"The life given us, by nature is short; but the memory of a well-spent life is eternal."
What is the purpose of our memories? Do they give significance to our lives, make real the things of our past? Aren’t we comforted to be told that a person, now gone, will continue to have life through our memories of them? What happens when those memories fade? Does it mean the experience loses its significance somehow? As if it never happened at all?
The three years between 28 and 31 years old were the richest and most satisfying of my life. These were my single years between leaving Todd and meeting Mari. They were some of my busiest years as well. I worked full time, went to college, and was raising my son. Through my job I felt both challenged and able to be of service to people in need. I hiked nearly every weekend that my son was at his dad’s. I had a rich spiritual life that included ritual and connection to the turning of the seasons and the natural world. I had a wonderful circle of friends and a very active social life. And I had not one, but two best friends.
Actually that last part was not always a good thing.
Lilly and I just “clicked.” We had friendship chemistry from our very first interaction, signing up to do some volunteer work. Lilly and I had many significant differences in how we lived our lives and viewed the world. She was strong, opinionated and outspoken, traits I admired as much as I lacked them myself. She was outrageous, flirtatious, gorgeous, and silly. She thought farts were hilarious, kept dog biscuits in her pockets just in case she encountered a dog who needed a new friend, was unapologetic about her cross-spectrum political views, and her dark eyes would flash as she belted out the words to “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine.
We had fun no matter what we were doing together. Spending time with her was always the best of times. One Christmastime we went to a dime store and bought doll heads which we adorned with feathers, sequins, and limbs that we attached to their ears and forehead; we had a grand old time. She always saw the humor in things, and had an infectious laugh. I’d never met anyone who thought the way she did. She was delightful!
Gloria was the best friend I would have gotten if I’d written up my wish list for one. She and I were in sync on so many things: our political and social views, our impatience and anger towards civil injustices. She was beautiful and completely comfortable in her own skin. She could assert herself loudly, or just as easily be coy and alluring. We had invigorating discussions about this country and the things that would make it better. I felt like she and I were exactly in step with where we were in our lives and our feelings about the world around us.
But there is an unwritten rule that we are only supposed to have one best friend at a time. That’s simply how it works. I felt guilty, having two best friends. I’d never had that happen before. You aren’t supposed to have two best friends; it’s like having two lovers. I didn’t ask for these two amazing women to come into my life at the same time. I would have been fine if they’d shown up at different times.
Gloria and Lilly didn’t care for each other. There were in fact extraordinarily different from one another. And both being outspoken, they didn’t conceal their dislike. I had a tradition in those days of gathering lots of friends together for a slumber party, celebration of the solstice or equinox, or for help redecorating my tiny apartment. The gatherings would often last all weekend and could include just a few people or over a dozen. Lilly and Gloria would contradict each other loudly, disagreeing and being dismissive of the other; it often seemed that whatever one said, the other would disagree as a matter of principle.
When the weekend ended and Lilly headed home a hundred miles away, I felt my heart rip. Because she was going home to her husband. And she was not mine. And because I had fallen in love with her.
The next day back at her home, her husband came home from work to find Lilly unconscious on the bathroom floor. In the emergency room she was diagnosed with sepsis, and when her brain swelled they also discovered an aneurysm. I don’t remember how long she was in the hospital; I was not allowed to visit her, and because she already had her significant other by her side I felt I couldn't insist. Was she there only days, a week, two weeks? Days of expecting the worst; not one brain surgery but two; and finally, blessedly, Lilly was out of danger and sent home.
Lilly doesn’t remember the days leading up to her aneurysm, the days when I pretended she was my girlfriend, the days when I fell in love with her. Her memory of that entire time period is hazy. I’ve brought up her rivalry with Gloria, and she doesn’t remember any of that; in fact she doesn’t remember Gloria at all. I understand that it’s not personal, and it doesn’t mean that those events weren’t important to her. It doesn’t mean she didn’t love me, or that our friendship didn’t mean as much to her as it had to me. There is a medical reason for Lilly’s memory loss. But it still hurts that such meaningful memories between the two of us aren’t shared; they are mine to carry alone.
Gloria pulled away from our friendship not long after that. She did so without discussion or drama, just longer and longer pauses between returning my calls, until her return calls did not come at all anymore.
Gloria and I were out of touch for many years until the Internet afforded me the opportunity to find her and reconnect. I recently showed her a photo of the two of us at a political event we attended together. She emailed to apologize that she didn’t remember at all. It turns out she has lost a lot of memories from that time and she isn’t sure why, perhaps because of drug and alcohol abuse in her early adulthood. A deep sadness gripped me at her news. I felt alone and abandoned, hurt that our friendship wasn’t the beacon still burning in her heart that is was mine. One of my closest friendships, with the woman I felt had been made to be my best friend; and again I am carrying these memories alone.
What does it mean, that these two women whom I shared such significant memories with from the happiest time in my life don’t remember?
Is this how people whose loved ones suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s feel? Do they too struggle with doubt once they can no longer talk about shared memories? The loved ones’ lost memories are medical symptoms, so there should be no judgment or feeling of personal hurt. Neither Lilly nor Gloria is to blame for not remembering; there is nothing to suggest that they chose not to remember the importance of our friendships.
But it still hurts. And there is this new doubt. Were our friendships as strong as I remembered? Was I as important to them as they were to me? Did they love me as much as I loved them?
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