Thoughts At Large

Passionate thoughts on random topics

Category: memory

Hard Drive

My heart, like a hard drive, is permanently partitioned. Part of it comprises my 26-year marriage, the raising of my children, the hopes and dreams I had, and the sickness and death of my wife. The other part is unwritten upon, ready for a future I can’t even begin to understand. The problem is that at any given point it can switch between partitioned sections rendering my personal operating system glitchy and subject to crashes.

Such was the case this past week. While performing within normal parameters, my system suddenly switched to the hidden partition, and it has left me grief stricken and paralyzed. There was no warning. I understand that this switch was not the result of bugs or a virus. It is the result of a significant loss and the fact that I know I will never be whole again.

The hard part of all of this is that while attempting to begin a relationship with a woman, my first since I was 22, this wave of grief has me questioning whether I am being unfair to this woman; if I am incapable of giving myself wholly to another given my permanently partitioned heart. The grief tsunami that hit me this week, like all others before it, came without warning. There needn’t be a trigger. More likely, it was a thousand paper cuts, memories rising up during the past few weeks, poking me in the heart, not causing any immediate damage but collectively, over time, shattering my heart again. Now I am emotionally frozen, inextricably operating in a painful past, and incapable of addressing the present or the future.

I like to write because, while I assume that no one will ever read what I write, it usually helps me to understand my position on a topic or my underlying feelings if I put them down on paper (or up on a computer screen). However, while this usually is the case, dealing with grief is a topic no reasoning or processing can vanquish. I was incredibly sad for several days over the past week. It seems that every small event over the past few weeks correlated to something either my wife did, we did together, involved our kids, or it was something we planned to do together. Today I find myself bridging the realms of sadness and anger, perhaps on the path toward processing this wave and getting on with life, perhaps not. Perhaps these steps lead nowhere. Perhaps I will transition back to sadness, or onto negotiation, maybe even onto acceptance. I don’t know how to end this note. All I know is that I am stuck where I am, and no good wishes or caring hugs can hope to dislodge me.

Tony Webster, the protagonist in Julian Barnes’ excellent book The Sense of an Ending comments at one point that he “avoided being hurt and called it a capacity for survival” and “for whom ecstasy and despair soon became just words once read in novels.” He is a character who, like all of us, has a faulty memory, and has used Time to smooth out the jagged parts of an ordinary life to put meaning to his existence. I have never been one to live in the past. In fact, because of a terrible memory, I remember very little about my past. You would think that would force me to live in the present, to appreciate those around me, to smell the roses and embrace those around me. However, while I did not live in the past, I neither lived in the present. I did not appreciate those around me and assumed daily events had no significant bearing on my expectations of the future I believed would exist. No, I tended to live in the future. Everything I did was for some future date. At 15, I had figured out that in the incredibly far off year 2000, I would be 35, imagining what life would be like. I have always faithfully contributed to my 401(k) in the expectation that I would cash it out at some point and travel the world with Lisa or buy a two-room shack on a beach somewhere to live out our lives together. Now I find that I live in the past. Not the archetypical love of any lost high school glory, but of my life with Lisa. Even after eight years of caring for her as she underwent one barbaric medical treatment after another, and experiencing her withering and eventually dying while our children and I sat around her, I cannot help but to relive the life we lived together as a couple and a family and lament paradise lost and a future that will never be.

And so, awash in memories and residing in the past, my permanently fractured hard drive (my heart) is expected to give over control of the operating system to a brain that understands that life goes on. A mind that knows that while these waves of grief will never recede and will continue to destroy me forever, the troughs between them will, over time, expand, and it is in these troughs that I am expected to forge a new life and build a new future. It all seems so logical for a computer system, but my heart bleeds blood, and my eyes cry tears, not bits and bytes. Makes me wish I were a computer sometimes. I don’t know how to end this note. It just is what it is.

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My Shifting Memory

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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.