Old people in Rhode Island are dying. This matters to me because I knew them once, and once they knew me. But only for a time. I moved to Rhode Island when I was nearly five years old, and moved away when I was not as nearly six. I can still see the sun-drenched wood in the sanctuary of the village church where my dad pastored. I can smell it too – it is living and aged and clean, and conscientiously polished.
Robin’s mother Carol died a few years ago. Carol had soft brown eyes and was always kind to me. Her fisherman husband, Wayne, has phoned my parents every few years since we moved away thirty years ago. Last time Wayne called, when my dad asked, “how are you?” Wayne said simply, “Carol died.” He explained more, but that was beside the point. Carol died, and that’s how Wayne is. All your life together, you know it’s coming, you just don’t know which one of you will be first. Then you get a hint or two – a sickness that lingers, an irreversible fading – and now you know it’s coming, you know she will be first, but you can’t pinpoint the day or the hour. You eat together (if she can eat), you sleep (lightly), you go about your business the best you can, and then one day, one hour, she dies. And that is how you are, when people ask.
Last week Sharon’s mother Shirley died. After all these years, her laugh is still stored in my memory. So is her face, open and sturdy, with an elegant yet practical pile of curls atop her head. I maybe knew this as a child and forgot, but now, as I remember Shirley, I note a deep likeness with Wayne, and upon asking my parents, confirm that they were siblings.
Carol and Shirley knew me for a few months of my childhood. I wonder what they remembered about me? And where do those memories go when they die?
When we grieve the death of someone we knew, however much or little we knew them, are we partially grieving the death of our own footprints in that life? I imagine I’ll be experiencing this more in these years ahead, as I lose those with whom I’ve formed deeper bonds – grandparents already, someday parents, maybe lover, surely friends. Will I feel the breadth of my life, my being known in the world, shrink? Will I look back and see my trail overgrown and forgotten?
Of course, that’s why we write. We surely can’t rely on people to keep our memories alive. They simply won’t stick around. So we write or tell our stories in other ways, and pass them on to our children and their children – and we hope that in some way who we were and what we did will really mean something after all.
Robin and Wayne, and Shirley’s family John and Sharon, Duane, Ariane and J.B., and the others I don’t know who belong to them too, are grieving far more than any vague loss of self. I know this, and I honor their tears and heartache.
But I won’t call my thimblefuls of grief at the losses of Carol and Shirley narcissistic, though at face value that’s just what they seem. A tiny something of me stayed with each of those women, and even as they and those little memories have now died, so too the tiny memories I have of them live on in me. Of course I’ll die too, but I find this giving and taking, living and dying, between people widely separated by age and geography, who physically interacted for only a few months of a long lifetime, to be a talisman of hope on my journey.