Memories, may be beautiful and yet
What’s too painful to remember
We simply choose to forget
(The Way We Were)
One of my close friends messaged me last night after having watched “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and deciding that she wanted her memories of a former boyfriend and traumatic ongoing heartache erased. She sent me this link about the drug, propanolol which is used to “dampen” memories of trauma victims. I joked with her about the possibility that she might accidentally forget me in the process. Despite the lightheartedness of our conversation due to the improbability that she would ever seriously undergo this treatment, it saddened me that someone I care about could be so hurt that she would be willing to give up her memories in order to shield herself from the continued pain.
I can’t honestly say that there aren’t memories I would not miss in my life, and would in fact go so far as to say I cursed them for instilling fear or causing me to be guarded, but if given the choice, I could never give them up–no matter how unpleasant they may be. My friend, Eric, once referred to me as “Stephanie, the sponge” due to my tendency to hoard memories. Other people make fun of the insane amount of pictures I take on a regular basis. Part of this habit could be attributed to vanity, but the magic of being able to capture and freeze a moment in time is absolutely beautiful to me.
Take for instance the last photographic memory I have before my grandma passed away. A reminder, not only of the fragility and preciousness of life, but also what happens in the absence of memory. For the last five or six years of her life, my grandma had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It began with not remembering our names, but by the time this picture was taken… the family’s final Christmas with her, we were complete strangers in her eyes. Forgotten memories do not equate to happiness or lack of pain. I witnessed firsthand the heartbreak my mom felt being unrecognizable to the woman who gave her life. I saw the frustration my grandma exhibited in the earlier stages where she was conscious of the loss, and tried so hard to hold on for as long as she could. I had the horrifying experience of discovering my grandpa’s affair with a resident of their retirement home when reading an e-mail she sent him while I was using his computer one summer.
“You shouldn’t feel guilty about what we are doing, because Betty is only half a woman.” That sentence in particular, felt like a knife stabbing my gut, and resonates every time I have to be in this woman’s presence when I visit my grandpa knowing what she did while my grandma was sitting in the other room. This woman cast my grandma aside as a shell of a human being, thinking that because she could not remember, that she could not feel pain. One of the most painful effects of my grandma’s condition was that she would have brief moments- maybe a sentence or two- of recognition. Even during one of my last visits before she died, the two of us were sitting together while my grandpa played pool with my brother downstairs. I was making conversation, even though it was one sided and she was staring out the window. I said… I wonder what’s taking them so long. I nearly fell out of my seat when my grandma looked at me and said, “He’s probably with that woman. It doesn’t matter, though, I’m going to die anyway.”
No sooner than she had finished her sentence, her blank gaze returned to her face and I was left in turmoil, realizing at once the pain she must feel in those few seconds where she would return. Our memories are our humanity. They inform our choices, define who we are to become, and give us legitimacy… a claim to history or validity to our existence. Without them to guide us, we would be doomed to repeat mistakes, and at the very least, we we would lose the depth of appreciation for our happy memories, having nothing relative with which to measure their value. More importantly, our memories (especially the painful ones) are evidence that we have survived and persevere.
The article reminded me of another grandmother figure in my life. Propanolol is used to treat rape victims. I think of Halmoni (as I often do in searching for strength during rocky times). The memories of her sexual enslavement are experiences most of us could not conceive even in our worst nightmares. Many comfort women did not survive. Be it health conditions that were thrust upon them, or an inability to cope resulting in depression or suicide. However, there is no doubt in my mind that Halmoni’s memories gave her the motivation not only to survive, but to fight. It was her heartbreaking memories that inspired a movement and ultimately made justice a reality. Memories that some would wish erased due to their unbearably gruesome content, became legal testimony and proof of her endurance.
Memories are like priceless post-it notes in a way, which we can refer to in times when we need most to be reminded of something. Memories of my own regrets or mistakes serve as lessons that help me move into the future. Memories of my loved ones’ premature deaths remind me how precious life is. Even memories of heart break or break ups remind me that at one time, I cared deeply enough for another person to allow for so much pain in losing them. And in the times where I feel too exhausted by disappointment to go on, the joyful memories are there to make me remember not to forget.