Memory, redux.

“Hold on to the corners of today, and we’ll fold it up to save until it’s needed. Stand still. Let me scrub that brackish line that you got when something rose and then receded.”

–John K. Samson, “Watermark,” Lyrics and Poems, 1997-2012


Now that I have opened the floodgates to a subject I had been assiduously avoiding, I might as well dive in with both feet. Besides the two kinds of memory discussed in “A past that has written itself on you,” I think there is a third, which may or may not be real but in which I have decided to believe –another recurring theme in my Alec writings, just like that iconic poster in Fox Mulder’s office:

i want to believe

The literary term “redux” means “brought back, restored, revived.” Between our faulty and unreliable episodic memories and the indelible bone deep “memory” of a past that has become part of our essential self are the memories that live in our subconscious, sleeping away. Because we can hold only so much data in the accessible regions of our brain, these other memories slip into our subconscious, into the locked vaults. But they are still there. And we do hold the key. Even if we don’t know how to use it yet. That is my theory. And in knowing how episodic memories inevitably fail and deteriorate, I think of the vaults as sort of a safekeeping device. Even if we cannot — and perhaps, more precisely, because we cannot — access them at will, they are preserved. If we could access them they would fade, become distorted, and succumb to the other perils of episodic memory. But because they are safely tucked away they remain intact, pristine.

You may ask, what good are these memories if we can’t access them, if indeed they are locked in our subconscious. They may as well not exist at all then, right? Well, yes and no.  I believe we should be comforted knowing (or believing) these memories are there, knowing that if we kept banging on the door to get in and view them, we would ruin them.

I think if we ever REALLY need those memories we can have them. But I also believe if we pull them out to much to look at them, they will start to fade and disappear. This is another (or maybe the main) reason I avoided the photos for so long; I want them to be fresh, and repeated viewings of any static item inevitably make it stale. But this slip into distortion and staleness, like the episodic memories, is unavoidable. It’s what time does, and our memories and photos are just artifacts. They are not the thing. “The thing” lives in our bones. But what about these memories sleeping away in some hidden corner of our brains? Ah, what of them?

I had a conversation with my friend Sophie sometime after Alec died. She had a special relationship with her dog Promise, which seemed similar in many respects to the bond Alec and I had, and she struggled with losing him too soon (to cancer as well). One day she mentioned she was at a stage in her grief where she was starting to forget the little details (the feel of the fur, the weight of a paw) and this realization was of course upsetting to her. I was in a different stage, one where I could not even think about Alec. This stage lasted quite awhile for me. I kept shoving my thoughts and emotions down when they came, batting them away reflexively, because I simply could not deal with them. It was a stage characterized by numbness and denial.

While Alec was sick, while he was dying, I wrote furiously in my journal every day. Toward the end I feel like I was writing in it almost constantly. Nothing profound, just details, details, as if I could contain him in the pages. It was a lifeline for me. After he died my journal turned into a crazy place that made no sense. Sporadic entries scrawled large across the page in some insane person’s handwriting that I didn’t recognize. I eventually stopped trying to write (until I tentatively stepped back onto this blog). But during this time of non-writing, I would sometimes record little details about him in a notebook, terrified I would forget.

Around this time, as I was lying in bed trying to fall sleep, an image popped into my mind of the soft wispy fur on Alec’s chest between his front shoulders, how it felt, the way I liked to press my cheek against it. Random. I snapped on the light and jotted it down in my notebook (always this faith that words will save me).

That night I had a vivid dream, in which I was pressing my face to Alec’s chest. I could feel his soft wispy fur against my cheek. It seemed so real. When I woke, up it felt like a gift. And that’s when I created my theory — that our brain contains it all, even without us writing it down. It comforted me, so I kept it like a charm. And I told myself that even if I didn’t dream about him every night, there was always the possibility it could happen again. And that it would feel just as real. The promise of a secret world. We take our comfort where we can, and to me this was a tiny balm during a very bad time. I did not examine this too closely, just trusted it and tucked it away.

