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Death Finds a Moving Memory

Updated: Jul 10, 2022

After COVID concerns subside and government barriers are broken, I suspect there will be a mad dash to create moments with others that require no more than an arm’s length of space.

A Cahaba Lily

We should strive to create moments with others. Yet, be mindful that moments are subjective experiences that those involve interpret according to who they are and their self-agendas. The question, “what does this moment mean to me?" can be misinterpreted as an objective one as if any “me” would come to the same conclusions. You live long enough, you get to see the past teach new lessons not because it changes, but because you change and see it through new eyes.

My father passed on Feb 4th of this year. However, this essay is not about grief or regret. It is about the cognitive construct from which burdensome emotions and fond affections emanate; this is about memory. Memories are fickle; an advantageous character flaw if the side-effects of reframing the past is wisdom and emotional prosperity.

In my cognition course, I often tell students the story of a woman with “perfect” (i.e., hyperthymesia) autobiographical memory. To have uncanny access to past moments sounds tempting, but it comes with a price. We do not realize how much of our relationships are supported by time diluting past moments by weakening our access to the vivid details. Of course, some stains fail to fade. However, for some – albeit the lucky ones – an inconsiderate act, mean comment, or neglectful behavior may lose its sting as time passes. Letting go means allowing an experience to recede back into the corners of your cognitive attic, not necessarily forgotten, but difficult to access. Hyperthymesiacs do not forget. The box of hurtful interactions sits in the living room and is spilled out over the floor every time they enter the room. Every item in that box is in mint condition; the corners are still sharp and the warning labels have not lost their shine. In short, our flawed memory is a blessing; a merciful kindness towards the management of our social lives. In some respect, you are the memories you create, those past instances that others hold on to as mental monuments of the impressions you left.

In grade school, my father would come home from work. He would stop his pick-up truck at the entrance to our cul-de-sac and wait for my brother and me to race up the hill to jump in the truck bed. All that effort for a swift breeze of southern air that left an indelible mark on my childhood. But time brought rival moments for my attention and that southern air chilled for a season.

My view of my father is dependent on which memories rise to conscious awareness and that depends on choices I make about who I am and how I want to perceive him. Remembering is part remodeling, but only with reclaimed wood and vintage furnishings. A new look for old things. Maybe, you steady those past details, but reinterpret their meaning. Or, perhaps you let it all fade to that place where names of new acquaintances often go after the first introduction.

My father’s death did not begat burdens of the past. Such things faded into frailty in my mid-twenties. Since then, I have only been mentally juggling positive paternal moments that fill in my image of my father in colors of understanding. His death reminds me that living would be simple in isolation, but it would be vapid and joyless, lacking those profound moments that happen when we are no more than an arm’s length apart.

Cheers, James E. Marsh

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