Andrew Sullivan’s quote of the day often is a pithy sentence chosen for its chutzpah, self-unaware vacuousness, hypocrisy, or oblivious inconsistency with reality.
The beginning and the end of today’s much lengthier quote of the day, from a Marilynne Robinson novel, form a stunningly thoughtful meditation on loss, which captures the yearning pull of memory:
“Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it. . . . There is so little to remember of anyone — an anecdote, a conversation at table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long. . . .”
I think the mechanism is the same when there is so much to remember of someone.
Some people experience a condition known as Hyperthymestic Syndrome, in which they can recall every bland autobiographical detail of each day of their lives.
Ordinarily, more intense, out-of-the-ordinary and traumatic memories are accompanied by a rush of stress hormones that tends to fix them differently, as a neurobiological matter, in the brain.
During his medical training, my husband Jim once encountered a patient with Korsakoff Syndrome–likely oversimplified by me as the inability to form short-term memories, perhaps the neurological opposite of Hyperthymestic Syndrome. Jim would introduce himself to the patient, have a conversation, and have to repeat the entire process every time he saw him.
Like most people, I fall somewhere in between these styles of memory-keepers, although I tilt heavily towards the bizarrely detailed recall of the seemingly ordinary.
In this regard Jim referred to me as an idiot-savant (although I always unsuccessfully lobbied for him to drop the “idiot” part). (It is not that he did not derive any benefit from marrying someone with a brain quirk that could track and commemorate any relative’s birthday in his large Irish Catholic family.)
But I have always felt that my brain clutter–which includes the names and birthdates of every distant acquaintance’s children, what book I was reading on any given day of my life, what my children wore on just about any day in their childhoods, and what Jim and I had to eat every time we went out during our many years together–surely must be crowding out important information which my synapses instead could be helping me learn and maintain.
It’s as if my brain is an intractable hoarder.
I wonder if the depth of grief is in part a function of style of memory. If memory “is the sense of loss,” what happens when there is no end to the anecdotes and conversations I remember; the still-lingering nuanced faces my husband made and the words he spoke–as well as the words I saw him keep to himself; the ordinary days which I can replay in daylight and dreams but we cannot revisit?
Even my dreams seem a cruel trick of memory, because there the subconscious turns those infinite memories “over and over” and lets Jim become flesh again and find his way home, but only briefly, and in such vivid detail that my mind seems to be manufacturing new memories with him even now, and then waking and taking him away again.
In a recent dream, after a day contemplating the unfathomable idea of making a new home without him, he was back with me looking at a house for us to move to together–a house with blue-indigo walls, which I have never actually seen.
(c) 2012 Stephanie M. Glennon