Since I now believe in ghosts (we take our comfort where we can), I talked with various animal communicators and also just people who are open to that sort of thing. I was distressed I did not see Alec or feel him around me after he died. I read lots of accounts of this happening. Why not with us?? Especially when the only way I got through his death was to tell myself we would still be together; we just had to figure out a way to cross the great divide. (No, I don’t care how nutty that sounds; this is how I kept myself going and it felt like the only option at the time.) Anyway, that really bothered me. I had full expectation I would feel him after he died. Even if it was my wishful mind conjuring him, whatever…I didn’t care that much. That distinction would be something to worry about later, but later never came because I never saw him! Why didn’t he come back to haunt/visit me?** Didn’t he LOVE me?? Etc!

**I pray one prayer. . . may you haunt me, then!…I know that ghosts have wandered the earth. Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! It is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul! — Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights, p. 167

It was suggested to me by more than one person that I might be trying to hard. This could be my problem, why I could not sense him. So I tried not trying too hard, but you know how that goes. (Warning: this is where things get pretty woo woo.) Someone also told me that when our “vibration” is high we are more likely to connect with the spirit world or whatever. High vibration means basically that we are happy and in a positive, peaceful place. We would be vibrating at a low frequency if we are miserable, depressed, angry, etc. So this lady said being too depressed and sorrowful can interfere with our attempts to connect  with…well, I will just use “ghosts” as a shorthand, but I mean this whole other hypothetical world that we cannot see. And I think this is also related to the memory issue. More on that in a minute. I promise this is going somewhere.

That was sort of a roundabout introduction to talking about CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed, which was sitting on my coffee table for about a year before I finally got around to reading it. I really liked it. At just 76 pages, it’s a slim volume that documents his personal struggle with the universal issues that affect us all when we lose a profound love, and his grief,  like so many, is complicated by the special factors that make each relationship unique. Although much of Lewis’s struggle revolves around him questioning his god and faith in the aftermath of the death of his beloved wife, many of his reflections resonated with me.

In Lewis’ case, he and “H.” – the great love of his life – had only been together a short time when she was stricken by cancer. It was as if they had waited their whole lives for one another and then, just when they finally found each other, were ripped apart. Lewis was a deeply religious man and his faith in god was shaken by the circumstances surrounding her death. While I did not question “god,” I did question my whole existence (something I had not done with such verve since high school) and these existential questions can be as, if not more, alienating I think. Lewis eventually finds his way back to god, but the existential questions have no comforting answers, at least not to me. (I am also reading Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Maybe it will help! I am still looking for answers though I suspect none will be forthcoming.)

Anyway, it’s a good book! Highly recommended for the bereaved, especially those who find comfort in reading about other people’s experiences, as I have. Long introduction! So this passage (on pages 44-46) reminded me of the themes I have been trying to unpack above. For Lewis, bad day follows bad day follows bad day until, on this particular day, he finally experiences something different:

Something quite unexpected has happened. It came early this morning. For various reasons, not in themselves at all mysterious, my heart was lighter than it had been for many weeks. For one thing, I suppose I am recovering physically from a good deal of mere exhaustion. And I’d had a very tiring but very healthy twelve hours the day before, and a sounder night’s sleep; and after ten days of low-hung grey skies and motionless warm dampness, the sun was shining and there was a light breeze. And suddenly at the very moment when, so far, I mourned H. least, I remembered her best. Indeed it was something (almost) better than memory; an instantaneous, unanswerable impression. To say it was like meeting would be going too far. Yet there was that in it which tempts one to use those words. It was as if the lifting of the sorrow removed a barrier.

Why has no one told me these things? How easily I might have misjudged another man in the same situation? I might have said, ‘He’s got over it. He’s forgotten his wife,’ when the truth was, ‘He remembers her better because he has partly got over it.’

Such was the fact. And I believe I can make sense out of it. You can’t see anything properly while your eyes are blurred with tears. You can’t, in most things, get what you want if you want it too desperately; anyway, you can’t get the best out of it. ‘Now! Let’s have a real good talk!’ reduces everyone to silence. ‘I must get a good sleep tonight’ ushers in hours of wakefulness. Delicious drinks are wasted on a really ravenous thirst. Is it similarly the very intensity of the longing that draws the iron curtain, that makes us feel we are staring into a vacuum when we think about our dead? ‘Them as asks’ (at any rate ‘as asks too importunately’) don’t get. Perhaps can’t.

