THE RIVER OF MEMORY
This is an article I wrote for Life magazine in 2006 when it was a weekend supplement in many newspapers. I wrote it on the second anniversary of my father’s death. Someone on Twitter just asked me about it, and I dug it out of my file box. There was no e-version of Life magazine so I decided to re-print it here.
THE RIVER OF MEMORY
In the back of my address book I keep a list of birthdays and anniversaries. Beside it is another column of names and dates — a shorter list, with only the basic marker of time recorded. These are the dates when loved ones of close friends died. The name next to each date is not that of the dead but of the living — the person who will wake up to a day that feels different from all the others and who will feel a little better if someone else remembers too. So I call or e-mail to let them know I do remember.
Not every relationship is close enough to warrant a gesture of this kind, hence the brevity of the list. But I have a small group of friends who, even if we haven’t touched base in a while, do so on those dates.
I am occasionally forgetful about birthdays and wedding anniversaries, despite my list and my best intentions. Yet those anniversaries are ones I don’t forget. They are tender and complicated days — ones that nobody wants to go through alone. As anyone who has lost a loved one knows, we tend to define and measure ourselves around that one point in time — who we were before, who we became after. The loss of a parent, a child, a partner or spouse redefines us and continues to do so year after year. It’s a strange and haunting alchemy.
The he grew up near a river was one of my father’s last enduring memories after Alzheimer’s wiped away the others. Because I came to see the river as emblematic of life’s currents and death’s undertow, I find myself meandering back to that metaphor. I imagine those of us who have been left here to mourn sitting along a riverbank, tossing stones into the water, studying the predictably concentric ripples, and talking freely about the unpredictability of our feelings. The heart always surprises. It’s more willing to crack open than we expect it to be, and what floods in is never under our control. We feel isolated in our emotions until someone else listens and says, “Me too.”
In ways I don’t fully understand, the second anniversary of my father’s death was harder than the first. The days leading up to it felt sodden, weighty; tears were always just under the surface of my composure. To some it will sound strange that I felt my father in every gust of wind, heard him in the movement of leaves as breeze swept through the trees. But there are those who know exactly what I’m talking about.
“The second year was harder for me,” a friend of mine said. He lost his son to a drug overdose three years ago. “The first year it still feels new. By the second year, the reality of the loss just sits inside you. The permanence has hit you. It takes you to a deeper, darker place.”
Another friend lost his mother two days after my father died; she too had been ill for years. We spent a long time on the phone that June, talking about how death always feel surprising, even when you’re anticipating it. And about all the emptiness that’s left behind — the places once filled up by a life. My friend has also found this second anniversary harder. He’s been looking through photo albums, needing to remember, but knowing he would never forget. I could hear in both our voices that we felt lighter by the time we hung up.
Death is an awkward subject. It’s a language none of us feels fluent in, no matter how much experience we’ve had. We reach for words and hope they’re the right ones. What matters, though, is the effort. It matters that someone else is thinking about you on a day that might, over time, get easier but will always be heavier than the rest. It matters that a friend shares how he’s gotten through his own sad anniversaries. It’s how we help one another across rough terrain. The world moves on, we all know that. But anyone who has lost a loved one knows you never move on from missing that person. We want someone else to remember too, so we’re not sitting by that riverbank alone.