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.


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.




4 Responses to THE RIVER OF MEMORY

  1. Jeff Egerton says:

    Patti, thank you for reposting this. Sharing a pebbles toss into the water to watch the ripples is as important as sharing the sadness that touches the soul. Sadness may diminish over time but the ripples are always there.

  2. Hi, Patti:

    When we first made contact through this Google+ site, I was well aware of who you are. I didn’t comment on or mention your high-profile family because I felt you were seeking contact with others (writers in particular) on a more even basis. Please don’t take that as a negative comment; I just believed you wanted others to accept you for who YOU are.

    All that said, I have the utmost respect for your late father and your mother. I am a former combat Marine who served in Vietnam during 1967-68. Agree or disagree with the war (and I do believe now our country was wrong getting involved in what I consider Vietnam’s civil war), it had a tremendous impact on our country, and basically defined a generation. I was 18 & 19 years-old during my combat service. I came home severely wounded, and also suffered for many years (still do) with PTSD.

    Using a time-worn cliche, I turned lemons into lemonade and began using my experiences to launch my career as a writer. My first published book was a memoir of my experiences as a young Marine in Vietnam, and its effect on my life. The book remains in print after more than twenty-plus years (currently with Simon & Schuster/Pocket).

    I’ve gone on to write historical fiction, a semi-autobiographical “literary” novel (a sequel of sorts to my Vietnam memoir), and am currently writing a mystery series for Seventh Street Books (affiliated with Random House).

    I’ve rambled way too long. The gist of this comment about your post is that I can emphasize with your loss, and the way one has to deal with it. My mother passed away a couple of years ago, also from Alzheimer’s. For the last two years she was a child living with her mom and dad and two older sisters on the banks of Massalina Bayou in Panama City, FL, on the FL panhandle coast. It was sad to see her sinking into her past life, but at the same time, I believe she found comfort in her own little world.

    I now have my own demons to face — the horrors I experienced in Vietnam as a teen-aged warrior, the way my country trained me and turned me into a killing machine, losing a huge part of my humanity in the process. No blame here. I joined willingly and with both eyes wide-open. I make no excuses, and I seek no sympathy. It was MY choice.

    Anyway, in closing, if you’d like to see my body of work, you can check out my Amazon author page:

    I consider you a friend, Patti, and I hope you feel the same. I don’t seek any favors from you. We grew up in vastly different worlds, but I believe we’ve come to experience several shared life events.

    Here’s wishing you and yours all the best.

    Your friend,

    (E. Michael Helms)

  3. One of your most moving and universally touching essays.

  4. Greg Lewis says:

    There are times we feel our life experience is utterly unique. Yet matters of life and death have troubled our species since the beginning of Homo sapiens. Unique, that’s phooey. It’s the antithesis.

    Thank you for your keen perpective.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *