Friday, April 30, 2010

Memory and Memory Eternal

My father-in-law has been forgetting things. In fact, in the last many months he can't remember most events longer than a couple of minutes after they take place. If they happened 60 or 80 years ago there is a good chance that he will remember them, but what one would call his short-term memory, that which he is losing, is broadening in scope. Ten years ago he often told us stories about things that happened 10, 20, 30 years previous, and I heard some of those stories enough times to remember them myself.

One had to do with his old leather jacket. We were at the assisted-living place where he lives, about to go out to dinner, and I wanted to take his recent favorite jacket home to launder, so I handed him another old favorite to put on. As we took the elevator down and signed out at the front desk, he got several compliments on his appearance. I told the concierge, "He and his cousin both bought leather jackets in Spain when they were on a trip there together more than 30 years ago."

"I did?" he chuckled. "I'm glad you remember these things." I remember some other stories he used to tell, but lately I hear new stories, from further back. Even his daughter was surprised to hear, when the conversation at a Christmas gathering turned to pets, "We always had fox terriers." She didn't know anything about a fox terrier tradition, because the dogs of her childhood were dachshunds and schnauzers. But W. was referring to the first dog he remembered, when he was a boy, named "Spot." And he's told us a few times since about Spot.

When we passed a purple house on the way back from a doctor's appointment one afternoon, he said, "That reminds me of a woman in our church who we always called 'The Purple Lady.' Everything she had was purple. I haven't thought of Mrs. Finnegan for a long time." That was a church of his childhood, 75 yeas ago. It's as though the loss of one data set has forced his mind to resort to a long-neglected mine of memory if it wants to keep busy.

One tale that is like the overarching First Story of his life, sweetly involves his wife, my late mother-in-law. And it happened when he was only about five years old, so I hope it will be the last one to be forgotten. Their families were friends--an aunt and uncle had even married--and they lived only a couple of blocks from each other. W. came by and walked F.K. to school on the first day of Kindergarten. They were always companions, never dated anyone else, and married when they were 21. The picture was taken in 2nd grade, cropped from the class photo where they were sitting next to each other.

W. has some good habits, which trump the rational; that is, he doesn't have to remember to do these tasks. On another laundry-gathering visit, I asked him to take off his clothes and put on clean ones right then, so I could take the dirty ones home. When I came back into the bedroom, he had neatly folded the pants and hung them back on their hanger on the doorknob, and hung up the shirt likewise. Because he always does. And he had already forgotten why he was changing his clothes in the middle of the day.

He has a habit of being friendly and gentlemanly, so that he kept trying to help ladies scoot their chairs up to the table even when he was becoming unsteady on his feet. And he cracks really funny jokes--new ones--in the emergency room or anywhere there are people, strangers or friends.

God only knows if I have any good habits that will remain when I lose my mind's faculties. How many pair of pants needed folding before it made a habit that endured? If I start now, building the habits I think might serve me, or God, is it too late?

I once heard Wynton Marsalis exhorting young people about the power of the daily habit of practicing their musical instruments: "Every day you go around making yourself into you." We are not what we dream of being, we are not our vision of ourselves, or God's plan for us, but a collection of usually little, seemingly insignificant acts that add up to a unique person.

I see people I love weaken and become confused by the afflictions of age and the loss of memory, like Vivian, who asked her daughter, "Am I myself?"

"Yes, Mom, you are."

But there are people who don't seem to know themselves, and certainly multitudes who have forgotten their own important stories. One aunt of ours thought she was in her right mind, but did not recognize her own daughter, and told her she was an impostor. 

The possibility that I might forget important people, forget who I am, is certainly disturbing. It happens to a lot of people, being another way we are not in control, even of our own memories.

The scariest thing imaginable is to forget God. When Christ said to "take no thought for the morrow," surely this thought was included! I have to quickly move on, and rest in the belief that it's more important for God to remember me, than for me to remember Him. And I pray He will not soon forget someone who has tried to "stick to Christ like a burr to a coat," as Martin Luther's wife Katharina is said to have resolved.

