For the first few months after my dad’s passing, it was really hard to talk about him and even harder to recall memories, vivid, detailed descriptions of my father and poignant times past. Because with the memories came the obvious grasp that my dad is gone. It was the very definition of bittersweet. Sure, there might be laughter and the subtle shape of a smile, but inevitably there’d also be tears and the realization that this is where the memories ended.
But as the months passed, remembering and recounting tidbits from my childhood, my dad’s sayings and jokes and other memories started doing the opposite: they started bringing me a sense of peace. Not an overwhelming wave of calm, but a small token of serenity. I also knew very well that talking about my dad meant honoring his memory and his presence in the world.
In her beautiful memoir Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading (stay tuned for my review!), Nina Sankovitch writes about the importance of words, stories and memories…
I was in my forties, reading in my purple chair. My father was in his eighties, and my sister was in the ocean, her ashes scattered there by all of us in swimsuits under a blue sky. And only now am I grasping the importance of looking backward. Of remembrance. My father finally wrote out his memories for a reason. I took on a year of reading books for a reason. Because words are witness to life: they record what has happened, and they make it all real. Words create the stories that become history and become unforgettable. Even fiction portrays truth: good fiction is truth. Stories about lives remembered bring us backward while allowing us to move forward.
The only balm to sorrow is memory; the only salve for the pain of losing someone to death is acknowledging the life that existed before.
At first it seems unlikely how acknowledging a lost loved one’s life by looking backwards inches you forward. But Sankovitch writes:
The truth of living is proved not by the inevitability of death but by the wonder that we lived at all. Remembering lives from the past ratifies that truth, more and more so the older we get. When I was growing up, my father told me once, “Do not look for happiness; life itself is happiness.” It took me years to understand what he meant. The value of a life lived; the sheer value of living. As I struggled with the sadness of my sister’s death, I came to see that I was facing the wrong way and looking at the end of my sister’s life and not at the duration of it. I was not giving remembrance its due. It was time to turn myself around, to look backward. By looking backward, I would be able to move forward…
Are you familiar with Dickens’s The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain? The protagonist is haunted by various painful memories. A ghost, who is essentially his double, appears and offers to remove all his memories, “leaving a blank slate,” Sankovitch explains. But it isn’t the glorious, pain-free existence the man imagined. After he agrees to be rid of the memories, “all the man’s capacity for tenderness, empathy, understanding and caring” also vanishes.
“Our haunted man realizes too late that by giving up memories, he has become a hollow and miserable man, and a spreader of misery to all whom he touches.”
The story does conclude with an epiphany and a happy ending: The man realizes that this isn’t a life, and he’s allowed to break the contract and get his memories back. (And since it’s Christmas, he also spreads holiday cheer to others.)
This story reminds me of something researcher Brené Brown writes about in her powerful book The Gifts of Imperfection: Letting Go of Who We Think We Should Be and Embracing Who We Are: Just like the man in Dickens’s story is relegated to an emotionless existence after his memories are purged, the same happens when we try to choose which feelings we’d rather feel.
Brown’s research, which is the basis for her book, showed that “there’s no such thing as selective emotional numbing.” Instead, you get the same blank slate as Dickens imagined. As Brown writes, “There is a full spectrum of human emotions and when we numb the dark, we numb the light.” She observed this first-hand: “When I was ‘taking the edge off’ of the pain and vulnerability, I was also unintentionally dulling my experiences of the good feelings, like joy…When we lose our tolerance for discomfort, we lose joy.”
Not only do we lose joy and other positive emotions, but we gain indifference. Which is a very scary thing. As Elie Wiesel has eloquently said:
The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.
To me, what’s worse than the bittersweet reality of the memories and the realization that the memories have ended with my father’s passing is the blank, unfeeling, unempathetic, uncaring slate. It’s the equivalent of ignoring my father’s life and the richness he brought to everyone else’s. To disregard the memories is to not only shelve the sadness of his passing but the happiness, vibrancy and joy of his precious life. It’s to snub my father of the sacrifices he’s made and the impact he’s had. And that’s not a life worth living.