If I can’t remember who I am ...

Author: Patrick Hannon, CSC, ’88M.Div.

I forget things more and more these days, a tendency I attribute to growing older. To be honest, at 51, I’m not sure which makes me more anxious: my thinning hair or my lethargic synapses.

A month or so ago, an 18-year-old student of mine (I forget his name) asked me how old I was. When I told him, he said to me in a consoling tone — he actually patted me on the back as he said it — “Hey, you’re heading into the back nine!” He was referring, of course, to the point at which a golfer makes the turn after the ninth hole and heads — inexorably, truculently and with grim resignation (these are my words, not his) — to the 18th hole, the clubhouse and a well-earned martini.

Now, as I think about it, that fresh-faced boy was patronizing me. This does not please me. I still feel young, but from his perch, evidently, I was not merely older. I was old. Avuncular. A gray fox. Damn him. While I have finally accepted the fact that I am not going to live forever, I still feel my best days are ahead of me, even if there’s no way I’m on the 10th hole anyway, given the average life span of Hannon men. I’m lucky — even with the vim and vigor of my young soul — to be on the 13th.

So you can see now how the prospect of spending the rest of my days resorting to what my older brothers and I call “the alphabet game” might depress me. For those of you unfamiliar with this game, it goes like this: Someone at a dinner party asks you — oh, let’s throw out an easy question — “Who was the lead guitarist for the rock group Cream?” You immediately conjure up his face — you saw him in concert four years ago after all, or was it five? Hell if you remember — wire-rimmed glasses; scruffy, three-day stubble on tan cheeks and chin; earnest, sad eyes. But damned if you can remember his name. So you silently start plowing through the alphabet, hoping one letter might drag his name out of some deep warren in the prefrontal cortex of your brain, kicking and screaming.

A, b, c, d, e, f: You go through the whole alphabet and . . . nothing. You begin again. You stop at the letter p for some reason. You continue. This goes on for three or four minutes, even as the conversation has pivoted to a new topic. You come back to the letter c. You stop there. You’re confident that his first or last name begins with that letter. Finally, you see the word clip. Clip, clop, clap . . . clap. Clap! Clapton. Eric Clapton! You shout out his name, and everyone looks at you funny because they were talking about the guacamole dip. But you are relieved nonetheless. Sweaty, taxed neurons of memory, you admit to silently, but they are still firing. That is the alphabet game. And I’m playing it more than I would like these days.

To be fair, I’ve never been good with names anyway. It might be a congenital condition. When I was a boy I thought my name was “Brianjackmikegregwhateverthehellyournameis” because that’s how my mother usually referred to me. And my father consistently called me Greg. I was named after my father. So maybe I can be forgiven then for the faux pas I committed when I was 18 and my folks were visiting me in my college dorm. We were walking down the hall on our way to dinner and up ahead a fellow I knew was standing by his door. An accounting major from Hawaii, he had a degenerative spinal disease I believe, so with his severely curved backbone he stood maybe 4½ -feet tall.

“Hey, Pat,” he said.

“Heyyyyy,” I said. I couldn’t remember his name if my life depended on it. I had a recurring nightmare in those days, where I was being tortured. Just tell us his name, the guy with the brass knuckles would say. I don’t remember! I would say. Just kill me and get it over with.

We all stood there awkwardly, as my parents waited to be introduced. This is what I said: “Mom, Dad, this is . . . is . . . my little buddy.” My little buddy? Jesus Christ. How mortifying still is that memory. His name was Don Robinson, by the way. I looked it up in my yearbook a few minutes ago.

Now here is an intriguing question: Would I be better off forgetting that shameful memory or do I cling to that memory because it reminds me of some essential truth of my being? I’m not sure. The irony of this predicament humbles me anyway. I am hounded by this memory of forgetfulness.

I sometimes wonder if my short-term memory loss suggests early onset Alzheimer’s or dementia, but my doctor insists that it does not. I’m just getting older, she tells me. Memory loss is to be expected, she says. She is quick to remind me that dementia doesn’t run in my family anyway. My doctor is well-meaning and probably right, but I find her diagnosis to be cold comfort. Is this what growing older — growing old — portends? Am I to hear in the fraying of my short-term memory an assuaging lullaby to go gently into that good night? Maybe.

But before each forgotten set of car keys, pen, hat, umbrella, book or film or song title, writer, singer, artist, painter, appointment, phone call or line of verse, I raise a defiant fist that masks a deep fear. I will not go gently into that good night. I will rage, rage — thank you, Dylan Thomas — against the dying of the light. Even as I move trembling, steadily toward it — this dying, this letting go — I sing all the verses of Don McLean’s “American Pie” by heart. This brings me immediate comfort.

It frightens me to think that I might lose my memory some day. I’ve seen what happens to those who have. They appear to be almost ghostlike. Though wrapped in flesh and bone and blood and contoured clearly by their humanity, they seem lost. They seem to have lost — along with their memories — themselves. Unanchored, they float in a sea of dreadful anonymity. They cry and whimper and fret. Often they lash out violently. Are they raging, raging against the dying of the light? I’m beginning to think so.

I’m also beginning to think that it might be a sin to quiet such fury with a syringe or a pill or a Dixie cup filled with God-knows-what. Lost and frightened and forgotten in a deep fog of unknowing, who wouldn’t scream at the top of his lungs in hope of being found? I hope I would.

I met a man once who was assuredly demented. He spent most of his day sitting in a chair looking out his bedroom window. His memory had been whittled down to five words, which he sometimes whispered and sometimes shouted. “A man had two sons,” he said over and over and over again. “A man had two sons.”

