If a tree falls in the forest and no one remembers hearing it, does it make a sound?
Memory is a fragile thing. Like grains of sand scattered across the beach, they have a short half life. Everyday the tide comes in and reclaims some more of it. Everyday, more sand is dumped on top. Everyday the beach is changing, whether that be due to the elements or to children with buckets and shovels.
No single memory defines us but in aggregate, they make up the foundation of who we are.
Forgetting is a scary thought. When we forget, we lose parts of ourselves. We might not remember losing it but it’s gone all the same. People and places, the accomplishments and the failures, joys and sorrows and life as we know it - all gone without a trace. Cooperfield couldn’t have done it better.
Sometimes if we’re lucky, it comes back at a trigger. A magic word. The right person in the right place. A stray thought in a bizarre situation.
This recently happened to me during dinner with my roommate. I don’t remember how the topic came about but it ended with me talking about my last visit to my grandfather.
This occurred last summer. This was the summer I graduated from college and the start of my four month backpacking trip around Asia. China was my first stop since I was overdue to visit my grandparents and it would kill two birds with one stone (I don’t like birds).
Seeing my grandparents involves first a 16 hour flight to Beijing followed by a 26 hour train ride to Huaihua. When I got off the train, I was greeted by my grandmother and my uncle. The first thing my grandmother told me as I got off the train was to get a haircut.
I stayed with my uncle in Huaihua for a week. During that time, I visited my grandparents daily. We spent a lot of time catching up - its been four years since I’ve last come back. Of the time with my grandparents, I spent most of it talking with my grandfather. He was a teacher before he retired and was especially interested at what I’ve been doing in college.
Being the only child of a first generation Chinese family living in the west means growing up with certain expectations. Meeting those expectations is like trying to eat everything at a buffet. My grandfather is like the salad bar - he stands up for healthy food choices as well as offering a temporary reprieve from the buffet. He would tell me how proud of me he was without trying to sway me to go any particular direction.
I spent two weeks in China, most of it with my grandparents. A week after my departure, I got a call from my mother. It was about my grandfather. There had been an accident. He had tripped over a train track and hit his head. That he’s in a coma now. That there’s no sign of brain function.
I remember hearing about the news but not much about my reaction afterwards. Just numbness. Like that feeling in your leg when you’ve been sitting on it for too long - that feeling but extended throughout my whole body.
My grandfather was in his eighties but had the most vitality out of almost anyone I knew. I climbed Mt Hua in Shanxi with my grandfather just a week ago, a steep hike going over 6km and over 6000 ft in elevation. We passed plenty of young people along the trail that were dumbstruck that my eighty year old grandfather could do something they themselves were struggling to do.
When asked about his vitality, my grandfather would give his usual spiel about healthy food and healthy lifestyle. He always said that he planned to live to 104 . He would then give other people advice on how to do the same.
Another fact about my grandfather - he had never in his 80 some years, left the country. Every time we went back to visit, I asked him if he would visit us in the states and he would always defer it for after my college graduation. This time when I asked him, he finally agreed. He said he would come in a years time.
Its been a year now at the time of this writing. My grandfather never ended up leaving China.
To go back to the conversation that started this post - when I recounted the story of my grandfather, I realized that I forgot that he had passed away. Maybe I knew intellectually but not in the “I’m-really-never-going-to-hear-his-voice-again” kind of way.
After the conversation, I reflected on how this came to be. How did I blot out the death of one of the most important people in my life? Part of me would like to attribute this to living in a new city and starting my first full time job. After all, thinking of my grandfather’s death is not something I do everyday and the hustle and bustle of daily life slowly scars over the raw memories I have of the experience.
But the memories of my grandfather are not ones I want to forget. Memories of him and the kind of person he thought I was inspire me to be a better person.
There are also important lessons I learned from his death - most important being that you can’t take anything for granted - especially people. My grandfather was sick for a total of less than 10 days in his life. He climbed mountains that young men had trouble ascending. A week later, he passed away.
The problem with these lessons is that it’s not like the movies. There’s no sudden flash of insight that becomes ingrained forever more. Lessons for me have a short half life that need to be constantly re-activated lest they become forgotten.
The memory of my grandfather is one strand of the multitude of memories that define who I am today. Each memory is like an anchor of the self. Not all memories are good and some feel more like weights dragging me down under. These I cast aside. But there are those defining memories that are the bedrock of who I am, the ones that help me keep my way when everything else is going crazy.
The past is important. Those who do not know history are doomed to hear this aphorism repeated forever. Holding on to pieces of my past is something that I’m currently trying to do a better job of. Journalling helps so that I have a record of what happened in my own words but unless revisited, they only push out the half life of forgetting a nudge longer. And with all the memories of a lifetime, how to pick which ones to hold on to?
At the end of the day, all memories go away. No beach can stand up to eternity. But that’s not the point. There is an artist in San Francisco who is known for making exquisite artworks by raking the sand on the beach. He lays down rope before he starts and rakes following the rope. You can’t see anything just from the sand but stand far enough back and amazing murals begin to take shape. Every stroke of the rake, the artist leaves his mark in the sand. He doesn’t rake randomly nor does he rake the entire beach - he has a vision of what form he wants to guide the sand into and rakes accordingly. We are all artists working on our own beaches. We should think about what sort of mark we want to leave as we guide our rakes across the sand and make sure that it’s a mark worth remembering.