I promised myself about ten years ago to stop teasing Catherine about her poor memory. Soon after Michael died, I made a joking reference to her inability to remember anything I said, and she burst into tears. It turns out that she was afraid she wouldn't be able to remember Michael after awhile, that she was already forgetting John and Robert and every time I teased her about her poor memory, it was like I was reminding her that she would forget Michael, too. That was one of those moments when you realize how much damage words can do, and I never want to do that to someone again. I've carried a bit of Catherine's fear and despair around with me ever since, and try to remember things for her so she won't have to worry anymore.
But now I seem to have my own problems with memory, which is probably normal. The older you get, the more things you have to remember, the more things you have to forget. But, still, I've been having these ten second panic attacks, the kind that make you want to pick up the phone and call your friends just to make sure you still recognize their voices. Lately I've been having a difficult time remembering the important things--what my friends look like, for instance. I frequently find myself looking at the photos of my parents in my office and the living room because I can't seem to recall what they look like, either. It's starting to freak me about a little bit, this inability to remember faces and voices. If I can't remember what people look like now, how am I ever going to remember what they look like when I can't see them or hear them anymore?
But as I was sitting at dinner this evening, I realized that--at least for now--I can share the burden of remembering with other people. We had dinner with David and Erika and Henry, and at various times, we fell into the "have you heard from so and so lately?" or "do you remember when we did such and such?" And as we were talking, and trying to work our way through some kind of hazy memories from our early grad school days, it occurred to me that the real value of long-lasting relationships may revolve around the notion of communal memory. I couldn't quite remember who it was who didn't pass their oral exams at USC, but David eventually pulled the name out of his memory banks for me. A dozen similar exchanges occurred between various members of our dinner party throughout the evening, and I ended up feeling a little relieved that there were people around to help me remember my life when I couldn't.
That's mostly reassuring, I think. Not entirely, because what if you out live all your friends and family and then lose your memories of them, too? That's the kind of worry that keeps me up at night. But mostly I was a little more optimistic after dinner. As long as you keep adding people to your life, and hold on to them once you have them, you'll have help when things get hazy. And maybe that's the kind of comforting thought that I need to hold on to right now.