Today is eighteen months since Nina died. Part of me is amazed that it’s been that long. My relationship with her was so fundamental to everything I know that she’s always somehow immanent. But at the same time I can’t believe it’s only been eighteen months. So much has already happened. Kids have changed shoe sizes multiple times, relationships have ended, other loved ones have died. The wheels are most definitely still in spin. Things aren’t receding exactly, but it wasn’t just yesterday either.
I have a love-hate relationship with the anniversaries. They give me a chance to reflect and an excuse to spout off about it (and make sure my navel is lint-free). But the date is painful, to a greater or lesser extent, and there’s always some aspect of it that I don’t see coming. Part of the problem is that my psyche doesn’t really check the calendar the way I do. So it tends to plotz a few days before the actual anniversary. Randomly selects an otherwise unpropitious moment and slams my fingers in the emotional car door of grief.
This time I got the grief slap about a week ago and, rather than having to figure out some unexplained depression, frustration, or general gloom and doom—my usual m.o.—I experienced my first feelings of anger at Nina during a really weird dream. It was SO massively textbook that I’ll save the details for psychotherapy. But suffice it to say, we were in a familiar/unfamiliar setting, I needed Nina, and she was off doing something else with other people I didn’t know and not there to help me through my pain! Then just for good measure there was a semi-unrelated part at the end where I was attending a high school reunion dance/social and everyone there hated me, or I was sure they did, for something horrible I’d done. My psyche needs some work on the sublimation process. It’s amateur hour in there. Hire new writers or something?
I had severe stomach cramps all night, couldn’t sleep after the dream, the whole bit. It sucked. We’ve all had awful dreams. And I have had some pretty sucky bouts of missing Nina and needing her. But this time it was accompanied by being angry at her, which led to me feeling guilty and ashamed about that anger. I mean, what kind of person gets mad at someone for dying (except literally everyone who loses someone, duh, I know, I know…)?
Conventional wisdom says that year two after losing a partner can be even harder than year one. By year two, you’re still struggling mightily, feeling grief keenly, but the world rumbles on apace, so even if you have an attentive, supportive, loving network of people, like I do, you wind up feeling left behind, like things are getting “back to normal” when normal is no longer a place where you live. It’s also hard because it’s not just “the world” or “other people.” I also feel myself “moving on” (I hate that phrase, which itself carries some measure of judgment, but it’s what we call it?). Just by sheer force of repetition of days, you move further from the place you were when your person was with you. That’s where the guilt comes in: are you leaving your partner behind? Losing touch with what you had together, her memory receding too far to be comfortable?
There’s no way around it: the further I get from actually interacting with Nina, the more I rely on an imperfect set of memories and the more distance and noise come between me and the immediacy of Nina’s presence. That’s a part of grief that gets harder, not easier with time.
The other day I was trying to mentally summon a picture of Nina without summoning an actual photo. I couldn’t do it at first. I tried to bring up the many, many images I have stocked away in my brain, but nothing. It was dispiriting. I felt a little panicked. Like she was slipping through my fingers, very waking nightmare like, speaking of dreams. I knew the images were in there, but had no access.
Then I went about it differently. Instead of summoning the images directly, I just started thinking about Nina more narratively, remembering events or even just thinking about her being in our kitchen or our bedroom without any tie to a particular memory. Almost immediately I was not only able to summon her image, but also the feel of her presence, her touch, her scent, her laughter. It was a very welcome turn of events. Especially in light of the involuntary self-laceration of my dream (happily, oneiric Nina is really nothing like actual Nina, so I was able to tell myself that as a sort of differential diagnosis of my own neurosis).
Later that night I picked up this book I’ve been reading for an eternity. It’s by a French thinker—Edgar Morin—who’s kind of an amazing guy. He a theoretician of “complexity,” a philosopher, but his work spans the fields of sociology, anthropology of science, cybernetics, communications theory, and communications theory, and ecology. He’s in his nineties, still writing, has a major research center named after him in more than one country, and is a politically engaged leftist who believes strongly that saving the plant is of vital importance. I kind of want him to adopt me. And I’d want to call him “Pepe Edgar,” naturally.
In his seminal work “The Method,” of which I have been reading part one of six (!!), he theorizes about how complex the world is and how only by starting from a thorough understanding of complexity can we really understand how the world came to be and how it works.
I started reading this book a long while before Nina died. I put it down for long stretches, but kept coming back to it. His work has never been translated and the French is pretty straightforward but the concepts are mind-bendingly complicated. Usually I struggle to get through a section or two—just a few pages of text. Also I think I’m reading it even more slowly now because it’s the last book I have that I was still reading when Nina was alive, and in some weird way that connects it to her—I used to bore her to tears talking about it, and while she had no particular fondness for that aspect of it, it’s still evocative for me. Sitting in bed with that book, it’s easy for me to summon her.
The section I was reading started with the old biology truism that phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny—in other words (ones we actually use regularly) the physical makeup and life process of an individual of the species is a kind of reflection of the genetic development of that individual’s species. We are the sum of our genetic history, crudely speaking.
But then he shifts to memory. Memory is also based on a kind of code or registry. Instead of DNA and a code made up of amino acids, memory is lodged in our cerebral cortex. We don’t fully understand how it works, but it’s produced–or reproduced, since all memory is a reproduction of a past event, just as all expressions of an individual’s physical being are reproduced from the source genetic code—by a set of relationships between neurological components in our brains. There is an actual physical place where memory happens. It’s not like a file in a computer, it’s an active physiological process that’s complex and relational—but it exists, there is a human being and they have a brain and without that physical brain there’s no memory.
