Yesterday in class, my students and I discussed the function of memory in multiple modes of storytelling: fiction, nonfiction, and metafiction.
One of my students, experiencing the lovely disequilibrium of learning, said, “Miss, my brain hurts from this. I don’t know what’s real anymore.”
I love those moments of learning. Sometimes, though, discussions in the classroom hit too close to home. In this case, the discussion of memory brought to mind—all too sharply—my memories of a year ago. In the words of one of my students, those memories “stop time and hold the memory for reflection.”
Thursday of this week marks a year since my grandmother’s death. My brain and heart have been locked in a continual struggle for the past few weeks. It began on Christmas Eve when I couldn’t stop thinking that, a year ago, I should have called her on her last Christmas, but I didn’t.
On Christmas Eve, I was a physical and emotional mess. I didn’t want to be around anyone. I couldn’t stand being in my own head. I couldn’t stand thinking, because every thought led back to the memory of the morning when my mother called me and told me Ma had broken her hip and would have to have surgery. Every reminder of her—there are several in my home—led to the memory of the exact moment when I knew my grandmother would die. I remember where I was: my living room, playing with my son. I remember the sound of my mother’s voice, and the way my thoughts slowed down: she is too old to fall and break her hip; she will not make it through this. I remember the way my mom, despite the reality, tried to soften the blow: things look good, she’s going into surgery.
I remember her home—for all intents and purposes my childhood home. I remember her yard. I remember knowing beyond any doubt, in that moment when my mother told me she had fallen, how it would all end.
All of this is true.
What is not true is that if I had just called her last year on Christmas, it would have altered the whole series of events. One phone call could have made the difference—what if mine had been that call?
It is also not true that if I had flown back while she was still alive and in the hospital, she would have rallied back to health and been alive to meet my son—her great-grandson, the one who bears her husband’s name. I still remember how she reacted when I told her what we were naming him: “Aahhh! That’s your grandfather’s name!” And my response: “Yes, Ma, because it’s the closest I can get to naming him after you.”
No matter my anguish, or the ferocity of my wish to have her here, to have had the chance to introduce her to her great-grandson, it is undeniably true that were she still alive, she would be suffering, and in pain. My spry, feisty grandmother would resent the confinement of a hospital or rehabilitation facility. She would resent immobility.
Daily, I resent my lack of memories. I can, in my mind, recreate her home around me, inch for inch. I can recreate her yard, her beautiful lilacs—my paradise, now gone to make room for a housing development—just by closing my eyes. What I want, though, is the clear memory of the day on which someone (likely my mother) took a picture of my grandmother, my sister, and me together in the shade of her lilac bush. All I have is the picture.
I do remember sharing afternoons with my grandmother on her back porch, swinging slowly in her glider, talking of whatever. I remember the smell of fall and how she burned leaves in a fire crackling in the carcass of a burned-out barrel. I remember her humming. I remember some of her stories of childhood. I remember her making snow cream. I remember the oddity—and the smell—of her ice crusher. I remember the smell of her. I remember my grandmother as I knew her.
I feel like now, instead of holding those memories for reflection, I am squandering them. I feel like some of the memories are already slipping through my mind like water rushing through a sieve. I want to write every one of them down, preserve them for all of the rest of my days.
But I worry about not remembering everything right, about not being able to perfectly articulate what it felt like to be loved and cared for by one of the strongest women I have ever known. I feel like my student, the one not able to tell what is real anymore.
Even if memory is a reflection, it is such a very poor substitute for reality. It is such a limited way of telling the truth.