On the nature of memory, a gift we cannot keep

Kenn Orphan
4 min readJan 19, 2023

Since the onset of my mother’s dementia, I’ve thought a lot about the nature of memory. I never realized fully how malleable it is. Or how subject it is to the influence of trauma or ecstasy or boredom or sensation.

We tend to think memory is forever. That it is a constant. I think this helps us to feel less terrified at the randomness that often seems to define our days. But it isn’t.

I never imagined my mother would forget that I am her son. Worse, I never imagined she would eventually forget the love of her life. But my father, many years gone, has gone too from her memory. Perhaps only returning like some draft from a door left ajar on a blustery day.

Memory is the foundation of so many things’ we humans consider essential. It has been passed down in spoken stories, scribed on great scrolls, etched in stone, printed in bound up reams of paper, digitalized. It has been studied, examined and analyzed for court documents and civil arrangements. Used as a bludgeon by some, and a caress by others. And yet, even after the thousands of years our ancestors descended from the trees of the savannah, it is a mystery.

A couple months ago, I drove by an old cemetery. They are quite common here in Nova Scotia. Sometimes meticulously maintained, but often covered in bramble and vines. This one was a bit of both. I stopped the car and ambled toward the gates with a bit of trepidation as I went.

After a time, I realized that I had been standing in front of one tombstone. My mind had drifted to another place, but my body stood in this one. I looked at the engraving on the stone:

Gone, but not forgotten

A simple wish. A fervent belief. A last gasp of grief. I could not know what feelings or thoughts were going through the minds of those left on this side of the veil. But I could fathom the pain. We all want this, after all. To remember. To be remembered. Because we all know we will eventually be gone from this earthly plain. And then I thought of my mother. How she has forgotten. And she is not yet gone.

But I began to realize that memory is more than the pieces and shards of recollection we store in our heads. There is memory in our skin. Memory in our breath. Memory in every part of our senses. There is the memory of water. The memory of stone. The memory of soil. The memory of sky.

This thought provided me some comfort as I wandered back to the car. But I would be lying if I said it wiped away most of the fear or pangs of grief that seem to meet me at the most inopportune times. Because these days, I am living in my head. And this is where memory asserts itself like an insolent child. Demanding my attention every minute.

Since my mother’s diagnosis, I’ve feared losing my own memory. Any inkling that this is happening is met with a fierce internal battle. I SHALL NOT FORGET! I shout it in my mind. As if to defy Mnemosyne, the god of memory. As if to mark a moment in time, a line in the sand that cannot be crossed. But the truth is that I may forget, and probably will.

When I got home, I had a message from a friend who had end stage cancer. It said: “hope to talk to you soon.” I felt a sudden sting of panic and called him within minutes. I thought, lest I forget. “Tomorrow, I am going to visit my mother,” I told him. “I remember her. One of the kindest people I’ve ever met,” he replied. I didn’t realize that this would be the last time I would ever speak to him.

The next day I saw my mother. She was sitting up, doing a word search puzzle in a book that seemed to weigh more than she did. “Hi mom. How are you?” She looked up at me from the intensity of the printed conundrum and replied with a bright smile; “Hello Kenny.” I knew that she wasn’t greeting me as her son, but as one of her brothers. Because her life as my mother is all but forgotten to her. Decades are now erased from her world. But she still remembers my name. So, I will take that as a gift. Because it is. And because I’ve come to realize that memory, itself, is a gift. And, like all gifts, be it water, or breath, or life, it must eventually be returned to its source.

Kenn Orphan, January 2023