How we remember
I have a few memories of my mom and dad that recur more than others. I sometimes wonder if they could be tricks of the mind: the kind of trick in which we conflate actual memories with family photos that happened to be on a shelf during our childhoods, or the family stories that have been told over and over until they burnish into images, then memories. Sometimes, too, we can bend memories into the ones we want.
The image of my mom that visits me—like a ghost of sorts, but a happy ghost—is of her relaxing on the deck of her home in California, gin rocks in hand, a cigarette gracefully following her story telling, an explosion of red and orange bougainvillea spilling in around her—a veil of color she had planted and cultivated into a sanctuary of sorts.
Sometimes the image in my mind shifts in place and time, but the bougainvillea always follow her. She might be in a little African coastal town—Malindi or Mombasa—watching the Indian Ocean roll towards her. At other times, she is on the terrace of the Norfolk Hotel, friends and laughter abound, gimlets on the table, the bougainvillea and purple flush of jacaranda trees nearby filled with smoke and conversation. It is a scene I know is from a lost time and place, but one that in my mind’s eye feels as if it were yesterday.
With my dad, it seems we are often in a duck blind, eyes to the sky, fog lifting and marsh sounds playing out around us. The conversation is slow, almost cryptic, but comfortable. That’s how he was. He wasn’t a big talker. He was a doctor; he listened and observed, then healed for a living.
What is alarming and heartbreaking for those who have lost their parents is that so many of those moments are lost to time. Having two older children and one younger child, I am always surprised by the joys—little and big—that pop up out of nowhere each day. It might be watching them laugh wildly with their college friends about something, anything. Or it might be seeing them excel at work, or finding someone they love, or maybe just finding a little treasure in the grass, eyes lighting up with the possibilities. I’m sure I had those moments and memories with my mom and dad; they were in my life for 36 and 32 years, respectively—that’s in the neighborhood of 12,000 days. How many memories were made in those 12,000 days? Many more than 12,000. How many can I draw on now? The truth is not that many.
The process of forming, storing, then retrieving memories is really the gist of our lives. The complexity of that process is mind boggling; the more I read, the less I understand. What I do understand is that memory at its most basic level is about connections.
While we generally think of our brains as monolithic entities—the black box through which we perceive and understand the world—in reality, brains comprise 100 billion cells, formally called neurons. They are packed together but with tiny gaps—40 nanometers (a human hair is 75,000 nanometers wide)—between them. When events happen to us, a given neuron’s electrical potential changes and chemical messengers are released that bridge the gap and bind to another neuron, changing the electrical state of the receiving cell. That cell might fire and stimulate a different cell, or it might not. So, a given event will be defined in our memories as an ensemble of specific cell connections (called synapses).
When we recall an event, that same ensemble of neuronal connections is re-activated. Considering that we have 100 billion neurons, and each can make up to 10,000 synaptic connections, we’re talking about a 1,000 trillion potential connections. That’s a lot of potential memories.
How and why certain memories are stronger or weaker than others gets even murkier, at least, for me. What I do know is that repetition strengthens a given memory.
If a tennis player hits 100,000 backhands over time, the ensemble of firing neurons that represent the motions of a well-hit backhand becomes not etched in stone, but fortified, if you will. They are easier to reactivate than say the collection of connections that might produce a forehand that has only been practiced 1,000 times before.
So, in a way, memories can be self-fulfilling prophesies. The more you recall a given memory, the stronger and easier to recall it gets.
It is perhaps both the beauty and the tragedy of our memories that they are not perfect. Some memories, or parts of memories, get weaker. We tend to, whether consciously or not, soften the hard edges of our memories.
At first glance, one might think that memories and what I sometimes feel is a scourge of our time—Instagram—are analogous. In a sense, Instagram is a way of documenting life, which, as a writer, I can respect. However, Instagram is not really life; it is curated life. The ugliness has been deleted, or just not recorded. And it is life curated for effect. Sometimes that effect is to feel good about the way others see us, or more often than not, it is an effort to monetize that curated lifestyle.
Memories are different because the hard edges of our lives are still there, just harder to retrieve. For example, my romantic image of my mother on a terrace under a veil of bougainvillea has to be tempered with the weaker memory that the cigarettes gracing her happy days did end her life early (at 62). It’s as if some truths hide in the footnotes of our memories.
For life to be real, imbued with emotion and passion, it has to include the totality of existence and truth, all of the memories, not what we want to see. If I am being true to my memory, I would also recall that my mom was always equanimous about the realities of her smoking. She was an ER nurse and knew the statistics and studies. While she came of age when cigarettes could do no harm and were nothing but glamorous (1950s), she also lived through the great reckoning of tobacco and its harms. So, it was a choice, not one that I liked but one that I remember her making.
Debra Gwartney, in an essay titled “Fire and Ice,” writes about the dying of her husband and writer, Barry Lopez. As he declines towards death, she has a longing for one last memory, the knowledge that at his final few moments draw near he still knows who she is. When he puts his palm on her face and whispers her name for the last time, she is flooded with relief and a sense of peace.
Part of that peace is having created one last memory to cherish as she moves through life alone. But another element seems to be a desire to know that he is taking the memory of her wherever he’s going. It’s a natural enough instinct: to feel that the moments before we die is the apotheosis of our lives, that the sum of what we feel, remember, know, at that moment is what counts.
But I don’t think the bedside moment is the apotheosis. It would be too sad. Too often memories fade long before the body. Whether through dementia, Alzheimer’s or other cognitive declines, parents forget who their children are, who their spouses are, who they are even. The time to celebrate memories is along the way, not at the end.
When the time comes, will I remember the feeling of a 4-year-old in my arms, hanging on for everything, desperate with love? I hope so, but if not, the consolation is that I know now that there are few things better, sweeter, and, yes, more heartbreaking.
As it happened, I did not see either of my parents take their last breath. For a while I felt bad about that. But I’m almost certain that is not the lasting memory they would have wanted me to have.
Here’s what I do remember: My dad taught me to listen, to learn, to think, and then to do the good that I can. My mom taught me to open up to the world, to let it flow in—laughter, love, children, and all the complexity that ensues.
If I forget all else, I can live with that.