Memory ‘loss’: a failing or a release?
Memory is a Thin Place, at times a deep, dark forest, equal to any National Park. What lurks? On Christmas, my 91-year-old uncle called to say Merry Christmas. I returned the sentiment and simply waited. He said he’d been calling many people and I was the only one who answered. He had tried calling my mother (his sister), who’d died 20 years ago. He said he’d tried reaching his parents. I said they died many years ago. I did give him the number of my 86-year-old aunt who was likely at home. He asked what her husband’s name was. It told him and said he’d also died years ago.
“Have we talked lately?,” he asked. I said yes, we talked yesterday when you called to wish me happy 70th birthday. He was surprised.
“Really, we talked yesterday? I don’t remember that.” I said, “Yes, you were amazed that ‘Little Danny’ had suddenly gotten old and told me, ‘Wow, 70, really? You’re still a boy in my mind.’”
He did not seem embarrassed or agitated by this mix of the past and the present, the living and the dead, the remembered and the forgotten. Indeed, his sister, his parents and yes, Little Danny were quite vital in his mind, “alive” in a certain way.
That very day, I’d been reading the psychologist James Hillman’s 1999 book on aging, The Force of Character. It’s quite a radical take on what are often seen as the failings of old age. He turns them into other understandings and opportunities. About this kind of memory “loss,” he says it’s a release and relief from the tedious details and differentiations of adult life which are no longer needed. This lack of discrimination helps you do your late life work of slipping into that thin gauzy place of The Ancestors, where you are blending, blurring, fusing with the whole Family Tree; that the activity of late life is a digesting process, a weaving, tasks quite different from those of mid and early life.
I cried a bit after we hung up, not so much sad, as touched to have contact with this time-traveler. Recently, I remembered the long-gone phone number of my grandparents: Genesee 8 5009w. It’s now in my iPhone contacts.