It’s Giving Tuesday and we all have our charities to which we prefer to donate. I’m partial to the Parkinson’s Foundation, the National Cancer Institute, a few local concerns like the library and the Deltaville Maritime Museum, and the St Francis Breadline in New York City, the oldest continuously operated breadline in the country which feeds over four hundred people a day, every day, since 1930.
And the Dementia Society of America (which is in Doylestown, Pennsylvania). There is something about someone who used to be so sharp, but isn’t anymore; someone who had nearly perfect recall but no longer does; someone who confuses night and day, parents and offspring, movies and reality, that has a subtle existence just in the margins of our lives, quiet souls, who prefer to remain on the peripheral so as not to be a bother, but as such, often go unnoticed.
Not being able to remember and forgetting are not the same thing. The first carries the conviction something never happened at all while the latter is a cognitive trick of memory—I remember it occurring I just can’t recall the details. We all forget things, all the time, and the older we are the more likely things dissolve into some hazy once-was, like a movie we once saw but long ago forgot the plot, or a story someone told us instead of the plotline we ourselves lived out. Hopefully, our lives are filled with memories, and we are glad to recall, since there is no point in being sad at remembering happy events. But Milan Kundera is right when he says the biggest struggle is between memory and forgetting.
If I could take only one memory with me when I move into an age of forgetting, it would be walks to the river, my son on my shoulders, the sun on my back, those moments. Or the times we went fishing when he was four, never catching a thing and never caring. Or maybe the sound of house wrens just before dawn, or the whippoorwills just after dusk. I’d like to take that feeling of an open fire on my face and the cool night on my back. Or the sound of my father’s voice telling me to sleep well. Or my mother’s laugh, the way she takes a long breath. I’d like to forget all the times I got angry, all the times I was critical, and replace them with the memories of all the times I listened to the sound of rain on the canvas awning at our home when I was a child.
I know I’ll want to remember one more time the foghorns on the Great South Bay drifting through the air, my brother and sister still asleep, my mother making coffee, my father in his bed. I take it the grand design allows we forget the minutia as we age, but I’ll salvage what I can. Sometimes now when I am out for a walk, I stand at the water and wonder where everyone is. And I look up the coast and imagine my childhood friends, now adults, sitting with their families, reading the paper, watching a movie, most likely long ago forgetting what we did when we were young. But I’m glad they’re there, just a few decades north of here, somehow still part of some shared memory.
I like remembering the way my son laughed uncontrollably when he was two and I chased him across a field. Or the echo of the speakers at my high school football game, or the sound of cars off in the distance when my friends and I would hang out in someone’s back yard or neighborhood street on a Friday night, laughing, telling stories about nothing at all. The train whistle on some lonely stretch of forever in eastern Siberia, or the bells of St Esteban’s Church just north of Pamplona, when we wandered the rafters and rang the oldest bells in Navarra.
I will never remember it all, but I can remember—forgive this—clear as a bell some people in particular, their every laugh, their every movement, and also the places, the backstreets and lesser locales, all of this despite the endless ringing of noise and cities and traffic and talking and on and on.
That is why I remember to get up early in the morning. I like to listen to that pre-dawn stillness which in no time at all a thousand voices will disturb. I like the way the sun holds off a while, almost as if it asks permission to spill across the sky. And then slowly the silence creeps off and hides behind some trees somewhere just before the phone rings, before the traffic picks up, before it is time to track time again and multitask.
I spend some of the morning looking forward to the day and some of the day remembering, but mostly I prefer to simply be present as the sun comes up and the morning flock feeds behind the oyster boats on the bay.
And I like the steady rain in the late afternoon. My son and I take pictures of the local waterways just about then, or we are home throwing the football; on those days neither of us can catch the slippery skin, but we don’t care. We are so much in the moment, eyeing down the ball, blinking at the wetness on our faces, knowing we’ll be inside and dry soon enough, soon enough indeed. I am sure I will remember those days. I am sure I will.
I celebrate memory. This is not to say I don’t spend the majority of my time planning and moving forward to what’s next. I very much do; I have to. It is just that in the early morning, before the sun has had her say, before I am about to walk into the realm of a thousand voices and the movement of life, I like to remember that it’s been a good ride so far. We all like to remember that. No one thinks ahead and contemplates a complete loss of thinking back.
And anyway, there’s too much to remember if a life is well lived. The length of a lifetime from the beginning looks nothing at all like the brevity of that life from the end, like standing on a diving board terrified to leap, knowing you have to anyway for all the others lined up behind you waiting to have their chance. It’s your turn so you jump despite the fear of how far it is to the water, but when you “rise again and laughingly dash with your hair,” you look up at where you started and think, that wasn’t so far at all.
It isn’t far at all.