In the last few months of my mother’s life she told me that memories of her childhood and her life as a young woman had become so clear and detailed to her that it was almost like travelling back in time. In contrast, her recent past was vague and foggy and when we talked she would often confuse me with her cousin – as if her brain instinctively felt a strong connection between us, but needed to place me in the newly vivid land of her past. At the time I struggled to fully understand this, but felt myself lucky to become an honorary member of her happy past.
However, increasingly over the last few months I have been returning in my mind to my past of many years ago. For the first time I find myself seeing the past as a continuous, living narrative. It has become more vivid to me than ever before.
I used to see my past life in snapshot form, as I jumped from decade to decade, each memory illustrated a different thought, feeling and recollection. But recently the past has become as real to me as the present and I’ve began to remember long forgotten names and faces. I’ve begun to see that each decision made, for good or bad, took me another step along the road that has been my life and that there is a linear quality to all of this which I had not been aware of before.
Some of this has doubtless been caused by our losing Nico. When you have a child, when that child is born and placed in your arms, without deliberately planning it you find yourself imagining the road ahead and you think you know all the milestones you will pass along the way. For some of us the birth of our children is the first time ever that we look to the future with expectant joy. Of course, the path of life with Nico deviated from the one we expected to walk, but it certainly had many joyous moments and whatever we may have expected, it was a path of fulfilment and in the end, it was our “normal”. The death of your child, disabled or not, fractures your family in countless ways which are still on-going and it is far too soon to know when those fractures may heal and who we will find we have become by the time they do.
I suspect the re-emergence of old memories is also due in part to the death of my father 3 months ago. I would have thought that losing the last of my parents should have closed a door firmly on the past – but instead it seems to have opened it fully for the first time. Memories that I couldn’t deal with before, recollections that were too painful now seem to have taken on a clear, almost matter of fact quality as if some part of my brain was saying “well, there’s nothing you can do about that now, so just accept it and get on”.
Thinking about these times for the first time in many years, I became curious to know what became of people I left behind. Not all were flotsam that I shook off as I moved on down the river of life. Some threw me off, some died and some simply disappeared. By the time you reach my age the list of people who were once an important part of my life and now you’ve completely lost touch with is long. You struggle to remember the names of romances, friends and even enemies. I decided to see if I could find them out what happened to some of these people from my past, or some trace of their continuing lives without me – or even another glimpse of the time we spent together.
It was not as easy as I thought it would be. Many of them had married and changed their name, meaning that in many cases I had to track them down by other means – remembering their professions, their hobbies or where they had lived. Once I got stuck in it was really quite amazing what I managed to turn up. I had the strange experience of looking into the faces of people 30 years older than when I last seen them. Most had become, shall we say, a little more inflated, some had white hair, some had no hair and all of them somehow still looked to much the same, while still managing to look so different. Many seemed to be doing exactly the same thing with their lives. Solicitors were still solicitors, people who worked in housing still worked in housing, carpenters were still carpenters and in some fascinating cases – some now had adult children who had followed them into exactly the same careers.
But as my search continued darker discoveries were also waiting for me. Now I know exactly how many stab wounds it took to murder my ex; I know how many of my old friends have killed themselves. I know how many slid into alcoholism and homelessness and how many joined religious cults and were never heard from again. I know now that a man I was once terrifically in love with was killed in a terrible boating accident, widely reported in the press at the time, but completely unknown to me until now. Worst of all, I found out that someone who was once very dear to me and who I supported through the loss of her gorgeous little boy, had now also lost her precious daughter, my own daughter’s childhood friend, at the age of only 27. This lovely woman, exceptional and loving mother had lost her husband and now both her children.
So am I glad that I made this little excursion into my past? Well, on the whole no. It has opened doors that I had firmly closed and now opened, they cannot be closed again. What we think we remember about the past is not necessarily the truth and truth is a very slippery concept. I think now that this was a way of coping with my current circumstances. Perhaps it is easier to deal with the problems of the past than to deal with the trauma of the present.
Or perhaps the part of my life that I’m in now is just another bead on the string, another bullet in time’s gun. Another chapter in my book. But I won’t know for sure for a while. I won’t know for sure until this present becomes my past.