While driving recently to my daughter’s Ultimate Frisbee tournament a half hour north, for the first time my father was confused about how we knew each other. At 86, he’s doing pretty well, especially for someone who had a heart attack at 42 and triple bypass at 60.
In the car ride, he knew we had a connection, but thought perhaps I was someone he had gone to school with in his hometown, or at college after he got out of the Army. I let him know where I grew up, which he immediately recognized. “I lived there too! Is that where we knew each other?”
I didn’t want to go too far in pointing out what he wasn’t remembering — that I was his daughter — because I didn’t want to confuse, embarrass or otherwise make him feel tension about what he’d momentarily forgotten. It was a nice gentle conversation. Later, when all brain neurons were firing more easily, he simply stated, perhaps apologetically, “I have dementia. Sometimes I don’t remember things very well.”
What we remember
The incident got me thinking how much of our personal identity is wrapped up in what we do and do not remember about our past. Our memories are never infallible, even without dementia. Our perceptions are tied to what we choose to focus on, not on seamless truth. The lives we lead are part of a continuum in storage. Nowadays, the people and places important to my father decades ago are sometimes more present in his recollection of what his life has been.
My daughter recently turned 18. She graduates soon from high school, and will relocate to the West Coast for college. As I revisit favorite photos of her from birth, I know that the next ten years of her life are about finding her own way, largely independent from family. [I tend to see 28 as the age when we are able to know what we aspire to be.] What will she eventually remember of these 18 years — years that have been so pivotal to my life? What will the shifting dynamic in our household of three have on my 13-year-old son’s growing sense of identity?
I believe the way our lives entangle with others — not only the essential family connections, and friends, but teachers, coworkers, strangers thrown together in a moment — is not a progression of steps so much as the river that runs through. My father, for example, is recalling the river of his younger days — not his middle years, when he was working and raising kids and taking care of a house. My daughter won’t remember as much about this time we’ve had together as I will, but it will be the current that flows underneath everything that follows.
Cycle of Life
When I was traveling through Madagascar years ago, I learned of the famadihana ritual, when ancestors are reburied in a large ritual of music, dance and food with extended family as a way to maintain links with those who came before and continue to be revered as part of daily life.
In South Africa, the Ubuntu philosophy reflects a belief in a universal bond that connects all humanity.
In a recent continuing education class, “7 Generations,” led by Ojibwe linguist James Vukelich, I learned that the emphasis in the culture’s naming convention is that each person is reminded of his relation to those who came before and those who come after.
In a majority of cultures, the connection to all of our relations, to our environment, to our histories, is as essential to “who we are” as are the details of our individual lives, working, raising kids, taking care of an individual home. The “all” or “we” is at least as important as the “I.”
As I’ve been writing in this column, somewhere along the way, our self-sufficiencies as Americans tend to lead us to think of ourselves as separated individuals. We see our lives as fragmented parts, without noticing our connection to the whole. The deeper we dive into our lives — the more balanced we feel — the more time we take in nature — the more we begin to remember the continuum of which we have always been a part.
As one colleague put it in our May IONS conscious conversation circle (IONSMN.com):
“Everything is a whole and a part at the same time. Perhaps we are simply growing into larger circles of inclusion as we become aware. We move from shallow to deep. We move from feeling false, thinking of ourselves as separate, to perhaps a truer sense of how we are connected.”
My dad, in this stage of limited memory, remembers where he came from — the connections, even if he can’t always remember the origins. As he gradually loses his sense of “I” — as I lose parts of him as my father, and in a different way as I lose parts of my daughter — I begin to see that underneath it all is the “we” that will remain.