Sunday, July 10, 2011

On memory

An e-mail from D: It is common not to remember things, she writes. For months, all I could remember of M was his illness, and that may be why I didn't want to write about it. Now I can remember other, much nicer things, like certain cute facial expressions.

Unlike D, I found it necessary to write about Dan’s illness. I took my good auditory and visual memory and wrote down everything that had happened to us. I recalled kind, helpful medical staff, and strange, uncaring things other hospital staff said to us. I remembered times when friends had saved me, times when other friends had broken my heart. That way, I didn't have to keep remembering it. It would be there, if I ever needed it, but I could stop thinking about it.

And then it was May, nine months after Dan’s death, and the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts was opening at Bard College, where I worked. We staff members were comp’d with tickets to a couple of performances, and my friend M went with me to a concert. 

Sitting in the larger of two theaters, waiting for the concert to begin, I found myself thinking of how pleased Dan would have been with this place, and how fascinated. M and I were content to sit and look around us at this new theater, to watch people coming in, finding their seats, greeting one another. Dan would have been skittering up and down the stairs, checking out each balcony level for future reference. He might have tried the elevator once, but otherwise he would have walked, long strides that took him to every available corner. 

Then he would have reported on it all to me, and the “old” Dan would have been excited at what this new venue offered. The later Dan, the one whose brain was being attacked, “like a defenseless monastery on the shore,”* would have found something wrong with it, as he did with me, with everything, in the few months before his illness became visible, and he lost speech. 

But I wasn’t remembering that. I was back with the real Dan, the one who was interested in everything. Dan would have loved this place, I said to M, and she looked sad. No, I said, it’s OK, it’s a happy memory. 

I had changed right there, that night. I could once again remember happiness. 

*”Picnic, Lightning,” by Billy Collins.


  1. After my father died, my small nephew asked me who was going to heaven, his real grandpa or his sick grandpa who could no longer recognize his grandchildren. Of course I told him his real grandpa went to heaven. Years later he told me my remark was a comfort and helped him to keep all the happy memories, not the sad ones, regardless of heaven.

  2. I am thinking of Dan today, remembering how funny he could be. How he liked rum on the rocks. How lapsed was his Catholicism. he makes me smile. —Linda

  3. As always, I really like this. But I have a question -- is M male or female? I think you refer to M as he early on, but as she in the end -- thus my confusion.

  4. Sorry for the confusion. I thought that by referring to "my friend M" I would distinguish her from D's husband M, who is deceased. I'm uncomfortable putting friends' names on the Internet.

  5. Being able to "remember happiness" amid grief--what a sane and happy thought. Thank you.
    George Held

  6. Beautiful. Nine months. Nine months to be born, and nine months to remember happiness.