I’ve been thinking about memory lately, about how slippery it is at its best. Even the strongest memory, the one you think will be the most indelible begins to slide away so quickly. The more you want to hold it close, the faster it seems to reduce into elements, abstract itself into anecdote. “Do you remember that time when he…” And so on.
The most powerful memories for me, however, survive more as still images than narratives. The Christmas I was pregnant with my son I wore a forest green velvet maternity dress, long, with a lace collar. There is no photo, but I have a clear memory-picture of sitting on a chintz sofa in that dress feeling a kind of domestic bliss that was too perfect to be true.
Photographs, valuable as they are, have an odd habit of replacing memory as time passes. Is my recall of the tricycle under the tree when I was three actually a photograph I’ve seen?
More maddening, however, is the way one mental picture will come to stand for a group of memories like the title on the tab of a folder, but you can no longer access the content.
Maybe this is one reason the whole holiday season blends joy and sadness into a cocktail bearing a particularly potent hangover.
It’s a lot like grief.
You can know something is over, irrecoverable. Your children will never be four again, gazing in awe at the array of gifts under the sparkling tree. You can know this in the way you know a birth date, in the front of your mind where it is protected somewhat from welling emotion.
That knowledge has a sweetness with sorrowful undertones that hint at what grief might be, but it’s not grief, as long as the child is continuing to grow into the fullness of maturity. Recognition of the vanished four-year-old is generative, open-ended, and that softens the effect.
If the child died young, however, grief strides in and takes over. And grief is as cruel as it is necessary.
Proceeding through the stages of grief, they say, is central to a successful life beyond it. No doubt this is true.
But what about the “forethought of grief” that taxes human lives (Wendell Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things”)? What about incremental grief, far in advance of a loved one’s death?
Lately, I’ve been making a video about Hale’s and my life here, for use in promotion of our two books coming out in March. This video focuses on him and utilizes photographs from over the years. I was doing fairly well with it—more or less like a professional editor with pleasant material. I didn’t think of it as sad, in any way.
Then, yesterday, I added music. Cheerful music pulled from the video program’s list of selections.
And the music undid me.
Here in my rough homemade video was the reality of all that cannot be recovered—the life, the person at every earlier age—it all hit me at once.
I was sorrowful throughout the afternoon. Then today, I was driving to Round Top for groceries, making a turn I’ve made hundreds of times—with Hale so many of those times—and a vivid picture came to me. He was driving his truck, his large hands on the wheel, his face scanning the landscape with a far-seeing expression I love. And, like a blow, I realized that I would never be seeing that expression again, in life.
The loss was like a death.
Yet, the man himself is still with us, still writing and talking and walking. Still himself, in his 99-year-old form. As I am in my 70-odd-year old form.
I had known the people we were existed no longer, but I hadn’t felt it fully until that moment.