Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Reflections on Memory and Death

My father's father is dying. I traveled to my hometown this past weekend to visit one last time, and was able to talk with him for about an hour and a half, much as I have in times past.

The conversation ranged through the storehouses of our memory. Recounted were memories of working together over the better portion of a decade, while I still lived at my parent's house, just down the road from my grandfather's farm. There was also the memories of living with my grandfather and grandmother through the summer months after my first year at university. He followed me readily enough down these different lanes, only being tripped up once along the way. And with a little more confidence, he recalled episodes that predate even my father's life; from times during "the War", as he calls it, from getting off the train in small-town south-western Ontario, shortly after emigrating from Holland to Canada.

My grandfather has the good fortune not to be afflicted by Alzheimers, like his sister, or my mother's father, who died a number of years ago. Not that his memory is perfect, nor that his mental acuity is what it once was. He did seem self-conscious enough, though, to be able to recognize his memory is not what it once was. This sort of presence of mind, I take it, is a ready indication that one still is in possession of one's faculties.

My grandfather does not seem much perturbed by the fact he is dying. When I first arrived, he had rather dryly observed that it was quite busy at the house because so many people were stopping by to visit. His humour was so dry that I initially mistook this for a matter-of-fact observation. Only afterward did I recall his slight smile.

Towards the end of my visit, I observed that my grandfather had a considerable amount of time to think about the end of life. I ventured to tell him I was happy to know that he was content with his lot in life, especially now that life was coming to an end.  My grandfather pointed out that young men do not think much on their own mortality. His implication seemed to be that I had showed my youthful cards by venturing as much as I had.

That got me thinking about why youth so readily associates with the illusion of immortality. I could imagine, for example, that the difference between short-term and long-term memory affords us two very different senses of temporal distance, which do not very easily coalesce. The contents of short-term memory have a certain poignant immediacy lacked by long-term memory. And the contents of long-term raise questions about when our memories, and by extension our lives, began--whereas the contents of short-term memories simply suppose our perpetual existence. Draw a line from the past, through the present, into the future from long-term memory, and you are left with a line extending from birth until death. Though doing the same through short-term memory leaves you with your old, familiar self who peers a few days into the future: the self that always seems to be there, just hanging around, that never really changes, expect, if you consider it in the light of long-term memory.

I admit that the division drawn here between short-term and long-term memory may be arbitrary. I trust that everyone has had to 'step back' and consider their life in a longer perspective. Let the distinction stand for the sake of argument under that qualification. As one approaches the end of one's life, and the time remaining is counted in days or weeks, not years and decades, it would seem that the two temporal horizons begin to fuse. (Heidegger's rumblings about Dasein's Being-towards-Death have a certain purchase here.) I can imagine that one might just as easily panic at the prospect of running out of time.

My grandfather seems to have only contentment, the quiet assurance his Lord is taking him to a better place. I suppose one has to be there to truly understand. I suppose that means I am still young enough to wonder.

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