Category Archives: Memory

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

A past that has written itself on you.


Impossible to remove, erase, or wash away; permanent: indelible ink.
Making a mark not easily erased or washed away: an indelible pen for labeling clothing.
Unable to be forgotten; memorable: an indelible memory.

“Our consciousness is fickle and not worthy of the task of remembering.” (Rowlands, 2009, p. 46)

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.


Filed under Grief and loss, Memory

So many jackets…

. . . so many forgotten cookies to be found in the pockets. It happened again today. I grab an old rain shell from the closet that I hadn’t worn in a long time. When I put it on, I feel something in the pocket. My hand closes around the Buddy Biscuit. And I remember. I remember everything. And I start to cry. It’s unexpected, like the cookie. It is a grief burst. I take the cookie man out of my pocket, put him on the table, and see that he’s broken. I try to put him back together, cry a little more, and then continue out the door with Teagan. I carry on with my day. But I don’t forget those broken pieces, that smiling cookie, my lost friend.


Filed under Grief and loss, Memory