Monday, May 28, 2012

Another thin layer of insulation

It will be Marianne's birthday tomorrow. Another celebration of her birth and of her life – a life cut short in her middle fifties some four years ago. I said at her funeral “she just ran out of time” and I still believe that today. I think that she knew that she was losing her fight with cancer way before anybody else knew, but she never did admit that she was dying until there were very few days left for her. We didn't talk much about dying, about how life might be for me without her; about how it would be for our children. It was just too hard at the time.

As another birthday comes and goes, as another year passes, I have to admit to thinking more about the process of getting older, the effects of aging, the gradual closing of the door that you really don't pay much attention to for most of your life. Not just when you are a teenager or in your twenties, but most of your life. Certainly that was how it was for me.

When did that change? I suspect that losing Marianne was the catalyst for many changes in my life. Witnessing the death of a loved one surely must be the most painful experience that one can endure, but we do endure. Another year passes and another thin layer of insulation is put down to cover the pain. This is not an intentional, intellectual action; it is rather like breathing, it just happens on its own – another part of survival. Stop breathing and you die; stop laying down that insulation and life will not move forward. You will stay in that same painful place and atrophy. There is no choice, so you move on.

So it happens, not as an active choice but as a means of self preservation. Take another breath and build another thin skin. That is how it works for me. The good thing is that the skin does not hide the memories or the feeling of love, but rather it slowly covers up that burning pain of loss, and perhaps one day for me, that anger that still sits deep inside. But I do wonder about those memories – I need them to be accurate, especially as I get older.

Recently I have found myself drawn towards writers who speak of aging and death. I am currently reading a lot of work by Julian Barnes, an English author born a few years before me. I feel like I understand these stories from the inside, as if I have privileged access to some special knowledge that not all readers have. After all, I have been there; I remember holding her hand as she took that last breath. That makes me an expert on the subject. I can talk with authority on the pain of this one loss, on the life changing impact of this one event. Those images, those words, those sounds were burned into my mind so I had no doubt then that I would remember them without fault for the rest of my life. I saw no value and had no time to keep a journal and write down the events and record my exact feelings, blow by blow. I was quite willing to rely on my memory to capture and retain an accurate record of highly emotionally charged events. But I know now that my memory is not one hundred per cent accurate.

The truth is that my memory is failing. I used to be angry that my short term memory was unreliable. I would walk from one room to another with purpose and arrive there to find that I had forgotten the reason I was there. Was it car keys or my telephone? Was it a magazine or the laundry? But my other longer term memories still appear fresh and reliable, as if they are enhanced by age. And I think this is what is happening: I actively edit my recollections of past events. I have no compunction in changing the events to give the memory a more pleasant feel or a more interesting picture. It is my memory after all, so I feel that I can edit it without guilt.

I can freely merge one memory with another and create even more interesting super productions in high definition, with video from one day and audio from another. I can give my mind a free rein to create something more pleasurable than the original. Just give me a few pieces of history and, after some reflection, a rich entertaining memory will emerge, each retelling giving the opportunity to add and subtract depending on the success of the broadcast.

Is this dishonesty? Am I misleading anyone? Does anybody get hurt in this process? I don't think so. It is just my inventive subconscious, looking back at my life and having some fun; reaching back into the files and recovering a couple of events and then adding a little colour here and there.

Maybe I am revising history – but for better or for worse? Barnes writes in The Sense of an Ending “history is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation”. Don't get me wrong here: I am not supporting wholesale revision of history on a macro level, such as Nanking and the like. My revisionism occurs solely at a micro level; and after all, it is my history.

But I like to think that each memory of mine has a core to be protected, a message to share with the audience, something to be passed down to later generations. The integrity of the core is not questioned, it is not at risk. It is frequently a belief, a value, an entry in the guidebook for those at an earlier stage of life. Changing the facts does not detract from that, but rather if done well, should enhance the telling and engage the listener even more deeply. I am quite accepting of that.

Someone I love asked me about wisdom the other day. Now that is an interesting subject. Aren't we meant to accumulate wisdom as we get older? I was hoping that this was a natural result of the aging process:  we just got smarter as the years went by,  automatically with hardly any increased effort. All those experiences, all those memories, add to this database that is there for us to draw on, when younger folks, not so wise, look to us for guidance. That's right: all those memories of all that history. It begins to make me question if I am building this so-called wisdom on solid ground; I cannot trust the foundations any more.

There are times when I feel I have some insight that is unique, some perspective that reflects the years and the pain it took to acquire. But I fear they might be few and far between. In reality, I am striving for wisdom, for some honest and real insights into life. In the meantime, I admit that my inventive subconscious remains busy at work, reinventing memories, enhancing and embellishing, to reinforce the false perception of the honest storyteller at work. There are days when I truly believe that my life has been as interesting and as fulfilling as my memory is now suggesting. Minds are truly creative, aren't they?

I expect that over time my memories of my life with Marianne will change; some will grow and others will diminish. But I am pretty sure that they will all have a core element of love and respect, and maybe that will be about as much as I can hope for as I close out another year and lay down another thin layer of insulation.

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