What am I composed of? You? I don’t mean our physical bodies – but the person we are; the being, the entity. Where does it reside …this ‘state of being’? How does it die?
I have this really favorite phuppa (uncle) who has had a profound impact on my thinking. He is a top public servant and former advisor to the government. Deeply God-fearing and inconveniently honest, this father-figure is also the most well-read man I’ve ever encountered. And he’s the type who, if asked a question, will pluck books out of his massive collection and sit down for a discussion (not a lecture though) that could go on for hours on end. As a result, we’ve spent innumerable family dinners – hunched over scripture, books on Jewish history, essays on terrorism, collections of paintings and memoirs of WWII generals. Looking back, I feel as though I had started to look up to him even more after my father passed away in 2002.
Embroiled in reading, points and counter-points, sometimes it felt like I could see inside his head – where an immaculate, intelligent mind was struggling to cope with my naïveté. And he would, too, see inside my head where I was clearly arrogant, impatient but curious nonetheless. Those were times when ideas would flow directly from one mind to another – without the barriers of language, age or cultures.
I went to visit them last week. And my phuppa, now nearly 80, is losing control of his mental faculties. He does not recognize my aunt, thinks his nieces are his daughters and keeps on asking my name. Its heartbreaking! He has clearly forgotten all the fascinating debates we’ve had and the times we combed through old books tracing ancient Egyptian dynasties. Decades of conversations, ideas and thoughts – suddenly lost!
All this makes me think: those ideas, debates and disagreements – they formed me. They were, in my mind, a bunch of words, ideas and emotions that constituted me (in part at least). And now, that part of me is lost. More loss will come soon. Sure – for every word forgotten by others, I have corresponding memories – but are they good enough? How often have I altered my memories – to forget a disastrous first lay? To forgive a now-deceased teacher?
That’s why, my memories need a verification mechanism: like when I say to a friend “remember that time we ____ ?” (S)he remembers and then we snigger together. How annoying is it when they don’t remember? I try and try to introduce more and more details – bludgeoning the story with additional details in a frenzy. Why is that? Why do I feel so helpless and so mad when a cohort’s memory doesn’t corroborate mine? Why does the lack of corroboration weaken the significance of a particular memory?
Perhaps, its because I, as a human being, go through most of my experiences personally – but also vicariously. I pull people in to share my joy, grief and my boredom – interpret how my companions have enjoyed/suffered the experience, what they’ve brought to the table and add that to my repository. In that way, (s)he becomes a part of me – and I, them.
Then, perhaps, I am nothing more than the sum of my ideas, thoughts and emotions stored in the souls of the people I’ve met. And as their memories perish, a little part of me dies. Perhaps, every parent lost, every relationship broken, every friend abandoned and every phuppa distanced – is an installment of my decay.