I love this! It’s the same idea as the vibration thing. And this notion that trying too hard, not only to commune with the dead but also to remember them (in itself a type of communion), can be a block to that which we want so desperately: to be with them, and/or failing that, to remember them with precision and in living color. Consider these, my favorite sentences in that lengthy passage:

  • And suddenly at the very moment when, so far, I mourned H. least, I remembered her best.
  • He remembers her better because he has partly got over it.
  • It was as if the lifting of the sorrow removed a barrier.
  • You can’t see anything properly while your eyes are blurred with tears. You can’t, in most things, get what you want if you want it too desperately…

There is something here, some measure of comfort, right? These words help us to persevere, knowing that something better waits as we move into another stage of our grief (not a shameful word but a lifelong process! As much a part of life and love as anything else). As we fumble for meaning and secretly fear that feeling happy is a betrayal (this creeps in even as we know it is irrational), we might do well to realize that those first tentative steps into sunlight, rather than carrying us farther away from our loved one, may in fact be one of the keys to the kingdom we feel we have been locked out of forever.


Filed under Ghosts, Grief and loss, Memory

5 responses to “Memory, redux.

  1. Susanne

    I wonder…how I got to this point. One yr ago…I lost my Gibson. He was a snow white mini schnauzer. He was just 2-1/2 when he died. I have never been so devastated by any single event in my life. I feel shame saying those words, but I also know them to be my truth. I too lived alone. I got him at 7 weeks. We were inseparable except when I worked or left to do a day of chores, etc. and he went to my friend’s home who also ran a small doggie daycare. He loved her dearly and he was absolutely a dog’s dog…he loved being with the other dogs, the running, the barking, the digging, the playing. My sister found the ‘breeder’ who had placed an ad in the newspaper and called to make an appointment to pick a dog for my mother who had recently lost her husband. She knew how much I had loved my first schnauzer and called to tell me about the schnauzers this woman had. It was something I had considered a few times since my Siggy had to be PTS at age 13. I just couldn’t. But somehow it seemed right at that point (Sig had been gone for 14 years) and my sister told me the woman had a couple of white ones…so I too made an appointment. Gibson was only 2 weeks old and was the first puppy I held. I remember feeling the calmness of his spirit, he curled up under my neck and he was mine. What I did not realize until I made an unexpected stop at this ‘breeder’s’ home was that she actually ran a puppy mill. She just kept it mostly hidden…even though I wondered when I first held Gib, why he smelled so horrible. She lived in a very small home…maybe a 1000 sq feet and I saw at least 75 dogs and puppies there that day, with cages stacked 3 high. I didn’t really know what a puppy mill was at that time, but I was haunted by what I saw. Gibson was born to an overbred mama, he was the runt of 9. I could not even consider leaving him there…but he and I both fought for his life constantly as a result of his beginning. He had 2 major surgeries by months of age. He barely survived a raging intestinal parasite that he had when I brought him home. He had ear mites so bad his hearing was affected in one ear, he had vision issues, and I had to work magic to get him to eat most of his life…and he was hospitalized for intestinal issues twice … on IV’s to keep him alive. He would have good spells and despite all his ills, you would never know it at those times. He played and ran and loved life like no other. He was so ‘alive’, so beautiful, so loving and he wanted to live, he gave so much to so many people and I believed we would overcome his problems. Our bond was deep beyond any I had known. We were a pair, a team, he was my everything.
    One day I took him to daycare…and he stayed overnite as he often did and I was going to pick him up around noon…we were going to the park before heading back home. I was about to step in the shower when my phone rang. Before I answered, something traveled through me, something sharp and knowing, something steely and alien. My friend cried ‘I can’t find him! One of the gates was somehow left unlatched and the dogs all got out…and they all returned, but Gibson.’ I was so calm. Words were somehow like little floating things that came from my mouth but had no emotion. I quickly dressed…because that’s what you do in such a situation. But I felt this quiet inside…I felt this evident non-urgency and yet I acted in accordance with the facts. As I drove nearer, my hopes began to spring forth, he’s running in the fields, he’s returned by now…and I kept my eyes roaming the neighboring properties and fields watching for the bounding white that I would retrieve and take home with me…safe and secure. As I did so, I saw along side the road…a tiny white, still body…donned in beige football sweater…no movement. I remember thinking ‘that’s Gibson’…and yet…I drove right by. I was on a very busy country road…but I slowed and decided to back up…to go grab him before …. before what? I don’t know. I don’t remember. I just know I lost my senses and had to get to him…somewhat oblivious to the traffic danger I was creating. I backed up. I couldn’t tell where he was. I backed into a neighboring driveway. I saw him in the rear view mirror. I got out. I went to him. My Gibson was gone. He was there waiting for me to come take his sweet little body away from that place and bring him home. There was dried blood from his nose, from his right ear. It wasn’t real to me. I was in shock. And then, I looked up and realized that I had very likely run over him with at least one of my tires as I backed. I will never know if I did it or not…but his belly was opened…and lay before me. I still write this reality here and disconnect from all that it means, indicates, says to me. I went for a towel…brought it to him and wrapped his body in it and picked him up, cradled him in my arms and suddenly I raised my head and screamed into the heavens. By then my friend had found me…and she calmed me slightly and I took him and we got in the car…he in my arm and I drove to the daycare. A friend came to take me to the vet to be cremated. I never let him go…I kissed him over and over, cried tears from the hell of my soul, talked to him, touched to remember, then handed him to the vet tech, took his collar from his neck, she clipped some fur for me…and as she walked away with him, I collapsed to my knees, wailing. He came back to me 7 days later in a small tin with his name jotted on the top. We came home. My life was altered in those few moments. I will survive, I have survived, I will go on, but I will never be the same. I lost my Gibson…my heart is broken.
    For months, nothing mattered. I didn’t eat…I lost nearly 20 pounds in 3 months. I wept nearly continuously, I didn’t sleep and when I did it was short intervals. Reality played with me. I can’t explain it but somehow in those first days, I thought every set of headlights was someone coming to bring him home…that it was all a mistake. I walked the streets and parks where we walked, over and over…I found a couple of his chews and one of my gloves. So I became obsessed with finding things he had left behind. I never found anything more. There is too much to write…I apologize for trying to say what I need to say…in this forum. I just loved your article, I felt like you were the first person in over a year that truly understood what I have been living with and could perhaps help me end this ongoing devastation I feel. I did many things to get me to this day….and I would love to write more…but I get weary easy…my health is not so good at this time. I just want you to know how much I love your words, your heart, your beautiful german shepherd, the truth that you spoke about your greif…and what a gift it was for me. I designed his urn, I created an extensive memorial garden last spring, I now have a FB page that honors pets and helps those grieving a loss of a pet…and it is done in his name. I would love to help others as it was so difficult for me to find anyone to talk to, to help me through. My grief became intense and disabling. I scared myself with my pain….with my inability to accept the truth….with my guilt, with my recurring nightmares, with my emptiness, with not being ready for it to be done, I wasn’t done, my baby was dead and I wasn’t there to save him or to say good-bye…and his death was so violent and I had crazily mangled his precious body even more as I tried to get to him. I don’t know if I will ever sort it all out and stop the tears. I have Symon now…he is the one thing that keeps me fighting…he needs me to be more than a weeping, motionless, heartbroken, emotionally unavailable mom. He came too soon, but it just worked out that way…and so I fight for him. This is all very difficult to write. One year ago March 3rd… I have started to write a bit again. I eat again. My heart is opening to Symon. I love him. I sometimes think I have some PTSD symptoms…and need more help than I have gotten. I just tend to disassociate. I have so much more to say…I would love to write about the process, the journey…in detail. I just don’t think I can go any further now. I am worn from what I have written at this point. I am sorry for rambling so. But I thank you for your words, for your sharing as it gave me a burst of emboldened energy…and a release for some of my most secret truths and pain. Bless you Nicole…and your beloved Alec. He was stunningly handsome and his eyes held knowing. I ache for you loss.

