In her book Blue Nights, author Joan Didion says that memories are not comforting. She expresses her resentment concerning comments from well-meaning friends who say they hope her memories bring her comfort. She says no – they do not. They simply remind her of what she no longer has. Of course, she is writing this as she grieves her daughter’s death. And in that context, she is correct.,
I, too, am grieving. So, I recently read Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking, written about the year after her husband’s sudden death. Then I dove in to Blue Nights. Next, I will most likely revisit C. S. Lewis’s, A Grief Observed. That’s one of the things one does when grieving – you read about grieving. And those things written about grieving are often written by those who are grieving.
Back to the subject of memories. Memories are important to me. I was the recipient of many family heirlooms over the years which hold special memories for me. I feel blessed to have had a large family including wonderful grandparents and many aunts and uncles with whom I was close. My special possessions include: Aunt Maxine’s uncomfortable arm chair; Granny Thomas’s sofa which I have had recovered three times (and the last time it had to practically be rebuilt – but I spent the money to rebuild it because it was so sentimental to me); Uncle Carl and Aunt Dorothy’s photo albums and WWII memorabilia (they had no children.);a quilt from my Aunt Bea; the dresser that was my father’s when he was young man; and my sweatshirt and hat from Girl’s State my junior year in high school. And, of course, I have boxes of my children’s photos under the guest room bed; their preschool drawings carefully folded in a large manila envelope; baby clothes wrapped in tissue paper and stored in a trunk – you get my point. In addition, for more than a decade, I worked for the Alzheimer’s Association and my work revolved around the premise that memories are precious and the loss of memories a tragedy.
Nevertheless, I understand Joan’s point. You see in these weeks after my mother’s death I find myself waking at 3:00 a.m. thinking of that last week of her life. I go over every detail of the week and the days just after. I recall the phone call informing me of the incident that began the final trajectory of her life. I remember the recognition in her eyes when I told her she was very ill and we were not going to be able to make her better. I go over the last few days when she did not awaken and we sat by her side listening to her breathing and wondering when she would breathe her last. And I recall the service: who attended; who did not; the flowers; leaving her for the last time. And part of me wants to NOT recall those details – at least not every single morning at 3:00 a.m.
I find myself recalling a particular Christmas sometime in the late 80’s and a quick conversation with my mother. I remember it was just past noon and I was playing with our recent purchase, a video camera. I was filming the beautifully set holiday dining table and the kids playing with their new toys. My mother was in my kitchen assisting with preparations for Christmas dinner. She reminded me it was about time to mash the potatoes and I tersely commented that the potatoes could wait! And I feel sad and ashamed that I answered my mother in such a hateful manner. I haven’t reviewed the video- I didn’t dig it out of the box it is stored in and play it again. The memory simply popped in to my head the other day – a video in my mind – along with my profound regret at having spoken to her in such a way, over a simple comment about mashing potatoes.
After I go over the last days of her life at 3:00 a.m., I move on to the last few years. I recall moving Mother from her home to assisted living. I recall my agony even though my siblings and I discussed the options at great length and realized it was the correct decision. I also recall how much my mother missed that home and her church and her neighbors. I recall every illness, every fall, each trip to the E.R., and every hospital stay. I recall every milestone that marked her increasing frailty.
I have to dig deep and really force myself to recall the good times. Memories like Mother’s first trip to New York City with my sister and me. I recall her delight in buying a hot dog on the street, her excitement when she purchased a Christmas sweater at Saks Fifth Avenue, the expression on her face as she watched a Broadway musical. I remember her joy at having special alone time with her grandchildren when she kept them while we were out of town. She loved telling of their exploits while Grandma was in charge.
The mind is a strange and wondrous thing – but it is a muddled mess when one is grieving. Didion says when a parent dies something deep inside us is dislodged. She also says it is normal to feel raw, fragile and unstable.
In these weeks since my mother’s death, so many things are difficult. I have a hard time in social situations – I have to force cheerfulness and conversation. Sleep is difficult – I wake frequently and have strange dreams. Chores are looming and I can’t seem to summon the energy to get them done. Thus, it seems logical that it would also be difficult to recall the good times, and to focus on the happy memories, during this raw, fragile and slightly unstable time. I so hope Joan found comfort in her memories as time passed. I, for one, am glad I have them, like a gift, waiting to open them when the time is right, when my emotions are not so tender, when my heart is not so sore.