Some Stuff About Memory.

Shades of Black Mirror and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind aside, do we really need to remember everything our minds insist on remembering? It’s hard to imagine not; our memories seem so essentially us, so inextricably a component of “self.” This article in the New York Times today, about the wisdom of intentionally forgetting is, to me, chilling, dystopian.

I think a lot, since my mother died, about that platitude that says grief keeps your loved ones close to you after they die. Usually I think it refers to good memories, because even and maybe especially the sweet memories are the ones that hurt the most, and it’s a neat way to manage the pain they cause.

But I also, and more often, think about that idea in terms of my memories of the last week and especially the last full day before my mother died, because that period of time was — I always use this word — harrowing. It was many things, but mostly it was harrowing.

Sometimes — those times being whenever a memory from that week pops into my head and forces me to go like a slideshow through the sequence of events — I wish I could un-remember it.

Because it hurts, but also because it’s disruptive. Almost anything can trigger recall — exiting a highway in a car on a hot sunny day, seeing a bandaid over a wound or a scrap of 1/4” plastic tubing, my father’s face, anything to do with hospitals, even just walking by one — but once a fragment of memory is in my head I’m on a runaway train that will stop when it crashes. I have to mentally recite the whole sequence at least to the point of arriving at the hospital where the nurse put Mom on a fentanyl IV which quickly transformed her from rigid and terror-stricken back to some loopy semblance of my mother 

The process takes a while and takes me away from whatever I’m doing. If I’m alone, it literally stops me in my tracks. If I’m not, then I’m compelled to run two mental tracks at once, the present and the past. But what about that word “disruptive”? It’s only disruptive if I consider it to be less important than whatever else I’m doing. Or unimportant. How do I know?

I don’t have any desire to erase those memories. The thing, the thing where grief keeps our lost loved ones close — is holistic. The feeling is experienced holistically. I remember Mom and feel her with me when I eat chicken noodle soup because she taught me how to make chicken soup when I was a teenager. I remember her when I see an office chair on wheels because that’s how we got her from her bed to the car when she was immobilized with pain.

I don’t want to forget that last week, that last day. I never felt closer to my mother than I did those days and hours, never felt more intimately connected to her than when I was helping her (I think I was some help, I tell myself that I was some help) through that grueling (grueling? all the words seem quaint compared to what they try to describe) episode.

I don’t feel guilt or regret, not too much anyway, about anything I did on that day, any decisions I made, so as bad as it feels I don’t necessarily want to forget that in fact, I think, I functioned pretty well under a kind of emotional and physical and spiritual strain I’d never felt anything remotely close to in my life. Because those memories are still with me, intense, vivid, maybe next time I will be more focused and clear. I have no idea. But this will happen again. It’s not like you’re tested once and you pass or fail. If anything is certain, it is that there will be no end to the suffering of people we love.