This morning, waking up in my house in Charleston, a house filled with furniture, photos, and various and sundry items collected during seven decades of living, I am welcomed home by memories and the feelings they invoke. I’ve spent half the day caught in these memories of times and people who belong to the past.
Everywhere I look, every thing I see, takes me out of the present. My eyes light on an object, and my mind quickly begins to put together bits and pieces of a story.
There are the porcelain dishes bought in Switzerland in 1971, still in service. I remember buying them, discussing which pieces would suit us. These are not ordinary dishes. They represent the years of my efforts to create a family of my own. They represent the childhoods of my children.
The small pink and black marble sculpture of a woman from Nelson Mandela’s people, the Xhoza, was a birthday gift from my former husband, bought in Johannesburg in 1995. The rocking chair, vintage 1900, was a thrift store purchase in Memphis in 1963. I rocked three babies in that chair. The still shiny copper coffee urn, a find in the great souk of Istanbul, 1970, looks down on me from the top of the kitchen cabinet. The intricately carved teakwood vase, bought on a 1967 trip to Bangkok with my first husband, catches my eye from its resting place on the bedroom bookcase. And on and on…
And, then, there are the photographs on tabletops and shelves and walls throughout the house. Long-dead family members stare at me from their frames. The father of my children demonstrates his Ben Hogan golf swing. My second husband grins from atop a horse, his cowboy hat hides his blue eyes. My stepfather holds up a fish, still on the hook, that looks to weigh at least 5 pounds. A young girl who was myself smiles a happy smile, as she poses, holding something for us to see. Is it a birthday cake? The faded photo is taped onto the back of a glass paperweight. I recognize my mother’s handwriting, “Patricia Tuten, 1950, 9 years old.”
Some of these memories bring a smile. Many of them are accompanied by feelings of sadness and regret.
Where did the years go? Was I present for my children when they were young? Did I give them the attention they required and deserved? Was I a good parent?
Was I a good daughter? A good friend? I notice the memories of the years of marriage tend to be happy ones. This is certainly preferable to hanging onto the negative, but even positive memories carry the potential to create suffering in myself. There’s the danger of being caught in regret. I mean, if the relationship was so good, then why did we divorce?
Oh, so many questions, so many doubts.
What is going on? Well, I’m reminded, once again, how attached I am to this life. I love so much about being alive. I’ve particularly loved being the mother of my children, now very grown up, middle-aged people. Much of my life has been defined by my role as a parent, beginning with motherhood at age 21.
I can see and feel this role coming to an end, as I approach my 72nd birthday. I want to savor every present moment with those who are still alive, those with whom I am, today, sharing this Life’s Journey. Being pulled into memories of the past isn’t helpful. Remembering, getting caught in thoughts and feelings about the past, causes me to lose the present, the gift of this very moment, right here, right now.
Today, I enjoyed a few hours in the company of my only sister, 10 years older than I. She “suffers” (as is commonly said) from dementia. The irony is not lost on me. Here I am, wanting to be in the present, free of thoughts of the past, as well as of fears of the future, while she can’t remember anything about the past, nor is she inclined to dwell on the future.
The early signs that her memory was fading away were distressing to her and to those around her, including me. She was often caught in confusion, as she attempted to interact as she had always done. Wanting to participate in conversations, to assert herself as someone who once experienced this or that, or who had lived here, or done that, she would struggle to get her facts straight. She still gets mildly frustrated and obviously experiences some anxiety when in a group. She cannot follow the often, rapid flow of conversation. So, she prefers to stay home with her caregiver and her cat, both of whom she loves as though they are the babies she once had, and both caregiver and cat shower her with love.
She has no regrets. She’s let go of fear, all the anger, the jealousy, the resentment, and the sadness that dominated so much of her life. She often laughs in a good-natured way and says,” I can’t remember a thing! But I’m happy. I just live in the present moment.”
I see in this elderly woman who has been my sister, a Mind of Love. This mind, free of negativity, is truly the silver lining in the cloud we call dementia.
“Forget everything immediately!” is a teaching from one of the great Tibetan masters, yet, we in the West greatly value memory. One of our greatest fears is that we will lose our ability to remember the past.
Why is this? What underlies this fear? Have I lost something when I can’t remember it? If so, what is it that I’ve lost? Is something any less real because I can no longer think about it or talk about it?
This house, with all these reminders of the past, will be home for me for the next couple of months. To really be here, free of the past, I see that I need to double up on my Mindfulness practice of sitting meditation and calming my body and mind through conscious breathing. I’m so grateful to have met teachers and teachings that show me the way.