Memories…do we have anyone else left to share them with? As we age, those who share our memories (actually experiencing them with us) are lost to us with time. As I mentioned, I lost my last surviving elderly relative, my Auntie who died at age 97 the same week I was diagnosed. The few younger relatives who remain were not there for many of the life experiences my Auntie and I shared. These memories, good and bad, are what made our family what it was. It is a lonely experience to not have anyone else around anymore to share them with, other than trying to describe them in as much detail as possible.
As my Auntie slowly deteriorated physically and then mentally, one of her joys was my re-telling of our shared family experiences. She would sit staring into space as I chattered on, trying to reach her but her often blank facial expression would change to a smile of delight when I triggered a beloved memory. It could have been our family Christmases, her many vacations with my beloved Uncle, the beautiful gardens he created, or something as trivial as one of our shopping “dates”. She and I used to meet up downtown every month or so at one of the department stores for a light lunch and a wander around the women’s section. We called it our “girls’ day out” and it was something we both looked forward to.
Now, I am the only one left to fondly remember our shared experiences. Re-telling it to others doesn’t do any of it justice. It sounds trivial and mundane, but these experiences meant something…they represented and affirmed our connections to others.
How I have tried to overcome this is by writing a family history in as much detail as possible for my children, nieces and nephews. I also wrote up a story for my Auntie as her memory began fading of all of her travels throughout her life, which I would read to her as she began experiencing profound memory loss. This was something I became dedicated to after my earlier years when I missed taping my grandfather’s life memories. As a child, I used to sit transfixed, asking my grandparents over and over to re-tell their stories of their earlier lives. Their stories took me to amazing places and experiences and I was determined to document them. Tragically, just before I set up my tape recorder to have my grandfather re-tell them in his own words, he was killed by an impaired big-rig driver as he crossed the road to take a bus to visit us with cookies my grandmother had baked. I would never hear his voice again.
Why are memories so important to me now? Simply because I know more of my life is past than what I have ahead. My mother would have called this “maudlin”, but then she never understood my preoccupation with our family history and my grandparents’ stories. As a clinician, I know that our past goes towards making us who we eventually become, not only our personal past, but that of our families. It doesn’t dictate it, as we always have choices to make, but it is still part of who we are moving forward in our lives.
So, I struggle with being “the last one”, the bearer of our family’s past with no one else who will remember it in the same way. Words do not do it justice, the feelings and senses lost. What is the purpose of my focus on this at this time? Perhaps a reaffirmation of my existence, of their existences. They cannot be found via a Google search. They exist only in my memory and when I am gone, they will be gone. All I can say for others looking towards their futures is to look to their past as well, treasure those memories, good and bad, pass them on and savor them, learn from them for generations to come. It honors all of those who have gone whose lives contributed to who we become today and those who will follow in the future.