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Letting go of memories

First slide

My father suffers from dementia. In the beginning, he would amble along in a regular conversation and lose his place. Usually, he’d find it and come back to the discussion, and we’d all just continue on. Then he began to lose his time. He could remember something, but he didn’t seem to know that his brain was stuck in 1972. Now, he remembers my name, but he struggles with any further details. Conversations stop and start, and memories elude him even when I try to bring them to the light.

Frankly, I find the situation heartbreaking. I value memories so much that the very idea that they are something loosely held is nearly unbearable to me. When I was 24, I fought cancer. There’s nothing quite like a life-threatening disease to teach a young adult that the future is not promised. But I always thought the past was mine to keep. My father has been teaching me otherwise.

When we moved in 2020 from the house where we’d lived 20 years, we boxed up all the memories of a young and growing family and carried them carefully to Connecticut. The large library of excellent books chosen and shared with my children over decades of home education went into cardboard boxes. Similarly, trophies and trinkets and photos and videos all made the trip. As sad as I was to leave, I was determined to be the keeper of the memories. I was purposeful and methodical in my storage methods. The boxes didn’t fit so neatly into our new-to-us house. While we got settled and found space, we put them in the part of the basement we’d been assured was high and dry.

Longtime residents tell me this has been a summer of unprecedented rain. My boxed-up memories have all molded. And I have spent the last week bagging them up, hauling them out and heaving them into a dumpster. At first, I was calm. I told myself that these were only things. Then, turning over in my hands a moldy video of my child’s first steps, I saw him, now grown, coming down the basement stairs to help me clean. I was overcome with grief and guilt. I was the keeper of the memories, the one who cared for their things, and very few remained. I felt like so much had been asked of me in the last year, so many adjustments to my sense of home and family; this latest challenge was just too much. Tears washed over my face like so much summer rain.

A flooded basement is an instant full-time job. It doesn’t matter what was planned or what priorities had been set previously, the damage demands time and attention. In the hours that I have spent cleaning, I have thought long and hard about detachment. I have considered what it is to truly move lightly through this life, unencumbered by material things. It’s a fairly simple notion to ponder. Admittedly, life would be a great deal lighter without so much stuff to carry in so many ways. But I have thought even more about detaching from both the past and from the future here on earth. I’ve thought about what it is to live in the present, to be burdened by neither lament nor worry.

When your house floods, some people will offer you a service that promises to make it seem “like it never even happened.” I was afraid of that very thing, afraid that with the contractor bags and the dumpster, I’d lose the life I loved when we were acquiring all those things. I was afraid that somehow losing all the things would make it seem as if they never happened at all.

As heartbreaking as it was to discard handmade heirloom dresses, it was really more heartbreaking to acknowledge that the time for those has passed. And so it is with every “memory” I held in those boxes. The truth is, I am no longer the woman who read those books aloud to a houseful of children or the mama who made the matching dresses. In the reading and the sharing and the sewing, I was living a life that belonged to that place and time. Shaped by those processes, I am the woman who now stands in a very wet basement far away from a former home on a slight hill (oh, hills — you are so lovely). But I didn’t lose the way the past has shaped me. That I carry. One day, I might not even remember reading, or sewing, or collecting countless soccer trophies. It’s possible no one else will remember either. But my soul has been shaped by the time I spent. And it’s my soul that is intended to travel lightly through time into eternity.

At the end of this unprecedented summer, I know for sure that I cannot hold the past any more than I can guarantee the future. God grants me abundant grace for the present. Here is where I live; it’s the only place I can live.

Foss, whose website is takeupandread.org, writes from Connecticut.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021

@elizabethfoss