My Shifting Memory

by thoughtsatlarge

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‘Tis in my memory lock’d,

And you yourself shall keep the key of it.

Shakespeare, Hamlet, I, iii, 85

In an episode of The West Wing, Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman experiences a breakthrough in his repressed, post-traumatic stress disordered memory when he realizes that the sound of music reminds him of sirens following his being shot during an assassination attempt on the president. Pleased with himself, but wary of any ongoing associations, he asks his therapist why he shouldn’t be worried. The therapist, while packing up his belongings at the end of the long session, replies simply, “Because we get better.”

This scene reminds me that while time goes on, if we’re lucky and listening, we understand ourselves a little better each day. So it is with my grief and the grief of my children following my wife’s (and their mother’s) death 80 days ago. We seem to have undergone, while no one was looking, a transition in grieving. We have all felt it and didn’t know why we were being buffeted by our loss differently than before. No longer are we, exclusively, thinking of the night Lisa died or the days and weeks leading up to that day. Rather, because of daily life, we see the future and are having a similarly difficult time grappling with the concepts of never seeing Lisa again and that lasting forever. “Never” and “forever” dominate our thoughts now.

I don’t know where any of this falls on the great wheel of grieving, and I don’t care. I find the entire Elizabeth Kübler-Ross paradigm, as presented in popular culture, flawed. I do not see it as a linear progression, while acknowledging it was never intended to be. However, society seems to think that you go cleanly from one phase to the next on your way to eventual acceptance and a return to “normal.” Instead, I find that through each step of grieving, as we did in our various phases of Lisa’s illness, we establish a new normal each day. Some days string along neatly with the previous while others strike us as different. However, each day presents us with what we consider to be normal. We get up, we shower, we go to work or school. When we repeat this structure enough, it becomes our “normal.” When our thoughts focus on a specific concept of grieving, that too becomes our “normal.” And so, we each seem to have transitioned to the difficult process of understanding and accepting “never” and “forever.” That is not to say that we cannot, at a moment’s notice recall the last night or last few days, but the details are becoming fuzzy around the edges. No longer can I recall the names of all of the medications on which Lisa was dependent at the end. I can recall their color but not their names.

This transition to a new normal also carries with it significant guilt. If I can no longer recall the names of the medications, which were so important to her comfort and survival, doesn’t that, by extension, mean that I am slowly forgetting Lisa? When details fade, it portends an overall and irrational fear that all will fade. When I think of Lisa now, the first thing I think of is not her death or even her illness, but her smile and her laugh. This reordering of thought worries all of us. The mind is an amazing thing, and we carry memories in our mind the way we think we recollect the actual event having unfolded. And what was critically important to me might not have been important to either of the kids, while something so critical to them might have escaped me and faded in my mind before it settled into theirs. This is another form of guilt. How can I not find the important events in my children’s lives important enough to remember?

Memories are ethereal and, ultimately, shapeable. Just as witnesses to an accident fail to make reliable reporters, so too, I find, that our memories morph into something we can easily recall. And each time we recall that memory we recall the memory shaped in our mind, no longer the actual event. Over time, the recollection of the actual event fades, and we can only recall our individually shaped memory. Perhaps that is why I can no longer recall all of the medications. My memory is being reshaped. I would like to think that Lisa has had a hand in reshaping my memory. Over time, perhaps, she will reshape my memory to no longer feel the horrible pain of her loss. It is locked in my memory, and she has the key.

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