Twelve years had passed. It had been too long since we last saw her so we planned a trip to reconnect. We saw her on Monday for a couple of hours and I snapped a few photos. On Wednesday, we spent the entire day with her: shopping, lunch, swimming, dinner, dessert. I surprised her with a couple of prints from Monday’s photos. On Thursday, another visit: she had already put one of the prints in a collage on her wall. I put Wednesday’s photos onto her computer.
On Friday morning we had planned on going out to breakfast just before leaving town, but the phone rang. It was her husband.
“She’s had a spell. She can’t remember you were here. She’s asking when you are coming to visit.”
He explained they wouldn’t be able to meet us for breakfast after all. She needed rest, but would we mind just stopping over to their place for a few minutes on our way out of town?
When we came in the door, he spoke to us in whispers: “She can’t remember you were here. She’s had one of her spells, eh. It just happens sometimes. She’s had a busy week, eh.”
He led us to the bedroom where she was laying down, dozing. When she realized we were there, her eyes brightened as if she’d seen us for the first time that week.
“How long are you planning to stay?” she asked.
“We’ve been here all week. We spent Wednesday with you and came over yesterday. We’re on our way back to Chicago now.”
Her eyes saddened. “Oh, okay.”
The duplicate print I made was in a simple frame on her bedside. She had no recollection that I took the picture just four days prior.
She handed us an envelope that contained 100 dollars. “It’s for butter tarts,” she joked.
We laughed and then she handed us a picture of the family that raised her: the young husband and wife with baby Joy, her cousin who became her sister.
As we left, her husband explained: “Her doctor took her off a certain medication. All it takes is a second of blood-flow loss to a certain part of the brain and your memories are gone. She’ll remember later, but it just takes a while to recover. She’s had a lot going on these past few days, eh. She’s just tired, eh.”
Memory is fragile. We can take pictures and record in journals but memory…that is another matter. There is little in life that is more tragic than the loss of memories acquired over the long marking of time.
One of the common connections between Islam, Judaism and Christianity is the practice of remembrance. In Islam, the Creed is repeated and prayers are spoken multiple times a day so followers may not forget. Infidelity is rooted in forgetfulness.
In the Old Testament, the Jewish people are admonished to recite and put into song their history so they will not forget that “the Lord, he is God.” Embedded into the fabric of the Jewish faith is a long, rich oral tradition whereby one generation passes on to the next the stories of collective identity. Should the very foundations of the earth be shaken, the people of God will remember what has happened.
Even modern history plays a role in Jewish remembrance. The Nobel Prize winning author Elie Wiesel has dedicated his post-Holocaust life to the theme of remembrance: “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night…Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.” (from Night)
The Christian faith also depends on remembrance. During Jesus’ last supper he tells his disciples to eat the bread and drink the wine “in remembrance of me.”
Our lives are caught up into the larger life of God. Ultimately, history is his story. Our lives are filled with the momentary kisses we exchange, an embrace on greeting and a longer embrace upon leaving, attempts to hold on to the memories we’ve made together. We may forget but God will never forget—for these bonds of love are recorded in his book for all eternity. And when we cross that river into a land filled with living trees, ancient but ever-new, we will see that our life has been but desert wanderings and wonderings. We will never forget.
That is our hope. The memory of God is the grounded pole to which the flags of our flagging lives are tethered.
Maybe that is why last Friday in the midst of her memory lapse she remained gentle, loving and playful. Yes, I believe the memory of God defines us even when we forget the enduring laughter and fleeting pains of yesterday.