I once read a novel about mortality, about an apocalypse that was wiping out earth and heaven simultaneously. The central conceit was that the dead only exist for as long as they’re remembered; once the last living person forgets them, the soul disappears forever. So a well-known historical identity like, say, Socrates might go on and on and on. A nonentity who never reached the history books, on the other hand, might be forgotten about after a few years, and wink out of existence altogether.
This week, Mary’s mother died, which is why she isn’t blogging today. I’m Felicity, a friend of hers who lives in Europe, and I’m filling in for her. I thought about that book again this week, because Mary and I have been discussing grief by email. One of the things we’ve talked about is how physically painful it is when the people close to us die. It’s like the deceased hack away a big chunk of our flesh on their way out the door.
There’s probably a physiological reason for this. I’ve read that grey cells – the same ones that can be found in our brains – also live in the stomach and the fingertips. We literally process emotions in our stomachs, so it’s not surprising that when we’re under extreme emotional pressure, our stomachs twist and clench and make us feel like hurling. Grief can feel an awful lot like the urge to vomit.
But I think there’s something else at work as well, and it’s to do with memory. Except the novel got it the wrong way round. It’s not that we the living forget the people who have passed on, it’s that the dead take their memories of us with them. People who have played an important role in our lives, who have witnessed us at crucial times, take their witnessing with them when they go.
Like most people, I’ve passed through several distinct phases of life. For example, one of my major goals in my 20s was to stand on stage in a red velvet recital gown and sing something operatic, to huge applause. While I never managed to get the huge applause, I did at least accumulate a series of voluminous recital gowns, in a wide range of eye-catching colours.
Those gowns are now in storage somewhere. Today if you asked people to describe my personal style, they’d probably say ‘middle aged and boring’ and they’d be right. I could protest and tell people about my inner yen to parade through the streets in a Baroque gown, swigging from a bottle of wine, but they wouldn’t believe me. That’s not a side of me they’ve ever met.
Sometimes even I feel like I should grow up and accept the fact that I’m tediously middle aged. What saves me is that I have a handful of friends who remember what I was like back then, who have experienced at first hand that I have a wilder, more bohemian side. Their first-hand knowledge of me is my assurance that I really do have more dimensions than meet the eye.
I need people in my life who can put me in touch with who I was, who I’ve been and who I might still become. Without that, I’m literally no-one.
Having a novelist as a friend is always fraught with danger, because you never know if something about you is going to be used for creative purposes (a character called Felicity Rose Carter, anyone?). But novelist friends are also capable of reflecting our deeper truths back to ourselves, which is why I value Mary’s friendship so much. Good friends help you remember who you really are.
And mothers, well, mothers literally define who you are. What could be more physically painful than losing a mother, even if she was very old and died peacefully, and we’re long past the age when mothers are supposed to mean so much to us? Because who knows us better than our own mothers? Who else saw us when we first came into the world, when we made our first mud pie, or when we first went off to school? Those are parts of our identity that we ourselves usually can’t remember. When our mothers die, those important parts of who we are, held within her memory, die forever.
Mary, no wonder it hurts.