I still don’t know if he was referring to himself and the two sons he might have had or if he was recalling the first line of Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. If I had to choose now, I would pick the latter, because those words begin what I think is the greatest story ever told: of a father who — mercifully — never forgot either of his sons, the stupidly foolish or the calculatingly obedient one. And since Jesus was obviously referring to his Abba — our Father in heaven — the thought that God has an eternal memory, that God never forgets, makes the prospect of my growing older with an unhinged memory slightly less frightening.

Still, the moaning of that man makes me uneasy. Will I suffer the same fate? The fear I harbor is this: Without these collected fragments of moments, these pieces of days that I can retrieve and savor and even weep over if I must, I will no longer know who I am because I will not remember who I was. And if I can’t remember who I am, what’s the point?

Memories allow me to believe — humbly, fervently — that I am in no small way important, that my little life has meaning, that I am part of a grand story, that I am an actor — leading, supporting or otherwise — on an impressive stage. Memories, these enduring imprints of faces and places and fragrances and melodies and textures and tastes, stand prepared to remind us that we are human persons, each of us with a compelling story to tell. And yet I have this gnawing feeling that I have sprung a leak and that slowly, one by one, my memories are dripping out of me. First I forget names, then places, then faces, then myself. I shudder at the thought.

Admittedly, we are not the only species with an ability to remember. Dogs remember where they buried their bones. Migrating geese in these parts have committed to memory all the drinking holes from the Arctic Circle to Guadalajara. Antelope remember exactly the sound a lion makes when it is prowling in the tall Serengeti grass, when it is licking its chops. We are the only ones, though, who have sense of a past. We are the only ones who can conjure the past and feel regret or gratitude. We are the only ones who are aware of the fact that we are teetering on a thin thread of now, aware that our brief lives are bookended by two eternities. We are the only ones who can be haunted or nourished by memories. We are the only ones who can forget. Maybe this is why we are the only species that can smile. Or frown.

Now I will contradict myself, and I’m not sure how I feel about this yet. Sometimes I think having a strong, vivid memory is not all it’s cracked up to be. Our unique human capacity for memory is as much a curse as it is a grace. For us, it is never merely a matter of what we choose to remember. Some memories are forever seared into our souls — individually and collectively — and often they are the painful, stultifying, shameful or horrific ones. We carry dark memories to our graves along with the bright. Some wounded memories never heal.

Who has it better, I wonder now: the afternoon lounging, sun-stroked cat or the memory-afflicted human person? Who has a better life: the well-fed, belly-scratched dog or us? Sometimes I envy pets and other animals — but not, oddly, grubs and worms and insects.

My memory can haunt me. I read somewhere that Jack Kerouac remembered everything he ever saw, heard, smelled, tasted and touched. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported, he “was also known to consume 17 shots of Johnny Walker Red in an hour, washed down with Colt malt liquor.” He died of alcoholism at the age of 47. Memories have a millstone-around-the-neck quality to them. Still, I treasure them, even the ones with scabs and scars. Without them, I’m lost.

I was back in my old neighborhood a few years ago. I had not been back in years. I parked the car next to my old house. It was autumn because the tree in my old front yard was a riot of red and orange and yellow. The blanket of mellow maple leaves covering the front yard triggered a memory. I was 4 years old.

In my memory it was a cool, brisk November day. In my memory it was twilight time. It might have been my birthday. I was sitting on the front porch steps playing with my Slinky. I saw my father’s car making its way up the street. It was a metallic green Pontiac GTO convertible. He pulled into the driveway and cut the ignition. He looked over at me and smiled. I jumped up from the step as he climbed out of the car. “Daddy!” I said. I ran toward him. As he neared the redbrick walkway I leaped. He caught me and swallowed me in his arms. I hugged his neck and detected a residue of aftershave. He kissed me on the cheek, hoisted me onto his shoulders and took me inside the house. It was the first time I remember my father kissing me.

Somewhere in the back of my memory I remember Proust was fascinated by memory, so as I mused on this memory of my father, I did a quick Internet search and found — wonderfully — this Proustian take: “When, from a long distant past, nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised for a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering . . . the vast structure of recollection.”

Now I see that distant memory for what it is. Waiting for its moment amid the ruins of all the rest, a riot of red and orange and yellow leaves on a cool autumn day a few years ago erased the line that separates past from present and mercifully reminded me that my father treasured me, and that he does still, though he has been dead these 26 years.

A little later, while I was still sitting in the car, a pigtailed girl came from the side of the house, retrieved her tricycle (was it red?) and began riding it in ever-widening circles on the driveway. At one point our eyes met. I smiled and waved. She smiled and waved back. Her little legs seemed to pump the pedals faster. She was performing for me, and this delighted me.

That little girl doesn’t know this, but I lived in that house once upon a time, and on an autumn day before she was born I was picked up by my father on a brick walkway covered in leaves and hugged and kissed and loved into importance.

William Carlos Williams wrote, “so much depends/upon/a red wheel/barrow/glazed with rain/water/beside the white /chickens.” For me, so much depends upon the memory of a red-bricked walkway covered in maple leaves, a stubbled chin and the sweet scent of Aqua Velva. If the riot of those autumn colors were to somehow be silenced, and the image of my young, scented father kissing me, his little boy, that November day were to somehow fade into oblivion, it would be as if a part of my soul had died. And I can’t let that happen.

Father Hannon works at the University of Portland and is the author of The Long Yearning’s End: Stories of Sacrament and Incarnation; The Geography of God’s Mercy: Stories of Compassion and Forgiveness; and Running into the Arms of God: Stories of Prayer, Prayer as Story.