I love this picture. I love the contrast of the color tones, the perfect composition, the leaf in her hand, the smile on his face as he looks at her. I love the photograph, but I don’t need it. I’ve got an exact replica in my mind, and it is surrounded by the feelings and the sounds surrounding that moment captured on ink and paper. There’s no chance of my forgetting it, no chance of my forgetting them. Antonio Porchia once said that “One lives in the hope of becoming a memory.” Who on earth wouldn’t say this is true? Who doesn’t long to be remembered? I would actually argue that most of what we do, most of what we spend our time on is dedicated to creating something of a legacy of ourselves, not to be memorialized, but to be known … appreciated … and reminisced. We long to be thought of with fondness, and cherished for the times we shared that made a difference, even for a day.
As the years pass me, I realize more and more that William Gibson had it right when he said, “Time moves in one direction, memory in another.” I, maybe even more than most, love to drift into what once was. Like the translucent strands of a web, I find that when I walk too close to the edge of a memory, I am quickly caught up. The details may have lost their crispness, pictures in my mind having long since faded to sepia, but the feelings remain. Isn’t it something that the heart remembers what your recollection would have let go of?
Usually remembrance is a respite; a hidden treasure we are able to look in on again and again, without any fear of things being taken from us. But sometimes … just sometimes, the reverse happens, and that place isn’t safe anymore – it’s painful. John Irving worded it this way, “Your memory is a monster; you forget – it doesn’t. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you – and summons them to your recall with a will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you.” Sharp words. Jagged and piercing, this version of memory isn’t one I like to acknowledge, but heartbreakingly, it recently became too real.
The other day, I went to dinner with my five-year-old daughter, my mother, and my grandmother. These generational get togethers are so rare, and thus, so precious. As we sat down to dinner, we took some time to pass around pictures and chat about recent goings on. After a few minutes of reminiscing, the monster crept in, and its name was dementia. Suddenly, asking about a few old friends turned into my grandmother saying how much she missed the boys, her boys. She asked about Billy, her first son, and how he was doing … completely forgetting that he’d passed away almost forty years before. My mom, caught off guard, didn’t say much, but her look said enough. And then, in a picture that stands too clear in my mind, I saw the devastated look of recognition cross my grandmother’s features. “He’s not dead, is he?” she asked my mother, tearing up. What else could she do but tell her what she’d already begun to remember? A monster indeed. It was excruciating to watch the cruel play of a memory that chose to haunt her. Watching her remember was like seeing a fraction of her learning for the first time. And though I hate the disease that steals my grandmother’s mind piece by piece, I wished, just then, that it had taken this one memory away completely.
My mom is stronger than I am, in many ways, but this one in particular. Because as I sat at the table, leaned over and kissed my daughter’s cheek, trying to escape to somewhere brighter, my mother’s eyes didn’t shift from grandma, or the dark memory that threatened to steal her joy. She waited it out … she held her hand … until eventually, it passed.
We want to be remembered. We crave recognition. We long to be the one photograph in a file of memories that doesn’t fade. They are a blessing and a curse, equal parts light and dark, and someday, they are all that will remain of the lives that we piece together day by day, moment by moment. I pray that the memories I am a part of will be bright, but life doesn’t always lend itself to that. And regardless of whether people are parted by circumstance, or some stronger force, I hope that we are all able to channel what we once were to one another, and are able to recall the beautiful things our hearts have refused to let go. And so, in the words of Khalil Gibran, “If in the twilight of memory we should meet once more, we shall speak again together, and you shall sing to me a deeper song.”
Remember well tonight – and forever after,