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April 30, 2024

On Losing, Loving, Remembering & Moving with the Current.

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In The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, John Koenig defines amentalio as, “The sadness of realizing that you’re already forgetting sense memories of the departed—already struggling to hear their voice, picture the exact shade of their eyes, or call to mind the quirky little gestures you once knew by heart.”

It’s been four years since I lost my mother, and it’s devastating to think that I’m forgetting a little more of her every day. What breaks my heart even more, however, is the knowledge that there’s is nothing I can do about this.

When I first began writing this piece, I was torn between the many different directions it could take. Do I write about the vast endlessness of grief? Do I discuss the bittersweet importance of memories, however transient they may be? Or do I reflect on the inevitability of moving forward, even though our every instinct wants to keep us in the past—in the place where memories can never fade?

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote in The Great Gatsby, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” From the moment I first read these words, they haunted me: Are we destined to forever relive the past, always fighting to move forward in a world that keeps pulling us back?

There are days when I wake up with zest and enthusiasm, with a desire to take on the world; and on those days, the realization that I’m forever being drawn backward is tragic. And then there are days—like today—when the thought of memories fading into nothingness devastates me. I’m relieved that the past, at least, has a grip on me—even as I’m losing my grip on it.

Despite this relief, these days are spent in melancholy, idleness, and a haze of sadness that clouds my judgement and makes thinking (and working) impossible.

Yes, I have my memories—but what are they worth if they’re denying me my life?

It’s impossible to live simultaneously in the past and the present. The romantic in me wants to hold on, wants to be “borne back ceaselessly,” wants to preserve my memories and keep them fresh so that the fog of time may never blur them. But the only way to preserve them is to relive them, and to do that, I have to pull a cloak around myself so I can shut out the world and its endless movement.

But is that what I’m here for—to hold onto memories of someone who will never come back?

Like Fitzgerald, Emily Brontë uses a water metaphor to describe the inevitability of time; in contrast, she believes we are inevitably pushed forward, into the future, toward life:

“Sweet Love of youth, forgive, if I forget thee,

While the world’s tide is bearing me along;

Other desires and other hopes beset me,

Hopes which obscure, but cannot do thee wrong!”

Her love is gone, is buried, is “cold in the earth,” and by holding on too tightly, she is burying herself with him. She has to let go, not only because life compels her to, but because she wants to. It is her duty to continue living, even if that means forgetting.

My grandmother mourned my grandfather’s death for 37 years. Right until the moment she herself passed away, she cried whenever his name was mentioned. As a child, I greatly admired this: her ongoing devotion to him in a world that tried to force her to let go.

Looking back, however, I am compelled to reevaluate my opinion. Her fear of amentalio kept her anchored in the past. She could never move into the present, or embrace the future; and as a result, I’m sad to say, her life never amounted to much. She shut out friends, family, and the possibility of new loves, and chose instead to spend her days wrapped up in her cloak of grief and memories. She never allowed herself to produce or enjoy anything, and now, 12 years after her death, I have to honestly admit that she made no impression on the world. She was relieved to die, and the world was indifferent to her absence.

Why are we here? I don’t believe we were put on Earth to accumulate fame, money, and popularity by ruthlessly burying the past and forcing our way into the future. At the same time, I don’t think we are here to avoid life, either.

We exist so that we can live meaningfully—and living meaningfully can only happen in the present.

As much as I don’t want to go to my deathbed having forgotten the smell of my mother’s hair, the exact shade of brown of her eyes, or the wrinkles around her mouth whenever she smiled, I don’t want to die having wasted my life, either. And so, I choose to embrace my amentalio—even though it breaks my heart—because I have a duty to myself and to the world to keep on living.

I want to live hard, whatever that may mean, and I want to completely use up my potential so that I can safely say I tried my very best.

To quote poet and activist Andrea Gibson:

“Just to be clear, I don’t want to get out without a broken heart. I intend to leave this life so shattered, there better be a thousand separate heavens for all of my flying parts.”

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