Mother, at 76, peered up from her guest-bed in my home and asked, “Those six books up there, with the spine with the gold pillar that crumbles a little more each time; what are they?" I did not need to look. “That’s Gibbon's Decline and Fall of Rome," I answered. "A pity," Mom responded, "everything must die." Some six weeks later, she was dead.
Our memories die too. We open them up, like flipping through a photo album, but we do not necessarily recall the details. And slowly but surely our recollections crumble. Precision of phraseology goes. Recollection of the other's shape and mannerisms and voice inflection alters ever so slightly, here and there, until one retains the essence of one's feelings for the long-lost friend, or relative, or loved one, but much of accuracy fades. Like those pillars, the crumbling ensues, no matter how often we may prop them up. (A now-a-days absent friend once said that memory is like opening up a document in a computer, and alter so much as a comma, and one saves it as a new document.) Add the strokes and sighs and contemplations of a lifetime, and one is bound to have the memory-file alter quite substantially from the original, of say, 40 years ago!
Forty years! That's how much time has gone by without my seeing friends that meant the world to me, that formed a fulcrum in my own journey, so long ago. And when considering the vast amount of persons one meets along the way, it becomes natural, year by year of losing them, of no longer staying in contact, not as intensely to care, to love, to extend those intimacies of a vital connection. The past is the past. Focus on the moment. And so love and care can become a thing of the moment, a sort of safety guard, paradoxically, because one can be (like swapping life-stories with a stranger in an aircraft) attenuated to the moment, and then forget it. Next?
Rolling stones gather no moss, goes the idiom. (Mick Jagger by now has well disproved it!) Yet the image sticks. Rolling, there is little longevity established with friendships, with settling into dwelling places, with attending the schools or the workplaces or even the pleasure-places one has visited. Like being on very many little holidays, in which one meets variously interesting people and sees variegated interesting vistas, there remains a distinct sense of impermanence when going forward. Looking back, the story of one's perceptions is in the immediate. The recollected appreciation can be intense, but replaceable. There is always a new place, a new friend, a new occasion to be had. And in memory, truly, it's amazing how things change.
Not all of us have great change. Some of us stay and stay and establish friends and families and zones of familiarity that seem impervious to non-obvious change. Yes, we lose our pet and our grandparents, and we lose others too. Dear ones. And subtly, around us, things change. (Or do we change from within?) We lose jobs and health and possessions and interest. We both accommodate and wear down. We stop venturing and voyaging and experimenting. We grow staid and can be overly comfortable. Why rock the boat? And so we let go of the anxiety over moments, become untidy, (or else grow yet more anxious, and get uptight.) We adjust into the ripeness of our age. It is the human condition! "I am too old to do that!" (Been there?)
Yet growing old gracefully and letting go the things of youth is rather Biblical. Even Desiderata advocates that much! It is to be expected. All those physical things can pass, may have to be given up, can even be forgotten. But love, moment for moment; care; and interest in another, and in the world around oneself, remains a choice (one hopes) to be managed; breathing, breath for breath. Or does one simply allow oneself no longer to feel at all?
Mother noticed my books. And in her question was the universal drive of the human spirit expressed: "Why? What? When? Who? And how?" Moment, for moment.