Today my 36-year-old nephew marries his longtime girlfriend at his family’s ranch in Merced, California, turning a date which for 34 years has been saturated in sadness and loss into one of celebration and welcome. Quite unknowingly, he and his fiancé selected the anniversary of his paternal aunt’s – his father and my sister’s – untimely death for their nuptials. My family couldn’t be more grateful and glad. Finally, a happy ending to a dreadful commemoration.
In the last decade, I admit that the date often comes and goes without me paying heed to its significance. How long can one actively grieve, after all? I was 24-, my sister Lorraine 20-years old, when she died. Given our age difference and the fact that I left home at 17 and was largely out of contact with her until I moved back home at 22, my conscious experience of her as an individual is constrained to perhaps 15 or 16 years of episodic memories. And that becomes an increasingly smaller ratio of my life as each year passes. One of the tragedies inherent in dying young is that one’s persona is forever frozen, never accruing the experiential strata that deepen and flavor a personality and connect us to other people. So, Lorraine fades as time accrues, as she is unable to maintain meaningful bridges into the lives of those of us who remain. No one can ever dissect, commiserate or appreciate her college years, her serious romantic relationships, her career successes and failures, her children’s unique characters and miens, her pursued interests, abandoned dreams, lost causes, or significant personal triumphs. They were all killed in that head-on collision on a dark canyon road in 1985. (I used to picture her suddenly liberated soul floating about the location, untethered, for months after the accident. Did she know that she was dead? Is there a legitimate case to be made for “knowing” you are dead? I don’t wonder about that anymore. It’s been way too long for her still to be lost, if she ever was indeed.)
My grandmother, Lorraine’s namesake, will turn 98 in less than a month. For the past couple years, because she is open regarding her readiness to die, I do not think of her eventual passing as “tragic” or heartbreaking. My memories of her are rich and robust: I distinctly remember many of her milestone birthdays – 50, 65 (she retired), 75, 90. I don’t think it improbable that she will see 100. Yet, she, too, is fading as time inexorably flows. Her ability to span the divide between herself and her family (all her friends have died) is almost completely constrained. Leaving the house solely for medical appointments, she spends all day in her pajamas and bathrobe, reading in her favorite chair. She will not attend her great-grandson’s wedding and feels no guilt nor regret for not doing more. At this point in her life, experience is passively attenuated, never actively curated. And because of this she is becoming increasingly immobile, frozen in time. The less present she is for each progressing moment, the less we will feel her absence when it becomes irrevocable.
In the end, what do we have of anyone in our lives but our memories of them? Each passing minute, most of them not continuously spent in their presence, describes a growing gulf between us and them. For some, that gulf is only days, perhaps months, wide and is easily surmounted the next time we see them. For others, the gap can lengthen into lives diverged, an unspecified point passed which, unknowingly, marked the limit of our mutual ability to recognize and commune with each other. There are people whose presence I believed essential to my daily existence once upon a time (my ex-husband springs to mind or my very best friend from high school) who could be dead now and it would not affect me in the slightest.
I often ponder how I will be a name that might surface (or not) at Thanksgiving dinner in the year 2095, an atavistic tale told by my now two-year-old grandsons to their probably bored great-grand kids under unimaginable (for me) circumstances. We are all destined to fade away and in the grand scheme of things a life of 20 or 98 years is of equal, unimportant length to those who hold no memories of us. Meanwhile, I am glad to welcome another iteration of family to the layers that lie beneath.