In Boston’s delicate early spring, subject to changing temperatures and still wintry nights, we are haunted by memories, good and bad. These distant and recent pasts collide, overlap, splinter apart. Recent memories are jagged and harsh, and in our day-to-day lives, we may try to forget, to get on with it.
Perhaps now is an apt time to consider not the continual postings within memory, but memory itself, our remarkable faculty of recorded and encoded emotion. Memory, a combination of sound, sight, touch, and smell, interconnected and interpreted, is our super sense, defining all our experiences.
I came to this quirky, brick, harbor city over 40-years-ago, and have lived in almost all its neighborhoods, including a block from the marathon finish line, the latter for 15-years. A sampling of my youthful Back Bay memories: boom-box aerobics at the “Girl’s Y” on Clarendon Street; tete-a-tetes with boyfriends in the Public Garden; walks along Commonwealth Avenue in search of the outlandishly large rose-pink petals of saucer magnolias; and watching the bronze cap of the statue of Samuel Eliot Morison fill with fluffy snow.
To have this racecourse of memory sullied by blood and death, to have graceful limbs of ancient elms replaced by images of the torn limbs of men, women, and children has been tormenting.
There are those who might curse memory. Without it, there would be no pain. No sorrow. No regret.
As it happened, I needed to drive south several hours on the Tuesday after the explosions to care for my elderly mother. She has dementia. She remembers almost nothing, and does not create new memories. When I arrive in her place, I have just arrived. When I leave the room and return ten seconds later, I have also just arrived. There is no past. There is no future. There are no seasons, no times of day, no explanations, conversations, or rationales. There is no grief, no loss. But there is no discovery or exaltation, no connection, understanding; no meaning.
It is not that her life is without pleasure. She enjoys eating, and the soft touch of woolen blankets. She enjoys flowers, and petting dogs. “Hello, Birdie!” she says upon seeing a bird, cat, or dog, and sometimes, me (though I think she knows this is a joke). When we listen to music from the 1940s and 50s and I sing the words out loud, a look of delight and mystified recognition passes over her face, memory stirring, I like to think. I try to keep on singing, hoping she will join me. She still understands that the words fit into certain places in the melody, just as she understands that shoes go on feet and a glass can hold water.
For most of the week of the marathon bombing, I was with my mother, she listening to “Some Enchanted Evening” over and over, and me listening to news on an old clock radio. She sang in one room, as I wept in another.
My mother did not know what was happening, and even if she had seen the images of carnage on television or heard the shouts, sirens, and screaming, she would have walked away, not understanding the import and meaning of what had happened.
Some may consider her fortunate in this instance, but I have been with her during the progression of dementia over a decade, and must say, even in this time of torment, we are fortunate to remember what we saw and heard on Patriots’ Day, April 15, in Boston, not for the ignorant zealotry that fueled murder and pillage, but for our faculty of being able to try to make sense of it; to eventually integrate it with other memories and a larger understanding. To have one’s experience limited to sitting at a window and watching cars drive by, and to eating food prepared by others that appears seemingly out of thin air, and to never wonder how or why, this is not the form of living — taking-in and responding to life — that any of us would choose.
In our grief, let us — even the families of loved ones who died and those who were grievously injured — give thanks that we have memory and cognition to try to understand and make sense of what happened; to collect ourselves and allow good memories, including those newly made, help us to use our minds to organize, prioritize, and move ahead.
Memory is neither a sentimental scrapbook, nor an accursed instrument of grief. This great motor and super sense is fundamental to learning, creating, and relating, and to healing as we gather-in the good that has happened and allow it to mix, mingle, and compost in this early spring that will lead to full spring, and summer.