I am certain I have forgotten way more things than I actually remember. I just finished listening to Serial, the NPR podcast phenomenon that asks whether Adnan Syed was wrongly convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend. The main problem with Adnan’s defense is that he can’t remember what he did after school on the Friday afternoon that she was killed. Several hours of his life are missing from his memory. I feel bad for Adnan because I can’t remember a lot of things. Huge chunks of my life, like the winter of 1994 or a single woman I dated before Gigi (go with me on this one), let alone 3:00-5:00 p.m. on a day 15 years ago.
Case in point: Just a few days ago, Gigi was trying to remind me of the place in San Francisco where we used to eat Sunday brunch. Not only did she remember the name, location, décor, and what she ate, but she also remembered what I ate. And whether I liked it. In contrast, not only did I not remember the restaurant (or what I ate) when she was describing it to me, I have now already forgotten what it was that she reminded me of. And I also can’t remember what I had for breakfast today. Honestly, it’s one of the benefits of documenting my life in Facebook and Instagram, and I actually order the Facebook book so that I can remember what I posted on Facebook. None of this existed 15 years ago, when Adnan allegedly killed his girlfriend.
I should probably be concerned, but then I remember that I can recall every lyric of every song on Led Zeppelin III. In order, both sides. I can also recite every defensive player on the Pittsburgh Steelers 1976 Super Bowl Championship team, play The Sting from memory although I learned it when I was eight, and tell you the last 44 Best Picture winners at the Oscars.
Which begs the question: why do we remember what we remember? I have no idea but my guess is that we don’t necessarily remember things we did, instead we remember things that we did, plus something. The “plus something” is the key, but it can be anything. It can be contextual (where I was when I heard about 9/11), personal relevance (where I was when I first kissed Gigi) or simply repetition (Led Zeppelin III). Brunch in San Francisco, while I’m sure fantastic and enjoyable, is not a plus something for me. And so, all memory of it is gone. (As an aside, Gigi jokes that I eat “fud” and not “food” and this may be true. Meals have significance to her but not to me, unless Mohammed Ali or Heidi Klum is eating next to me. And then I’ll only remember what they said to me, and not what I ordered.)
I was in Japan this past October and saw some incredible things. I looked over Tokyo from Roppongi Hills, walked through Happoen Garden, visited a LOT of temples that involved me lighting a lot of incense. I did a lot of bowing. I rode a bullet train past Mount Fuji and saw a Geisha in the Gion Kobu area of Kyoto (on the street, not as a customer). Will I remember them in 20 years? Questionable. It’s already a little hazy. But what I will remember is an intersection.
You see, there is an intersection in the Shibuya area of Tokyo that is considered the busiest in the world. There also happens to be a Starbucks on one corner where you can watch this intersection from the second floor. It is mesmerizing. I must have spent 20 minutes drinking a Venti coffee (yes, still called that in Tokyo) watching the light change and the pedestrians stream across the street only to somehow make it back to the sidewalk by the time the walk sign turned red and the light turned green and the cars came. It was Tokyo in a nutshell.
But why I really remember this intersection while the other memories already begin to fade is that I took a video that I can’t stop watching.
At the 15 second mark of this video, when the walk light turns green, there is a man in a white shirt that darts from the bottom of the screen toward the top on the right hand side of the cross walk. As he gets to about the halfway point, three men – one from the top, left and right of the screen – meet him in the middle of the street and knock him down. There is a flurry of activity, and then they all get up and exit stage left.
What happened? Was it a robbery? Or was I just watching a group of kids playing around? If the latter, what was it they were trying to do? It certainly didn’t look like fun. Especially for the guy who landed on his ass. Whatever the setup, I’m also fascinated that the mass of people around them seem nonplussed by the whole event and don’t take a second look. Was I the only one watching this? I’m obsessed with my video. The event itself is now significant to me because I have watched my video at least 300 times, and this minute will be my Tokyo memory that stays with me most clearly because of the repetition. Did I even eat in Tokyo? No clue.
