“I was wondering if everybody could be remembered. Like, if we got organized, and assigned a certain number of corpses to each living person, would there be enough living people to remember all the dead people?”
“And are there?”
“Sure, anyone can name fourteen dead people. But we’re disorganized mourners, so a lot of people end up remembering Shakespeare, and no one ends up remembering the person he wrote Sonnet Fifty-five about.” – The Fault in Our Stars
By the time we were gathering at the church, the rain that had begun as a sprinkle was now causing a scene. A pile of wet umbrellas gathered in the entryway. The hearse had arrived. Grampie was escorted to the front. After a few hushed moments, Aunt Re bravely stood up at the front of the church and told stories of her mother’s life. Some were merely the facts of her life: grew up in this neighborhood, she went to that high school, married in this year. But facts soon morphed into stories. She told of Grammie’s quirks – the things that made her endearing – and the qualities of character that infused her life with love, the love that we each held in our hearts. Beautifully told, it was a portrait seen through a daughter’s eyes and shared tenderly at the end of it all. These memories give flesh and bones, the shape of a life in love and beauty, to these facts that are life, and death, too.
But even with all of Aunt Re’s perceptive sharing – for the memory of the stories, and the feeling of warm intimacy – even with all of that, it is only one snapshot of her life. It can’t all be wrapped up in a series of funny stories, or a list of traits as if from a personality quiz. Call it the highlight reel. Keen and sensitive, it still falls short of all that was Grammie’s life.
What makes a life, anyway? Is remembrance the mirror to the experience of living?
Maybe what I’m getting at here is legacy. Maybe in our remembering, in our telling of stories, we find a way to confront the finality of death in this life, to insert an ellipses where there is a period.
Is it the recipes that are preserved, cooked with the same ingredients and the same techniques? Is it the hand-knit blankets, the wooden chest that was hammered with love, these things passed down through the ages? Is it the stories that are recounted with fondness, all throughout life, but especially at the end? Is it the things we remember – the way an eye twinkles, the way a mouth curls, the inside jokes that make us smile?
Maybe memories are like pebbles picked up from a creek bed that you can roll over in your hand, smooth in your palm. You can reach your hand into your pocket, and rub that stone, and find yourself back at the creek. Sure, it’s not the same as digging your fingers through the wet gravel, letting the current slide through your fingers in search of that perfect stone. But that’s what a memory is: experiencing it again, though through a different lens – one of retrospect, one of time and distance, and just like that stone gets worn down, more clean with each stroke, so too does a story from memory get rounded out.
And then what happens when the memories fade? When the sound of her laugh is harder and harder to recall? When slowly, gradually no one knows that story of the struggle, the adventure, the triumph? What happens when there is no more remembering?
This same week, our spunky nine year old cousin had a terrible playground accident. After a severe concussion, she now has very limited memory. She came home to a house that she can’t remember, with horses that she doesn’t know, to be taken care of by a brother and mother that she doesn’t remember. Who is she now? What happens to her stories? Do they cease to be true? What happens to those relationships, to each slice of history? Do the memories make the person? Or the other way around?
Back at home that evening after the funeral, Grant picked his head up from his coloring and asked “How could Daddy carry that casket? It was so big and heavy.” He continued with his picture, picking out another marker and intently outlining a cloud. I thought of his question, and I thought of my answer. As a pallbearer Mark’s job was, of course, to carry the casket to and from the hearse, but he didn’t do it alone. The six pallbearers together shared the weight, gingerly taking the wet stairs taking care not to slip. After the service, they leaned awkwardly over the railing on the way back down, lifting the casket high. And in the pouring rain, they soaked their backs, rain sliding down their faces disguising the tears they shed as the brought Grammie’s body to her final resting place. I thought of how the weight was distributed, shifted around as needed. And I thought of how, now, in grieving, and living, we carry each other’s burdens. We share this weight of sadness. How can any one person carry death alone? They can’t.
We carry the memories, too, the same as we carry the grief. We carry them for each other, with each other. We tell the stories back to each other when we may have forgotten. Sometime all it takes is a familiar stanza and the thread of a story that had once been dropped can be picked back up again. My sister and I have a funny habit of remembering together something that happened only moments earlier. “Remember when you tripped over the chair on the lawn?” she’ll say after we have barely pulled ourselves together from laughing so hard. But just as likely we spend time remembering things of long ago, too: “Remember that colossal kayaking trip? The one when it rained the whole time?”
Our lives are living memories, stories in the making, and in the sharing.
This is a sacred job – to be a story keeper, a memory holder.