What You Remember

The following is a memoir that was selected to enter the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Achievement Award in Writing. I was one out of only two students in the entire junior class (of about 310 students) who were chosen to be submitted to the contest. There was no prompt or topic for this memoir. I worked with the head of the English department at my school to revise and edit my original draft into this finished product. Hope you enjoy!

I cannot remember faces.

When I think about people from my past, now removed by time, space, or more, I don’t see their unique expressions or physical countenances. I can picture the world around them like a photograph, noting details and minutia that others easily pass over. I can remember their mannerisms, their speech, and their personality. But when it comes to the physical person – friend, mentor, or relative – all I see in my mind is a grey haze. A thin layer of fog covers the faces I hold in my memory, rendering them unrecognizable and foreign. I have tried countless times to brush aside that smoky veil, but it’s not so much a curtain as a permanent mask.

In a modern world such as ours, it’s easy for me to overcome this problem with the use of photographs. They span the length of my childhood, documenting moments I recall fondly, as well as those that were not so pleasant. Photographs are far less corruptible and less likely to fade than my memories are. Whenever I need to remember someone’s face, I can open a photo album – from my musty basement or from a social networking site. A photo is a quick and easily accessible reminder, and the large volume of pictures that are taken and shared online guarantees that I won’t forget most of the faces that I’ve known for a while.

I don’t have a photograph of every person I’ve met – some people slipped in and out of my life without ever having had the chance to get their pictures taken, and as a result they are confined to specters of smoke in my mind, at least until I see them in person again. Without a visual aid or reminder, it is nearly impossible for me to keep someone’s image in my mind. People’s faces fade away, often without my even realizing. Before I know it, they’re gone from my mind’s eye, although the impact that they have on my life doesn’t fade away so easily.

Despite my impairment, there is one person whose face I will always remember clearly, although I have no pictures of him and I will never see him in person again.

The last time I saw my grandfather was five years ago, but I can still recall his face as if I see him every day. At that time, he was recovering from illness that had haunted him for as long as I remember – a vague ailment that was complicated by bouts of pneumonia, age-related deterioration, and, finally, a massive stroke that left him comatose. My family kept a solemn vigil over my grandfather in the ICU after his stroke in 2004, when I flew to California with my parents to see him for what we believed to be the last time. He did not look promising, and doctors gave my mother and her siblings the option of removing life support, for there seemed to be no way to revive him. My uncle and mother held on to the thought that my grandfather could awaken again and refused to give permission to turn off the ventilator, despite having no medical background or evidence to support their belief. Yet somehow, they were correct. Just days before my parents and I flew back to New York, my grandfather sat up in his bed – after weeks of lying in a near-death state – and, in an instant, no longer required a machine to breathe for him. It was a miracle that gave him five more years, years that were cherished by our entire immediate and extended family.

After awakening, my grandfather was moved from the hospital to a nursing home, but he was far from healed. The stroke had severely damaged his left side, and it took an entire year for him to relearn how to read, write, speak, and move. During that initial period of rehabilitation, I saw firsthand what forgetting can do and how important memories are. Before his stroke, my grandfather was keen and sharp, and he delighted in debating and increasing his knowledge. My mother often described the glint that would appear in my grandfather’s eyes when he heard about a topic he was passionate about, such as politics, economics, or history. The grandfather that I had known was strong, smart, and capable – seemingly immune to the deterioration that often accompanied age. His years of teaching, lecturing, and writing had served to bulwark his mental faculties against specters of dementia or waste. I had never imagined that anything could reduce my grandfather to the state he was in in 2004, when I was eight years old. After the stroke, my grandfather could barely maintain a conversation for more than ten minutes without being mentally exhausted and confused. For those first few months, he was so childlike and lost that I didn’t even know how to speak to him – an old man who had suddenly regressed and who knew even less than I did about the world. Everything he had known and accumulated over the past 80 years had disappeared, and without it he had no way of functioning in a world that had moved past him.

My grandfather had just suffered from a stroke, but during the period of healing after he awoke, his family suffered a great deal as well. Without his memory, my grandfather was not the man that we had known. He couldn’t recognize the people who came to visit him on a daily basis. Sometimes, he couldn’t even identify the reflection looking back at him in the mirror. My grandfather’s entire being – wrapped up in his experiences, memories, and recollections of the past – had dissipated. Without them, he had no way of knowing who he was or how he had come to be. This was especially hard on his wife and children, who had grown up knowing and loving my grandfather. Now they knew him even better than he knew himself, for they could remember his own characteristics, actions, and beliefs better than he could. Without his memories, my grandfather was a blank slate – he couldn’t recognize the faces that watched over him with concern every day or the world he had inhabited for so long. It took months of rehabilitation and therapy before my grandfather was able to recall his past. His family grew more and more relieved as my grandfather began to remember his childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. His memories, believed to be gone forever, were slowly coming back as his other cognitive and physical abilities returned.

