Friday, April 01, 2005

Before and after

There was a line in Jon Carroll’s column recently that made me think. I liked the whole column, the metaphor of the trapeze artist and all that, but what caught my attention was when he said that his daughter needs to “understand how to feel the moment just before and the moment just after” the trapeze’s momentum changes.

Sometimes I try to record a moment in my mind—-usually when something good is happening. I focus on the moment, hoping I can commit it to memory to pull up again later. I’m not entirely sure it’s successful. There are moments burned into my memory as clearly as if they had been recorded on tape, and I’m sure there are other memories that I’ve tried to preserve that have been pushed aside.

But what about the moments just before and just after the times that I am trying to hold onto? When I pause to say to myself “I will remember this,” do I remember what happens just before then or just after? Maybe.

Our first winter in Washington, it snowed in January, after Brian and I returned from a visit with our families in California. We went down to the Mall, because I wanted to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial covered in snow (the Korean War Veterans Memorial was actually even more striking that day). We had a snowball fight in Constitution Gardens. I remember that moment clearly, and I remember being out of breath and covered in snow, thinking “I need to remember today.” But what happened before and after? Those details aren’t clear.

But Carroll is talking about the change in momentum, and the times that surround that change. My life was not frozen for an instant at a momentous occasion that day on the Mall. What happens when the momentum in my life changes? When I tried to think of an instant when my life’s momentum changed, my mother’s illness and death about four years ago were the first things that came to mind.

I called my mom to ask her about a recipe one evening. I remember where I was sitting. I remember that the room didn’t have enough light. I remember the notebook on my lap, where I wrote down the instructions for the acorn squash. That was the moment before. And then she told me she was sick again. Her leukemia was back. I remember the sound of her voice, but not her words. I don’t remember afterwards. I must have hung up the phone and told Brian the news, but I don’t remember. Did we make squash with dinner that evening?

I remember when I first was told that she had died, only a few months later. I was still in bed at my in-laws’ house, before they were my in-laws. My father-in-law came in and told me that my mom had died. I remember that moment clearly, even though I had just woken up. But then I remembered the moments just before. The ringing of the phone woke me, and I knew what it meant. I curled up against Brian’s back and pretended to be asleep until Andy came in with the news. But just after? The moments just after are less clear. I remember eventually going downstairs and calling the hospital to talk to my dad. I reached the nurses’ station, and they found my aunt for me. I don’t remember what I said to her. I don’t remember if my dad came to the phone. I remember my hair being wet from the shower when we arrived at the hospital. And that is all. The rest of the day, up until my brother and sister arrived that night, just isn’t there.

Those memories of the moments just after are lost in the trauma of the event. With happier memories it is easier. I do remember the moment just before my wedding: I was standing in the entry way at Brian’s parents’ house, with my dad beside me, looking at our friends and family gathered in the living room, and thinking “Am I really going to do this?” And I remember the moment after, when we kissed and the music began. I remember that moment every time I hear that piece of music. And, truthfully, I don’t actually remember the actual moment—-the reading, the lighting of the unity candle, the vows-—all that well. There it is the moments before and after that are important: standing beside my dad, and then not wanting to let go of Brian.

With the happy memories and with the sad, I don’t think I was conscious of the moments before and the moments after, at least not in terms of their importance as being the moments before the pendulum swings. And I don’t know how I used those moments. Maybe these aren’t the kind of moments that Jon Carroll is talking about. But reading what he wrote, I understood that the moments just before and the moments just after are something to be conscious of. Perhaps in the future I will become conscious of how I can use those moments. Right now, concentrating on those moments, just for their own sake, is enough.

1 comment:

ann said...

Emotion plays an important role in memory, and strong emotions can produce unusually vivid memories (called flashbulb memories). As for the moments before big events... I didn't realize it, but I can think of some examples where I remembered the moment before the big event much better than the event. Sitting on the couch with someone I loved, directly before they broke up with me. Driving down the road in front of my house, directly before another car hit mine. During other important times in my life, I can remember events throughout the day. The day I graduated; the day I accepted my current job, taking me far away from the world I knew; the day one sister insulted my other sister and I took sides; the day I saw my mother, in pain and in a wheelchair, after her accident. I can vividly remember many separate events on these days, even if I'd rather not remember them.

Elizabeth, I'm so glad you can remember precious moments in your life, such as playing in the snow. I like the idea of you growing old, with this precious memory followiing you around. Thanks for writing about your life in such an honest and open way. I'll remember the images you painted in my mind for a long time, because you write so well and in such an honest way. So... thank you.