Archive for November, 2014

How to live forever

Last night, I dreamt that my friend Peter was still alive. It was this time last year that I learned his life was ebbing away, so maybe now there’s a link in my brain between the waning November light and the loss of him. In my dream, he was alive though, in quotidian ways. We talked from time to time, or wrote, or ran into each other downtown. But he was not well, and in the dream, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I would do once he died. I walked the downtown, looking in at shop windows and seeing things I thought he’d like, and realizing he would have no use for them. They had been made utterly frivolous.

What would I do to remember him? How would I stave off oblivion? In my dream, it came to me, the way dream revelations do. My face pressed against a shop window, I thought, “I will remember him, and when I die, I will pass into the memories of my children and he will go with me.” I woke up with the conviction that I’d solved the great riddle. And then, as I shook loose of the dream, the sense of it fell apart entirely.

Stone wall and cow bones, Connecticut dairy farm.

Stone wall and cow bones, Connecticut dairy farm.

I suddenly thought, lying there, of a discussion I’d had recently with a student about homeopathy. We’d gone over the principle of it: a drug or a poison is put through serial dilutions and shaken (they call them “succussions”) each time, until eventually, the dilutions have reached a state where there is not one single molecule of the original substance left in the solution. There is only, proponents claim, the “memory” of the substance itself. Then I despaired. What is my memory but a dilution of him? And when I then pass into memory, it will not be whole. The passage will not be of every thought I ever had, and every person I ever lost.

My grandparents are real to me, though dead, but only stories to my sons. My great-great grandmother is only that to me: a photo of her visiting family in Italy and feeding the street pigeons in some piazza; some stories of her in heels out in the driveway sweeping the puddles away with a pocketbook over her arm. We become derivatives, caricatures, a few stories.

There is a line I have tried to find again in one of Hardy’s novels about generations upon generations of cows passing through an old field gate, the individual animals unimaginable in their oblivion. That is the fate worse than death, to be like mute animals, who, even when they have names, are erased when the farmer who called them that is gone. That, I suppose, is why I write, though admitting to such hubris and self-preservation makes me squirm. If I leave words behind by which they might know me, then I can face this all with a bit more grace.

Serial dilutions and succussions, and after a while, there is no substance left. “Water has no memory,” I found myself saying to the student. It applies to the molecules and molarity, but really, we could have known. After all, one cannot write on water.

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