Our Memory Is Flawed. Luckily, God’s Isn’t.
In August, my sister and I took my mom on a trip to Galveston Island on the Texas Gulf Coast. It’s a special place to my mom. She and my late father went there for their honeymoon over five decades ago, and she’s been back many times since. There’s a particular restaurant where she likes to get shrimp bisque. She likes the cheery sea wall and the chocolate shop downtown. But mostly she wants to watch the waves and the children playing along the shore.
It was a good trip, but Mom will probably not remember any of it. Even now, just a few weeks later, she may have already forgotten that it happened. Mom is in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease. She knows who we are and remembers everyone’s names. She can tell you who her third-grade teacher was, but not what happened a week ago or a month ago or 10 minutes ago.
For me, being with her is like looking through a camera coming in and out of focus. At times, things blur, go soft and fuzzy. She’s quiet and distant and seems to fade. And then, boom, a moment later, she seems like the mother I once knew. Laughing, opinionated, witty. She was an incredibly competent, accomplished and driven woman. She started a small business and became mayor of her little town, and I wonder in the months and years to come what she will continue to remember about her life, about who she used to be.
I would have never thought of taking Mom on a trip. In tragic circumstances, I tend to dwell on the practical — things like doctor’s visits. But my sister has a knack for making things special, delightful and festive. “We’ll make memories,” she said, when she first brought up the idea to me. “You and I will make memories,” I said to my sister. “Mom can’t.”
Memory, for all of us, speaks to our inherent limitations. Forgetting is part of what it is to be human. That becomes more evident when facing Alzheimer’s. But even for those of us who do not have dementia, almost all of our days have faded from view.
What was I doing three years ago today? Or five? Or ten? What conversations did I have? Who was I with? Did I find joy or discouragement that day? I have no idea. I can only tell you the broad outline: where I lived, where I worked, how old I was. The details — those invaluable and ordinary conversations, coincidences and choices that make up each day of our lives — are lost to time.
There are, of course, beautiful memories that we hold onto, moments that glow amber in our minds. And dark moments that we may rather erase. But even our most precious days may eventually be forgotten.
My husband and I were shocked to find out recently that our best friend has absolutely no recollection of a weekend we spent together decades ago at his parents’ Kentucky home. I recall it as one of our most fun times together, and my friend, who tends to remember everything, has somehow completely deleted that file.
Nor will my 2-year-old son remember anything from these toddler years. He won’t recall how we celebrated his first birthday or how I cared for him when he was sick. He won’t remember family road trips or sleepless nights when we rocked him and comforted him. He won’t remember the songs we sang to him or silly nicknames we called him. But all of that is still part of who he is. And all of her forgotten moments are part of who my mom is. They are part of my relationship with her.
Last Christmas, my older sister and I decorated my mom’s apartment. My sister made a bash out of it with wine and Christmas music and huge crates of baubles and ribbons. The next day, my brother told me that he’d asked my mom if I was there. “Nope,” she said. Just my sister. I joked, “Well, I guess we know who her favorite is.” It’s strange to make memories that you alone carry, to have holiday celebrations, birthday parties and vacations that will be immediately forgotten. Yet my mom enjoyed herself. She didn’t want our time together to end.
We as human beings cannot ever truly possess, to steal a phrase from one of my favorite writers, Annie Dillard, a “net for catching days.” Not a reliable one, anyway. The nets of memory are all riddled with holes, and most of our days will pass right through them. But though they won’t be caught, those days will still be lived. They still matter. What my mom reminds me of amid all her forgotten moments is that the only moment we can catch is the one we are in right now. But this moment, however grievous or joyful or ordinary, comes with an invitation to notice it. This very second is a gift to be received, a blessing offered in love that we did not earn and cannot cling to.
In his book on dementia, the Scottish pastor and theologian John Swinton wrote that we as a culture have a bias toward what he called “cortextualism”— a bias toward fusing our understanding of personhood with higher-order thinking and reasoning that leads us to depreciate the humanity of those not capable of typical cognition, including dementia patients.
But dementia cannot erase our inherent dignity or value. It does not erase the image of God in us. Cortextualism fails to see the intrinsic glory and beauty in each human life. It also strikes me as profoundly arrogant and self-deceived, rooted in the notion that with enough privilege, health and power, we can make ourselves strong; we can white-knuckle our way to the good life. But all of us, and every one of our strengths, are made of flimsy material.
Many of the biblical writers seem to understand that humans are innately forgetful creatures, so they constantly call us back to the hard work of recollection. In Deuteronomy, Moses urges his people, “Never forget the day when you stood before the Lord your God at Mount Sinai,” and later says, “Be careful not to forget the Lord, who rescued you from slavery in the land of Egypt.”
Even now, believers gather to worship and collectively remember the stories we live by. Each Sunday in my church, when I take the Eucharist, the priest repeats Jesus’ words: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Yet each week, through confession, we acknowledge that all of us, in the words of Isaiah, “have forgotten the God” of our salvation.
But Isaiah also tells us that while we may be forgetful, God is not. Isaiah 49 contains perhaps the most poignant statement about God’s memory. In it, God speaks: “Can a mother forget her nursing child?” The verse continues: “But even if that were possible, I would not forget you! See, I have written your name on the palms of my hands.”
My mother may eventually forget me, her daughter whom she deeply loves. But God will not forget my mother. “At the heart of God’s intimate knowing of human beings,” writes Swinton, “lies God’s remembering of us.” He explains that the scriptures suggest that all things are eternally present to God, who is outside of and unbeholden to time. For God to remember someone, then, means that they are present to God, and therefore their existence and worth are safe, fixed and undiminished.
I do not and cannot know what lies ahead for my mom, or for me, or for anyone I love. I do not know what I will remember and what I will not. I do not know if everything I’ve ever said and written and done will be lost and forgotten. But my hope is that we are held fast, even now, in the eternal memory of God.
Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and the author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”