Four hundred years before the birth of Christ, Greek tragedian Euripides described the his yearning to find what death had taken away. “Come back,” he wrote, “even as a shadow. Even as a dream.”
Better than beseeching the supernatural or the subconscious, we can capture the essence of those we’ve lost with the written word. Not only does a memoir help us as survivors to remember what we loved about those we loved, but the written memorial can be shared for generations to come. While photographs serve to keep our visual memories alive, it is the verbalized memory that helps families and friends to treasure what we no longer have to hold.
THE MORNING RITUAL
I was a caregiver to my parents before their deaths. Every morning, I would ask my father to plumb the depths of his childhood memories–we had no other relative upon whom we could count for the details. (In my mother’s case, there were many family members willing to share accounts of her childhood and her life before she met my father.)
When I teach memoir-writing classes, I use this preface from a book about my father.
“He has slipped into his 90th year, denying death, still defying life. His voice cracks now but it once roared. He shuffles back and forth because his back is ‘wobbly.’ But he used to stride. He used to march, in fact, through the streets of our childhood–his back erect, his head held high. He planted seeds every summer and shoveled snow every winter, but that was before congestive heart failure became his master.
He is my father, a man whose mosaic I will never grasp full sight of. But I have pieces. I have pieces. He yielded them to me in the early morning hours. As I massaged his back to clear his lungs, the way nurses have taught me, I asked questions about his early life in a place, in a time I will never know. He unlocked those memories grudgingly at first, and then with greater detail. This is my father’s story, from the moment he grasped life in the small town of Celano, Italy, until the day he left for the land of opportunity.
Drumrolling my hands across his back to clear his lungs, I listened as he brushed the dust off old memories. I discovered what sins could be committed in the name of religion.
I listened and I came to understand that the violence of the body is nothing compared to the violence of words that can rip the heart and sear the spirit.
I realized that the declaration of death may be the very beginning of life and that cruelty can be inadvertent. I found, by reliving his past with him, that small gestures could cause large fissures in the heart. And that there is poetry in the most prosaic of lives.
Such foreign places lie in the heart of every elderly person you know. The only passport you need to enter is the willingness to listen. Visit there often. You’ll learn, as I did in dewy morning conversations with my father, about the past and how it can shape your future. Scan the verses of an elderly person. Learn the meter of their days. Delight in their stanzas before Death denies their words a place on blank pages.”
THE MOURNING RITUAL
On his birthdate, on Father’s Day, on his anniversary date, and on days when I need to feel close to him again, I read the stories he shared. And, whenever the family gathers, I share those stories to help the younger members among us to recall his strength, his sacrifices, his courage. (And…we all contribute anecdotes, like the time he spray-painted the last roses of summer so they would last in the garden until winter.)
Death, they say, is simply a river, separating us from loved ones on another shore.
While we are on this shore, we can lessen the separation by recording our memories a loved ones and memorializing them in the process.
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Marlene Caroselli is the author of numerous books. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.