How much do we define ourselves by our memories? In order to be yourself, must you remember who you are?
I enjoyed spending the last couple of weeks with an old friend I hadn’t seen in years. I felt like we were able to remind each other who we once were (at least through the other’s eyes) and that helped affirm who we have become. What is different, what stayed the same, what dream or challenge had we forgotten? With all the changing we are always doing in our lives, in and out of season, why do we stay attached to some memories and others just vanish? And over time, we can feel so disconnected to our past selves… why is that?
A few weeks ago, when I broke the news to Vernon that David Bowie had died, he hadn’t acted surprised at all, as he’d remembered seeing it on TV that morning. But when I reminded him of the fact the other day, he practically burst out in tears, as if it was the first time he’d heard. He wanted to listen to his favorite Bowie songs, to which we sang along, right there in the middle of the dialysis room. I was impressed how much he remembered, but when the saxophone started up at one part, Vernon stopped short and made a face: “Not that blasted saxophone.” As long as I’ve known him, Vernon has said he didn’t like saxophones. His reaction in this song was clearly a sign that his personal taste is very deeply embedded in his memory. Isn’t it funny what returns to us (and what doesn’t?) And when we see something we remember about him coming through, we say “THERE he is!” or sometimes, “He’s still in there.”
Maki just rediscovered our family “Christmas Video” that Vernon made many years ago. This was before Justine was born. I think Maki was still spending most of his time in Norway. But he does make some very cute appearances. It’s strange to look back at those moving images now and think: “Yeah, that was our life then. That’s a vision of who we were, what we looked like younger, where we lived our lives together.” Seems like an eternity ago. The three of us have changed so much as individuals since then, hardly defined at all by the memories we had in those times. But if we didn’t have the video to watch, we would have forgotten some of those things completely by now…or would eventually. Maki seemed surprised at the memories—I couldn’t tell if they were brighter or more faded in his mind than mine. I think seeing his younger dad and where we used to live and frolic reminded him again of the love that had always been between them.
Both kids are proud that their ability to remember is sharper than mine, or so they say. But mine is longer. Justine says she doesn’t remember life in England anymore. And often she says she doesn’t remember her dad ever living with us (though she does at times become very sad over the fact he is still “in the hospital.”) So I tell her stories about how he loved her and show her photographs. She’s at an age where she likes to hear and tell stories about herself when she was a baby. I can see the stories I’ve told her defining ‘her memory’ of herself. She remembers the stories and her sense of identity grows.
I feel I’m doing the same thing with Vernon. He knows I’m his wife but he doesn’t remember our marriage. I think he knows it was there but it must be a blur. He barely remembers the day before…though he is getting a little better, it seems. So we keep telling him things that have happened…hoping that even if they don’t trigger his own memories, he can develop a clone-memory just because its been repeated to him enough times. And as long as its true, he can own it as part of his SELF.
But all this makes me feel less connected to my own old memories. They seem to belong to someone else sometimes. I feel so different in my relationships to each of my close family members than I did even a few years ago. I am so much a different person. I hug Justine and wonder…how did her legs get so long, how could she have ever fit in my womb? She talks back like a teenager sometimes…did she ever really just babble sweetly? I look at Maki and think… “He’s so handsome and confidant and able to hold interesting conversations with adults now…was he really ever that small shy child I struggled at first to step-parent?” I look in the mirror and start to recognize more of my mother’s face than the young one I had in old photographs.
But is memory enough to define us? We are who we are now, regardless of how much we remember, aren’t we? Or maybe as long as someone else remembers who we were once, we are even more complete…if only in their eyes.
I was sent some old photos by surprise this week. We had been visiting Oslo for the weekend in 2012 and had a wonderful dinner with some old friends of Vernon’s (now mine.) I hadn’t even known these existed, and they brought back…memories.
“You have to begin to lose your memory, if only bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all.” Luis Buñuel