    • Oh Susanne, my heart aches for your loss of your friend Gibson. I am so sorry you lost him in such a traumatic way. I have no doubt you are experiencing some ptsd symptoms (not that I am a doctor! but I read a lot about grief after losing Alec and certainly people do suffer those symptoms especially when they lose their pet in a traumatic or violent way – again, I am so sorry). I can relate to so much of what you said – even down to losing 20 lbs! I had trouble eating after Alec died (and I am the type of person who never loses her appetite, ever). I have shared a lot on my blog but definitely not everything, and I too scared myself with some of the emotions and impulses I felt. Time has certainly dulled the sharp edges of the acute feelings and I have learned to deal with my grief constructively, and creatively, but for awhile I was really in a struggle between moving forward vs. drowning in melancholia. A big part of my healing process as I mentioned was adopting my dear sweet Teagan. It sounds like you have also found some comfort in caring for Symon. Through my work at Animal Legal Defense Fund I am all too aware of the problem and tragedy of puppy mills. Gibson was so lucky you gave him a loving home and never gave up on him despite all his medical issues. I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to share your story and for saying that my post was helpful to you, even in a small way. Seriously that absolutely means the world to me, so thank you. I do understand and I empathize with everything you said and are feeling. I too could write a lot more (and have! as you will see if you peruse my blog :)), but I struggle to keep my posts from becoming novels as my tendency is to have too much to say! It is also really gratifying to hear your kind words about my post because someone on the ALDF Facebook page made a really nasty comment about how I need “lots and lots of therapy” and Alec was “just a dog,” etc. and I know I shouldn’t let comments like that upset me, but I am only a flawed human and of course am very sensitive about Alec and the searing pain I experienced when I lost him. So I am so grateful to hear from people who “get it.” We are connected through our common experiences and that, along with adopting Teagan, has been the most comforting thing to me in this whole process. I hope you found writing somewhat helpful – I know that was a very important outlet for me; sometimes just getting the thoughts and feelings out of your head and onto paper (or computer screen) can be very cathartic and clarifying. On that note, my dear friend and fellow animal advocate Sharon has a lovely website she created in tribute to her beloved beagle Pushkin called “Letters to Pushkin,” which is a space for people to posts letters to their lost animal friends. I can’t read the letters because I cry too much. But maybe it would help you to read others’ experiences and know you are truly not alone in what you are going through! You may also wish to write your own letter to Gibson there. Here is the website if you want to check it out:

      Thanks again for writing and I wish you utmost peace and comfort…I know it will come if you are patient and gentle with yourself. Gibson would not want you to be hard on yourself. He would be proud of you for opening your huge heart to love again and give a forever home to another needy animal, I am sure of that! You should be proud of the love and care you gave him and his death was not your fault in any way, which I hope you know. *Hugs* Nicole

  2. Nicole, I just wanted to check in & see how you are doing? I left Facebook months ago, so can’t keep up that way. I hope you and Teagan are still blissfully happy together. I think of both of you often. ((((East Coast hugs coming your way))))

    • Hi Connie, great to hear from you as always! Teagan and I are doing great, and she continues to charm me on a daily basis. I think often of how Alec would have loved her (and she him) and feel a pang of sadness that they will never meet, but then I remember that if Alec had not died I never would have adopted or known Teagan. But I like to imagine them interacting in that fantasy place in my mind where time folds together and such things are possible 🙂 I hope everything is going well for you and that you are enjoying spring on the east coast!

  3. Susanne

    Nicole…I am so shocked that I have had a reply here from you all this time…and just now came upon it. I am so pleased, so touched and thank you for your words of understanding and all the suggestions. I will need to re-read my own writing, as I have forgotten much of what I sent you…though it hasn’t been so long ago, I tend to have some dissociative issues since Gibson’s death … I find myself having to keep lots of notes, lots of calendars and reminders. I can lose a day without any trouble…writing or working on Gibson’s Facebook page. It’s all healing…and I am coming home to myself more all the time. It was too difficult for many months to be inside my own life…because he was gone. I don’t care anymore what others say…and perhaps I do need years of therapy…but not for the love and devotion and the ensuing grief that accompanies any loss of such. Cruelty comes in many forms…and I got several callous comments about my emotional disconnect and grief over Gibson. I have moved my psychic furniture around…and I am at home with what I feel, have felt and how I will continue to process all this and carry it into my future. Be damned those who must take away from their own lives to only infiltrate another’s with negativity…void of compassion. Compassion is the greatest wisdom. I simply pity them their lack of insight and wisdom. I wish to share more here…but just stumbled upon this…then again, are there any conincidences? It was time….and I am off to pick up my little Symon at the groomers. He has been ill…we are both weary and I need to get him back home and comfy. So I shall return here…and share more of my thoughts…and yes I have written…not much…but it is coming back. I have a couple I would love to share with you. I hope you are well…you were a beacon in my night…dear one. Bless…

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