Recently I read Tolkien's "Leaf by Niggle," which added a new dimension to my musings on this mysterious unknown toward which we are all headed. Niggle and his art are eventually forgotten by everyone on earth, and what he accomplished in his life "down here," which was always less than he should have done, and always incomplete, has faded somewhat from his own memory. God remembers him, though, and makes use of Niggle in surprising and grand ways. What Niggle learns of Love becomes a story, a work of art and even a spiritual retreat, called by his own name, that continues to benefit souls out of time.

In the Orthodox Church we sing a simple hymn, "Memory Eternal," at the end of memorial services, and in me it is a prayer for just this wondrous kind of thing God can do, to wrap us up in Himself and carry us through whatever shadowy places we encounter, whether in our minds or along our pathways, until our minds and hearts, and all things, are made new in that heavenly and everlasting Kingdom.


M.K. said...

Thank you, GJ! I enjoyed it again :) I especially liked this line: "to wrap us up in Himself and carry us through whatever shadowy places we encounter." That is certainly what he does. And if forgetting things, even who we are and who our loved ones are, is a result of the fall in this world and ourselves, then certainly in the new earth we WILL know both very well. I am sad when I hear Christians speak of eternity and be concerned about whether they will be themselves, whether they'll know their own life, whether they'll remember their loved ones. Of course we will!

Anonymous said...

That first photo shows a very happy and open child. Sounds like he is still that way, even with the forgetting. Hope you will write down the stories- they're good stories, and you're a good writer :)


Gumbo Lily said...

A beautiful story. Thank you for honoring W. this way. You do a good thing.


Left-Handed Housewife said...

I love the pictures of your FIL, especially the one with his bride-to-be (he looks awfully rakish!). I saw an older man at the grocery store last night--he was probably in his mid-80s--and I wondered if he was widowed, and where his family was, and how much longer he would be able to care for himself and drive. There was something about him that made me sad (he was frail, and alone), but I also admired him. It takes courage to be old, I think.


Cathy said...

This reading blessed me. The aging of parents, the memory's mysteries that only the One who made the brain and its memories can fully fathom, and mostly the Eternal Father who in His mercy and love could never forget us.

I love it when I visit my mother these days and she speaks of Jesus...I am praying and thinking that even though the heavens could not contain Him, yet He live in us,the Holy Spirit will make itself known even if our minds may be shaky. I can hope anyway.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

You will not forget God. Will NOT happen. The faculty that is aware of God always knows Him, from our earliest days, perhaps even from the womb.

You may forget how to say His Name, but your awareness of Him is spiritual, not mental, and will remain through everything, including death.

P.S.) Conversation with my father about 3 years ago:

"Am I losing my mind?"

"No, you're loosing your memory. You still have your emotions, your sense of humor, your judgment..."

"How do you know?"

"Because I can SEE them still there, and so can you!"

Chocolatesa said...

Thank you Anastasia, that reassured me!

GretchenJoanna said...

I was so blessed and comforted by your comments, Anastasia. Your point of view seems to be the obvious Orthodox one, which evidently hasn't soaked into me deeply enough yet to be intuitive. But I have been thinking about the reality with joy ever since reading your comment. Thank you!

M.K. said...

Just enjoyed reading this again, dear. Very precious.

Thistle Cove Farm said...

Gretchen, this is a lovely post, full of wisdom yet poignant in its delivery. We are aliens, heading toward that distant land where we will, fully know, even as we are known now.
As children, we were never shielded from death, human or animal, and, as a society, we've lost that touch of agrarian life that, for centuries, has stood us in such good stead. I mourn that loss. Granddaddy died when I was six; I well remember and there have been many, many more deaths since. All of them, I've accepted without question; all of them except Dave. It's his I mourn and grieve the most. That has left an emptiness of losing half of myself while the other deaths of family and friends meant I lost family and friends. It has been so vastly different and not to be fully explained.
If I lose my memory, will I forget God? I think not but even if I do, I've made my peace with Christ, accepted Him as Savior and will spend eternity in Heaven. Even so,
I'm ready to go but I'm not homesick. -smile-.