The Unbearable Lightness of Decaying

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?

Decay, by Murray
Decay, by Murray

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!

decay - storyteller

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.

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8 comments

  1. I am so sorry that you lost your father, and to hear of your phuppa’s condition; it is heartbreaking. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and stories with us. You are an unbelievably talented writer. Please keep writing.

    • Thank you so very much: I guess its true that the World is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel. Tragic, huh? But seriously, you’re too generous with your compliments. Please come back.

  2. I understood your feeling completely. My grandfather is experiencing the same mental decay as your beloved uncle… When I went to stay with him, he thought of me as nothing but a strange guest in his home. At least you have the many memories. It is hard to take, but I believe that my grandfather, and your uncle at the most subconscious level, are still present.

    • So sorry to hear about your grandfather, Stephanie. But I do love the thought that they’re still present. I guess as parts of us disintegrate, and we forge new connections, go on blogs and form new content, new conversations: perhaps that’s how it must work. Thanks for sharing a bit of your life here. I feel honored.

  3. I lost my grandmother to dementia. As her remarkable mind slipped away, I took solace in the knowledge and view of the world she had passed on to me. I smiled, knowing she would live on with me, knowing I would pass her on to my children, and be richer for having been touched by her. 🙂

    • There you are – eloquent as ever! While I feel sad for your loss, the prospect of you passing on your grandmother’s worldview helps me find meaning. It makes me anxious too: did they really live more meaningful, profound and honest lives? Could there be a decay of values and morals as this happens? But I guess that’s another can of worms. Thanks for writing about you grandmother. Wherever she is, I know she’s spreading that beautiful spirit of hers.

      • I was sad when she was no longer able to recognize me, in part because I had so many more questions to ask her.

        Take a peak at this post of mine and it will become clear…

        http://notestoponder.wordpress.com/2012/11/28/regret/

        As for more meaningful or profound lives – oh hell no! Exactly the opposite which is what made her so remarkable.She made mistakes, horrible choices, yet never let them take her down. She was smart, funny, and exquisitely human. She taught me about the importance of “self” despite stereotypical expectations. She taught me to embrace life, accept frailty, and to thumb my nose at people who judged me.She taught me to think for myself – and above all to question 🙂

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