Which is a fine intro to The Tinkers by Paul Harding, the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner. The Tinkers tells the story of a New England patriarch named George Washing Crosby as he lies dying on a hospital bed in his living room, “right where they put the dining room table, fitted with its two extra leaves for holiday dinners.” The book recounts Crosby’s difficult childhood in Maine where his father was a tinker and travelling salesman who also suffered from epileptic seizures, and (small spoiler alert), the most traumatic event in Crosby’s life centers on his father’s abandonment of the family on learning that his wife was planning to have him institutionalized. But really, the book is less about what happened in his life than what Crosby remembers happening. It’s the story of the journey we will all go through at the end, and Crosby’s life, seen from its final moments, becomes a collection of memories that make sense only to that one person.
It’s a sad story, which isn’t at all surprising because most of the Pulitzer Prize winners are. But this one hit a little closer to home than most as I just went through something similar with my dad. For about six weeks beginning in mid-April of this year, we knew my dad was going to die. As such, I spent a fair of amount of time with him during those weeks, and I often thought that odds are that this is how we will go out. It won’t be an aneurism, a plane crash, or an underwater poisonous snake. Most of us will die slowly. We will die in a bed in a hospital, hospice, or at home.
Death, as they say, is one of life’s certainties (along with taxes and the Giants winning the World Series every other year), but that doesn’t make it any easier. And I wondered what my dad thought of the whole thing. I wondered if he thought about the fact that he wasn’t going to see another birthday, or presidential election or, for that matter, another World Series. He won’t see his grandchildren get married or the end of House of Cards. Everything he did he was doing it for the last time. And this gets only more acute when you think about what the very last days will be like, assuming our pain has been managed, when we are laying on our bed, no longer able to communicate in a meaningful fashion with whoever is sitting – reading or knitting or texting – in the chair beside us. What will we think about then?
That’s the place where The Tinkers lives. In the eight days before his dies, Crosby will think very little of the traditional narrative of life. Crosby’s life is summarized early and quickly: “[He] got a master’s degree in education, counseled guidance in high school, went back north every summer to fly-fish with his poker buddies – doctors, cops, music teachers – bought a broken clock at a tag sale and a reprint of an eighteenth-century manual on how to fix it, retired, went on group tours to Asia, to Europe, to Africa, fixed clocks for thirty years, spoiled his grandkids, got Parkinson’s, got diabetes, got cancer, and was laid out in a hospital bed in the middle of his living room.”
Instead, Crosby fixates almost equally between his father’s epilepsy and the floorboards below the hospital bed that has been set up in his house. He spends far more time thinking about the night long ago when his father bit his hand in the midst of a fit than he will spend thinking about the years that he spent teaching at the local high school. He recalls the passion for antique clocks that marked his retirement and how he would meticulously repair them. He focuses on the moments that made him. He focuses on the “plus somethings.”
So why doesn’t it rate higher on the countdown? First, Harding has some Faulkner-esque moments where sentences either stretch nearly the length of a page or border on self-loving: “Let those grassy crafts be listed alongside the iron hulls that cleave the sea, for they are all improvisations built from the daydreams of men, and all will perish, whether from ocean siege or October breeze.” Ugh. Second, George’s death is too free of pain and terror and doubt. Or maybe just for my taste. But he just seems so calm and normal about the fact that he is dying that it doesn’t seem realistic. But lastly (and most importantly), although the story meant a lot to me personally because of my own dad’s death, I didn’t really care about the story. I wasn’t invested in George or his memories beyond what they told me about myself.
There was an article in the New York Times about six months ago written by a hospice nurse who spoke about the regrets of the dying. They regretted working too much, not being true to themselves, not having the courage to express their feelings, not keeping in touch with friends and not letting themselves be happier. I get that. But we all know what we’re going to regret. I mean, duh. But what will we remember? Regret is what we’ll think about when we can still choose what to think about. When that time is passed and we are at the point where we can no longer control our thoughts, we’ll think about those moments in our lives that are plus something. Those moments that defined us. The good shit. Like every word of every song on Led Zeppelin III.