not mind singing their own story or listening to it told. But a lot of dementia patients don’t make it there.
My later relationship with my mom was difficult, and always would’ve been to some degree just because we are the people who we are. (In an alternate version of this essay, I write about how I stopped reading Alison Bechdel’s memoir, Are You My Mother? (Mariner Books, 2012), because it was painfully close to my relationship with my mother, but inverted. Though my mom was an abstract expressionist painter and not a comic artist, I recognized much of my mom in Alison Bechdel’s persona, down to her admiration for Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child). But I realize now that the disease was probably a huge part of why our relationship was difficult, why my mom suddenly embraced things she’d hated her whole life, why she could become an exaggeration of herself in some ways and a totally different person in others. She was scared and confused. She was getting lost and hearing voices. She was forgetting. And like many dementia patients, she knew that something was wrong and she hid it well, leaving notes throughout her apartment to remind herself of who she was. Now I wonder if she deliberately drove people away, even while she wanted someone to care for her, in order to conceal what was happening to her.
“Please forgive me for whatever I do,
When I don’t remember you.”
In “I Remember You,” we see the Ice King and Marceline on the other side. The Ice King is functionally immortal, but Simon Petrikov is gone. He listens to the song without knowing they are about Marceline and him. Marceline is the only one who remembers. She’s the last living piece of Simon Petrikov in the world. But the Ice King seems okay. He doesn’t remember at all. The Ice King listens to his own story as if it were someone else’s. Though unlike many Alzheimer’s patients the Ice King doesn’t gradually peel away the present till there is only the past and then only biological functions. He becomes a new person, even while this person is made out of the sense he tries to make of his patches of memory. He seeks out Marceline over and over even though she apparently wants nothing to do with him. He calls his penguins Gunter, the name he calls Marcy at the end of “Simon & Marcy.” He wants a princess to marry him, trying to get Betty back, who he had called, “princess.” But the Ice King can no longer make sense of the bits of his past he has left. And it is painful to try.
It is, of course, more complicated with my mom, who did not have a cursed magic crown that was transforming her and who was not a fictional character. But I can identify with Marceline, who remembers this whole other person who was important to her, who lived through his transformation, who was ambivalent about having him in her life again because there is a certain amount of pain in remembering. My mom and I were estranged by the time she was diagnosed. And, like I said, now I assume that a lot of it had to do with the disease. I don’t know if it changes anything knowing that. I’d like it to. I’d like to have a tidy ending for this. But the best I can say for now is, I remember you, mom.
Carol Borden says you can learn more about Alzheimer’s disease or donate some money towards Alzheimer’s research here.