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A Few Words on Memories

It’s been a highly emotional weekend for me. After a long battle, my Mom slipped quietly away in the middle of the night last Thursday. My Dad, my sisters Laurel and Heather and I held her hand and stroked her forehead for most of the night as we watched her increasingly shallow breaths. We spent a lot of time reminiscing. It was all horribly beautiful. It was life – and death.

When a parent passes away, you feel like a large chunk of your life has been suddenly ripped away. In my almost 54 years on the planet, my Mom has been one of the constants that has connected the ever changing dots from my birth to today. As I started for the door of the hospital room for the last time and looked back at the tiny still figure on the bed – also for the last time – I realized that constant is gone. I’m adrift. I’m an orphan (my Dad is actually my stepdad). I’m at a loss for words.

Maybe that accounts for the huge wave of nostalgia that hit my sisters and myself this weekend. We realized that a significant piece of our lives was teetering on the edge of a precipice – slipping away from our grasp. We were desperate to freeze it in our memories, securing it for the future. When so much was slipping away, we needed to hang on to what we could. So, we wandered the streets of the small Alberta town we all grew up in. We snuck into our old high school, looking for the locker we had in grade 8 and sitting in the desks in the classroom. We tried to find our grad photos. We were even going to knock on the door of the house we all grew up in, 30 some years ago, and see if the new owners would let us take a quick look inside. But then we decided that was just a little too creepy.

The more past you accumulate, the more important it becomes. This is especially true for your childhood. We all need to know where we came from. One of the most touching discussions I’ve had with my Mom I had a month and a half ago. I was asking her about her childhood. As she remembered, her face transformed. A small smile fixed to her lips, she sunk into a warm remembrance of a post war childhood in Southern Ontario, safe in the embrace of an idyllic home town (that has since become a sprawling suburb of Toronto), family card games with the laughter of the grown-ups fueled by gin and tonics and summers spent “up north” in cottage country.

“It sounds like a good childhood,” I remarked.

“It was a good childhood. A really good childhood.”

She then closed her eyes and napped for a bit. I watched her sleep. Life is short. Life is sad. Life is good.

My Mom, as a little girl in Ontario

My Mom, as a little girl in Ontario

So, I have some fundamental questions. For those of us of my generation or older, childhoods are reconstructed from mostly bad photographs, old letters and our memories. None of these are terribly high fidelity representations of reality. But this can be a good thing. It allows us to fill in the blanks, emphasizing the highs and forgetting the lows. For most of us, it gives us the childhood we wished we had, which can be very comforting 78 years hence as we lie in a bed, slipping towards the end of our journey. But what will the essence of childhood remembrance be for the person who was born today? They will leave a huge digital dust trail. How much of it will be available in 8 decades? As they try to construct a refuge in their memories, will there be digital evidence to call bullshit on them? Will indelible fidelity be a good thing or bad?

Daniel Kahneman has discovered that our remembered lives usually bear little resemblance to our actual experiences. Was my Mom’s childhood really as good as she remembered? I know there was pain. I know there was heartache. I suspect life was much harder than she recalled. But that’s not the point. At that moment, when she needed it most, her past was what she wanted it to be. And that’s exactly what my sisters and I found this past weekend, when we needed it. It was a very human thing we did – highly inaccurate, totally implausible and completely indispensable. I wonder how technology might screw that up for my kids and grand kids.

Goodbye Mom. Dream beautifully.