Although he recovered remarkably quickly, my grandfather was never quite the same. He couldn’t recall most of what we told him, but his long-term memory was, surprisingly, intact. While he had long forgotten his own achievements, accomplishments, and successes, he always remembered the more important moments in his life: his long marriage to my grandmother, his struggle from poverty to a government position in Taiwan, and the birth and growth of his beloved children and grandchildren. When talking to my grandfather, I treasured his memories of the distant past the most. I found it amazing that he could recall small moments from his adolescence or adulthood, while the events of the previous day were lost to him. Those memories seemed entrenched in the depths of his mind, while other matters could barely settle in before being blown away.

My grandfather never forgot or confused my family with other relatives; he always knew that I was his youngest granddaughter from New York who pushed him around for hours and folded his clothes and fed him pureed vegetables. He would smile happily every time we came to visit – the nursing home quickly became familiar to us, but my grandfather always reacted as though each visit was special and full of new possibilities. He would gather my parents and me around his bedside and haltingly ask the same questions about our lives in New York – the answers never varied, but my grandfather always beamed with pride to hear, for the first time in his memory, about the livelihood of his favorite daughter and her family.

What I remember most about my grandfather after he recovered is the time I spent pushing his wheelchair around his nursing home. There weren’t many activities that he could take part in, so I always took him on walks through the hallways and the courtyard gardens. He would sit serenely in his wheelchair, basking in the sun and the rhythmic motion of his wheels rolling over rock paving. Sometimes, I would ask my grandfather questions – about his past in Taiwan, or how he met my grandmother, or even about life in the nursing home. His answers were quiet, lisped, and in a different language, but I would always nod knowingly and agree with him on all accounts. The memories that he did have domain over never failed to excite him as the emotions of the past came rushing back and he relived tales of danger and euphoria with incredible accuracy. All of my grandfather’s memories had an important impact on his life. The parts of his life that he could remember had taught him how to live, how to love, how to overcome, and how to triumph. These invaluable lessons would not fade, although the medals, awards, and achievements that my grandfather had garnered over his year would pass away. My grandfather remembered many of the relationships that he had formed and the people that he had known since childhood who had touched his life and formed his character.

Seeing my grandfather forget so many basic life skills and recent details in his old age forced me to question the importance of the past and the present. What from my past was worth remembering? What would I do with my life that would have enough of a lasting impact to be remembered 70 years later? The parts of my grandfather’s life that he could still remember were so worthwhile and valuable that decades of time and decay couldn’t tear them from his mind. The remnants of his memory that remained after his stroke showed me what would matter far in the future, as well as what would not.

Similarly to my grandfather, who couldn’t remember everything he was told, I cannot visually recall everyone that I have known. This is not out of indifference or negligence, but just an inability to hold in my mind a person’s face after years apart. I would like to think that I too remember the important things – what people have said, how they have treated me, and how they led their lives, rather than their appearances. The impact that people have had in my life is more momentous than their physical countenance, and while I may forget their faces, I will always remember the presence that they had in my life and the effect that they had on my character and existence.

Despite my faulty memory for physical forms, I will always remember my grandfather’s face. After our trip to California in 2007, the memory card of our camera was lost, and those photos of my grandfather and my family were gone. In 2009, my grandfather passed away rather unexpectedly. My parents were able to get pictures from other relatives to commemorate the last time we saw my grandfather; those pictures are buried in a photo album in my basement somewhere, and I have not seen them in years. But I don’t need look through them to recall memories because I have not forgotten my grandfather’s face. When I think back to my last trip to California, I always recall pushing my grandfather through the nursing home courtyard on a sunny day. There was an overwhelming sense of hope running through my family – grandparents, aunts, cousins, and parents – for the entire trip, and that optimism is, in my mind, embodied in those walks, where I was able to learn more about my grandfather’s life through his own eyes, not just my mother’s anecdotes, as well as share my life with him.

I used to hate forgetting the faces of my elementary school teachers, my second aunts and uncles, or my preschool best friends. I felt as though an inability to remember reflected a diminished mental capacity, and felt inferior to those who could easily recall what was so hard for me to remember. But when I think about my grandfather, who, after weeks in a coma, was unable to speak, read, or remember what he ate for breakfast every day, I don’t see someone who was incapable or inferior. Rather, I see someone who had great virtue, who, instead of treasuring his own achievements or accomplishments, remembered what was important – his experiences and relationships. Although I do not remember their faces, I do remember the impact that people in my past have had on my life and my character, and I too want to have an impact on others that they can carry with them long after my face fades from their memories and from this earth.

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