1. Impossible to remove, erase, or wash away; permanent: indelible ink.
2. Making a mark not easily erased or washed away: an indelible pen for labeling clothing.
3. Unable to be forgotten; memorable: an indelible memory.
Memory is a place I have not wanted to go, because memory cedes he is gone, and my way of coping with Alec’s death has been to act as if he is still here with me somehow, because I cannot accept that he died the way he did. There it is. I said it. I still have “work” to do, obviously! I am not surprised. I have re-entered the world of the living wholeheartedly. I have even opened my heart to another dog and allowed myself to feel joy again. I emerged from the fog sometime in late spring, around the time I went to Germany. I felt very clearly that I was at a crossroads, or maybe on a seesaw with my grief is the better analogy. It was like I was teetering between two worlds, light and dark, up and down. That sounds so simple and trite, but I don’t know how else to describe it. Anyway, there was a point where I made a very conscious decision to move forward. I will write about that someday, but this is not that post.
Where was I even going with this?
Right. My fingers in their infinite wisdom, racing faster than my mind, seem to have typed “I cannot accept that he died the way he did.” As often happens, these words appeared on the screen before I knew what I was going to write. Some things we don’t say out loud even to ourselves I guess. So yeah, I still have work to do, despite the fact that I have gotten back up, and made room for other things in my life besides my grief. But even though I don’t walk around crying (or trying not to) every day, I do cry, and I do miss him, and I do still mourn. And I need to stay cognizant, because when I hear myself blurt out things like, “I cannot accept that he died the way he did,” I know I still have plenty of processing to do. I have made a lot of progress. But I am not healed.
Two things I have written about repeatedly are that 1) I have avoided organizing and going through photographs of Alec, and 2) my way of coping with his absence, since the moment he died (and truthfully since before, when I knew I was going to lose him), was to re-conceptualize our bond as not having ended but rather having changed form, like we had a new relationship, one that did not involve nor depend upon his corporeal presence (and as a non-religious person, this was definitely a huge leap of faith, or desperation). I had to tell myself he was still with me, somehow, some way. It was the only way I could go on. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t explain it. Because I didn’t have all the answers, or even, as Alec’s death drove home, any of them.
“It is in our lives and not, fundamentally, in our conscious experiences that we find the memories of those who are gone.” (Rowlands, 2009, p 46)
So these two things, these recurring themes, are interlinked, right? My not wanting to go into the photos is like not wanting to go into the past is like not wanting to confront MEMORY is like not wanting to have the recalcitrant fact of his death, of his being gone, hit me in the face. Now, what the heck does that sound like? It sounds like someone dealing with a bit of avoidance is what I would say, if I were hearing this from a friend. It’s funny because in some ways I have been a model of “good grief” (though, honestly, in other ways I have been its very antithesis) in that I certainly allowed myself to cry and cry and cry (and cry some more! no problem there) and I even have been able to use writing as a way to explore and process my feelings. Healthy emotional outlet, check. And yet, here I find myself saying I don’t want to deal with the fact that Alec, and my relationship with him, is a memory now. Because the only way I have made it this far is by dragging him with me, metaphorically, stubbornly refusing to consign him to the past (a topic discussed in other posts). But really, the regrettable transformation from companion to memory is the most obdurate fact in losing a loved one to death.
Memory sucks. Memory scares me, because it’s unreliable, and because it fades. I really haven’t spent much time thinking or writing about it (on purpose) but I always knew one day, when I was ready, I would tackle this subject (“just like the photos, I guess,” I say to myself with chagrin – but here I gently remind myself that grief has no statute of limitations).
As luck or fate or simple circumstance would have it, yesterday I received a nudge in the direction I need to go: forward. As I was reading The Philosopher and the Wolf, I came across an interesting passage on memory. This book is a memoir of sorts, a reflection on philosophy professor Mark Rowlands’ transformative relationship with his companion wolf, Brenin, who dies before the book begins. Rowlands’ ruminations on the difference between episodic memory and another, nameless (but far more meaningful) type resonated deeply with me. I really like his perspective on what for me is a terrifying subject (i.e. the caprice of episodic memory; it’s almost like a second way of losing someone). I am always on the lookout for keys to unlock the various doors in the sprawling prison of my grief. This is one such key. I share an extended excerpt here in hopes it may give someone else the same comfort in grappling with the slippery issue of memory. I have only just begun the third chapter, but I do recommend this book based on what I have read so far. Rowlands’ take on memory, as he apprehends a profound relationship receding into the distance of time, helps me as I continue to grope for meaning, for comfort, for keys. I found his words powerful (from pages 45-6):
There are different ways of remembering. When we think of memory, we overlook what is most important in favour of what is most obvious. A bird does not fly by flapping its wings; this is merely what provides it with forward propulsion. The real principles of flight are to be found in the shape of the bird’s wings, and the resulting differences in the pressure of the air flowing over the upper and lower surfaces of those wings. But in our early attempts to fly, we overlooked what is most important in favour of what is most obvious: we built flapping machines. Our understanding of memory is similar. We think of memory as conscious experiences whereby we recall past events or episodes. Psychologists call this episodic memory.
Episodic memory, I think, is just the flapping of wings, and it is always the first to betray us. Our episodic memory is not particularly reliable at the best of times – decades of psychological research converge on this conclusion – and is the first to fade as our brains begin their long but inexorable descent into indolence, like the flapping of a bird’s wings that gradually fades in the distance.
But there is another, deeper and more important way of remembering: a form of memory that no one ever thought to dignify with a name. This is the memory of a past that has written itself on you, in your character and in the life on which you bring that character to bear. You are not, at least not typically, aware of these memories; often they are not even the sorts of things of which you can be conscious. But they, more than anything else, make you what you are. These memories are exhibited in the decisions you make, the actions you take and the life that you thereby live.
It is in our lives and not, fundamentally, in our conscious experiences that we find the memories of those who are gone. Our consciousness is fickle and not worthy of the task of remembering. The most important way of remembering someone is by being the person they made us – at least in part – and living the life they have helped shape. Sometimes they are not worth remembering. In that case, our most important existential task is to expunge them from the narrative of our lives. But when they are worth remembering, then being someone they have helped fashion and living a life they have helped forge are not only how we remember them; they are how we honour them.
I will always remember my wolf brother.
So there you have it. The most inspirational thing I have read in a long time, and entree for me, a reluctant visitor, into the land of memory and meaning. My fear of the photos, of the past, is really the terror of my memory betraying me, which of course, it will. It betrays us all. But what of this other form of memory, the indelible one? Well, that brings me full circle to my #1 coping mechanism: forging a new relationship with Alec. You see, he can’t be gone. He is written all over me.
Live. Love. Honor. Remember.
Musical postscript: Certain songs sometimes attach themselves to posts as I am working through them. One of the theme songs for this post is Regina Spektor’s “Us” and another is “Oh, you are the roots that sleep beneath my feet…” by Bright Eyes:
You are the roots that sleep beneath my feet
And hold the earth in place
Each time a faucet opens
Words are spoken
The water runs away
And I hear your name
No, nothing has changed
Roots, statues, love carved into us like poems… as I sort through the fragments of images and lyrics that float to the surface of my consciousness, it occurs to me that these are all metaphors for the same thing. This thing is too big for the words I could use to describe it, but I can feel it in my bones, where it has settled, permanently.