Remember, Remember

Thursday, November 11, 2010

I had plans for tonight's post. Plans like a giveaway. Plans like reminding you to thank a veteran. Plans like the usual upbeat nonsense I usually write about.

And then someone dies, & everything else stops mattering.

My best friend's uncle died tonight. If it sounds like a distant connection, it's because, to some extent, it is. But I knew him well enough to cry when I got the news today, to stop what I was doing & feel numb, not just for my friend & her family but for him & the memories I have of him.

I have a terrible memory. It's one of my worst qualities, I think, & the one that scares me the most about myself. I forget everything just about as soon as it happens; I don't remember the order of events or who was there or what we said or did. I often see old photos on Facebook & think, "When on earth did I do that?" but am too embarrassed to ask. My friends retell stories of times past, & it's like I've got social amnesia. Not only do I not recall the chronology of the events, I often can't remember the events' existence.

My memories of Uncle Tom are recent; if there are any older than this spring - & of course there are - they're lost in the abyss of my vault of a brain. But two very recent memories of him remain fresh, two memories that have fallen to the front of my mind with a dull thud & have stuck there. This spring, I was home for a wedding & at a local bar with my mom, where my best friend's father's cover band was playing. The place was full of family friends & the parents of kids we grew up with, a live flashback in which I was suddenly & bizarrely old enough to have a beer with the adults who used to babysit me. When I saw Tom & his wife Ann, they asked me a million questions about my life & were genuinely interested in my answers. I remember being flattered that they wanted to have a real conversation with me, & I felt very adult for it. Take the new job, they advised &, adding their words to the collective wisdom I was gathering on the issue, I did.

When I saw them next, they wanted to know all about it. They were in D.C. on vacation & had asked my friend if she thought I might like to go to brunch with them. I told my roommates, "I'm going to brunch with my best friend's aunt & uncle," & the connection seemed strange to them - but not to me. I met them at Open City on one of those truly, devastatingly hot days the District experienced mid-summer, & we could hardly breathe. Tom, newly retired, told me about the door-to-door work he was doing for the Census Bureau & all the crazy people he encountered through it. They paid for my meal & on the way out, I urged them not to try to drive into Georgetown themselves on a Saturday evening, despite Tom's protests that he'd be fine. I later learned that they took a cab & were glad they did.

I didn't know this man well, & I always feel guilty writing about people I don't know well. Who am I to speak to his life & his contributions? But I know this: I was struck by the newness of my memories of him & the way they affected my reaction to his death. I'm grieving for my friend, of course, & for her family, who is like a second family to me, but I'm grieving for him, too, in a way that feels quite real & personal & not just tangential. I just saw him. He was so happy & had so much to say, & it was the first time I felt like I knew them as people & not just as my best friend's aunt & uncle.

What is it about memories that, when someone dies, makes us say "But I just saw him!" & replay as much of that memory reel as we can, no matter who they are or how we knew them? And most importantly, how do I retain those memories? How do I hang onto all the things I know - & recover all the things I've lost - so that when the people I love pass away, I'm not left with a gaping hole where my memories of them ought to be? I'm so afraid of forgetting people before they're even gone, & I'm afraid that when they're gone, I'll have nothing to remember them by, no way of knowing what I knew.

...but I just saw him...


  1. My dad just passed this past May (ironically, his name was Tom) and I was there for his last two weeks and when I got the call that he was inching closer to Death's door faster then expected my aunt and I rushed to get to his house so that I could see him before he forgot who I was. My aunt and I and his best friend as well as hospice were by his side on a near constant basis giving him meds and making sure he was comfortable and also watching his once strong body congeal into a weak shell. I left the day of the night he died and I am just now getting anything of his from his house from my uncle and it's very hard to capture memories when they have a tendency to fade faster than photographs. I'm very sorry for your friends loss and I hope that you send my condolences and my prayers are with everyone affected.

  2. This was a beautiful honor to your friend's uncle. I'll be thinking of you and she and her family....

  3. People in your lives touch you, no matter how well you did or didn't know them, no matter how much time you spent with them.

    I recently had someone I loved die -- she was my second grade teacher, a mentor throughout my young adult life, and went to my church. She wasn't family, I hadn't seen her in a while, but that almost made it worse. She held a place in my heart like this man did for you, and I'm sorry that he is gone now.

  4. Wow, I just felt goosebumps all over my body. I understand this feeling so well... but I just saw him... sometimes it doesn't matter for how long or how well we have known somebody, the realization that this person is forever gone from this earth can hit us quite unexpectedly.

    I am sorry for your friend's loss... and for yours.

  5. I think we remember the memories and the person by writing down the experiences, sharing information about them (a la this post) and keeping them in your heart for as long as you can. <3.


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