Morin says this is a key difference between the phylogenic recapitulation of ontogeny and recall of memory—if the person with the memory dies, there’s no more memory, whereas if an individual of the human species dies, their DNA may already have been passed on and in any case, other humans will presumably keep reproducing a similar genetic code and the species will survive. There’s also the fact that DNA produces a physical copy while memory only produces an imaginary one, but this, instead of degrading memory comparatively, should be celebrated, because it is what makes beings with the ability to remember so extraordinary. We can imagine things that are no longer there—like dragons and dead people!
Both genetic code and memory are imperfect reproductions. DNA mutates, particular individuals are exposed to differing environmental factors that influence the development of the species over time. There is “noise” in the system. And that can be a very good thing—if the process worked “perfectly” then presumably we would all just be replicants, not individuals, but perfect copies of the “source code.”
Memory has its own noise: we can’t recall a perfect image, only a degraded one, a version subject to the failings of human anatomy/neurology/perception. But that may be a good thing, too: Morin points out that there have been experiments done wherein certain parts of the brain are stimulated and the subject cannot discern that the memory thereby elicited was not real. They were no longer just remembering, but hallucinating their own past experiences!
This is terrifying and fascinating. But, how does this long diatribe relate to Nina or my grief, you should definitely be asking by now (if you’re still reading)? I’m not sure, is the unsatisfying but true response.
Morin’s book is ennobling of memory, it gives it a place alongside other “real” biological/physical processes instead of locating it someplace in the ether of the ideal. This makes my access to Nina seem somehow less abstract. Like there are indelible, physical places in my memory where whatever version of her I have is located, and I have access to those places so long as I’m alive to carry around my memories.
Morin also points out—though he admits it’s hugely reductive—that the difference between our perceptions of events in real time and our memories is not a great as we like to think. We only perceive “reality” through the same process that we perceive memory—our sensory perceptions. In the case of a memory, we are re-calling or re-producing an image. Either way we only have the equipment we’re given to perceive either one: our brains. And our brains work through a mediated process of translating the reality around us into sensory information we can understand and make sense of. That’s what’s happening in essence in memory too. We are just recalling the information rather than imbibing it for the first time.
This is not to say that we somehow have a greater or more direct access to the people we have lost. It is what it is. People die, their presence fades, it’s still hard to access even if scientifically it’s true that there is a real, biological/physical thing happening every time we recall them. But it does illustrate a kind of underlying continuity to life, death, and memory. Where we see a fissure, biology only sees a different set of experiences and an existing set of recollections. There’s no actual break point where we place it—at the point where the person dies. There is only the more limited possibility of a now-fixed set of potential recollections.
Musing about the physical reality of memory made me recall an earlier passage in the book, much more directly about mortality. Living things, according to Morin, are amazing precisely because they are organized in an incredibly unlikely way (cosmologically speaking, all life is unlikely), yet once organized, they become “locally probable” because the living thing is designed to stabilize the inherently unstable, to maintain order where chaos is the rule.
But, the trick of the complex living thing is that “in the long run, under the effects, either brutal or cumulative, of external vagaries and disturbances, regeneration degenerates, reorganization disorganizes; thus one ages in fighting against ageing. The living being dies not only by accident, not just by statistical fatality, it is also promised death from birth because it must work in order not to die.” For a living being, “short term work is freedom; long-term work is death.”
This passage is a more analytical, modern, perhaps slightly academic way of recapitulating Montaigne (who was recapitulating the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece, it’s all in our intellectual DNA, which is actually a set of texts, and not DNA at all, but the analogy works!), when he wrote “death is the destination of our path; it is the ineluctable object of our destiny” and “this existence you enjoy belongs as much to death as to life. The day of your birth is the first step on the road leading you to death as well as life.”
I have no doubt that Morin read Montaigne (he’s probably the most well read nonagenarian on the planet, and any bookish nonagenarian presumably has read a lot of books, relatively speaking?). And Morin’s interpolation of Montaigne almost involuntarily draws a million memories from my brain about Nina. Her delight at Montaigne’s insights into mortality, the way she sewed his words among her own when writing, the shape of her hunched at her MacBook composing lines that now form the contours of may of my most vivid mementos—those she inscribed for posterity in her final and most fully realized creative act—The Bright Hour.
My dream was upsetting. But it was inevitable. Like death. A part of loss and a part of grief that maybe takes different shapes for different people, but for me is lodged in my brain, at least in part, in a feeling of helplessness about losing Nina, and maybe an increasing sense that that loss goes on and in some ways deepens with the gulf of passing time. But whether they come to me in dreams or in deliberate acts of recollection, my memories of Nina are real things that exist for me to recall. Sometimes it’s all I can do to access them with all the noise of life—work, kids, travel, school, repeat—but it’s also LITERALLY all I can do. It’s the only thing there is.
The rest of my work is to go beyond understanding that intellectually and try to process it emotionally. My dream, my fear of losing the Nina of my memories, my daily undulations through the vast oceans of my grief and self-doubt (does anyone have a scopolamine patch for the soul?), are all recollections and reminders that, even though it’s been a while and lots has happened since Nina died, I still have a long way to go. A lifetime.