Just like the unformed void that eventually became the Earth through the power of G-d’s creative imprint, memory is the process and power of reproducing or recalling what has been learned and retained.
Last December, my wife LaJuana and I went to Jacksonville, Fla., to see my parents. My dad, who is 87 years young and has dementia, came along for the ride to pick us up from the airport, even though we landed at some awfully late hour. He was kind of sleepy, so when he didn’t really recognize us, I didn’t let it bother me. But when we got up the next morning, I heard him ask Mom, “Who are your friends staying here?”
It stopped me in my tracks. He really doesn’t know who we are. It started to hit me that his dementia is worsening, and we’ve made it to the stage where family members aren’t recognizable. I thought I was prepared, but just like Rabbi Alan Lew, of blessed memory, says about the Days of Awe: This is real, and I am actually completely unprepared. Later that day, Dad went from the living room into the sitting room, and he was staring up at the wall. I walked into the room and asked him how he was doing. He didn’t really say much so I sat down. There was quite a bit of silence between us until he looked up at the picture of him and his brothers in their military uniforms, and he asked me, “Do you know who those people are in that picture?” “Yes, of course! That’s you and your brothers!” And in the excitement of this moment of potential reconnection, I looked over to the other side of the wall and saw a picture of my brother also in military uniform, and I said, “And that’s my brother Alonzo!” And tenderly, Dad turned towards me, and he said, “That’s right, and you’re my son.” It was in this moment that I understood there wasn’t only unformed, voided space in Dad’s memory. I WAS recognizable, when he could place me in time and space that was recognizable to him. We know from scientists that memory is malleable. It is capable of being altered or controlled by outside forces or influences. And just like the unformed void that eventually became the Earth through the power of G-d’s creative imprint, memory is the process and power of reproducing or recalling what has been learned and retained. Our memories are built upon the imprint of the experiences and knowledge that we obtain over time. And sometimes, through stress, disease processes and injury, gaps develop, and what seemed reliable can no longer be trusted. What was full and ordered becomes chaotic nothingness. And it is in these moments that I believe Toni Morrison, of blessed memory, can help us. In her book Beloved, she speaks about rememory. She writes,
I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place — the picture of it — stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.
Rememory can point us to moments in time, to experiences, and to people and places that have made imprints on our lives. So even when there are gaps in our memory, if we allow ourselves the gift of sitting still long enough to be in the unarranged, uninhabited silence, we can shift the chaotic nothingness into sparks of connection to the parts of ourselves that know the joy, the sorrow, the love and the longing of life with the varied people and places that have imprinted upon us. I, too, can lean into rememory with my father, using the time in the stillness of the present moment to allow whatever arises to just be. Maybe there will be space to recall the holy and sacred moments of him teaching me how to play handball, or us working in his industrial battery company or sharing his unique view of the world through the lens of his cameras. Or maybe, we will sit long enough to remember one of the only things that matter — that we are family. That we are connected through time and space, and that our spirits, no matter the gaps in our present memory, know that we are indeed kindred, beloved to each other. And if I am being honest, that is enough.
Based on a talk delivered at Reconstructionist Congregation Kol Tzedek on the High Holidays 2020.