Think back on your life. What do you remember? When I do that, I find that it is not enough. Of my father, for example, who died more than twenty years ago, my memory holds but meager scraps. Walking with him after his stroke, as he leans from the first time on a cane. Or his glittering eyes and warm smile at one of my then-infrequent visits home. Of my earlier years I recall even less. I remember his younger self beaming with joy at a new Chevrolet and erupting with anger when I threw away his cigarettes. And if I go back still further, trying to remember the earliest days of childhood, I have yet fewer, ever more out-of-focus snapshots: of my father hugging me sometimes, or my mother singing to me while she held me and stroked my hair.I know, when I shower my children with my usual excess of hugs and kisses, that most of those scenes will not stay with them. They will forget…(b)ut my hugs and kisses do not vanish without a trace. They remain, at least in aggregate, as fond feelings and emotional bonds. I know that my memory of my parents would overflow any tiny vessel formed from merely the concrete episodes that my consciousness recalls, and I hope that the same will be true of my children. Moments in time may be forever forgotten, or viewed through a hazy or distorting lens, yet something of them nonetheless survives within us, permeating our unconscious. From there, they impart to us a rich array of feelings that bubble up when we think about those who were dearest to our hearts – or when we think of others whom we’ve met, or the exotic and ordinary places we’ve lived in and visited, or the events that shaped us. Though imperfectly, our brains still manage to communicate a coherent picture of our life experience.
The above passage comes from Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinow. Mlodinow's book is an accessible overview of how our brains work. The unconscious is not a Freudian realm of repressed desires but is instead an autopilot, receiving information and processing activity that would overwhelm us if we were conscious of it. The above passage comes after Mlodinow discusses the tricky nature of memory, as seen in faulty eyewitness testimony and unintended revisions after the fact. But the passage hit me hard for another reason.
This Monday, my Aunt Juleann is moving to an assisted care facility. Though only in her late 70's, Juleann has had Alzheimer's for the last few years. What had manifested as some forgetfulness and good days versus bad days is now at a point where she needs constant supervision, and from more than one person. I love everyone in my family, but Juleann was always special. Knowing that she is slowly fading away even though she is still physically here has been heartbreaking. The nature of memory, both her's and mine, has been much on my mind. Soon she won't remember and I'm afraid of forgetting too much. The affection will be there even if the memory of the individual reasons for it are gone, or as Philip Larkin put it:
...and to proveOur almost-instinct almost true:What will survive of us is love.