One Art: Losing Myself
It’s been more than a decade since I’ve seen Sister Ollie, one of my Nana’s dear friends. More than a decade. I’m old. And suddenly, for the first time, I feel old. A decade since I’ve seen her, yet I’ve been crying on and off today after learning of her death. The thing I remember most about Sister Ollie is that she had the same sweet, slow tone to her voice as my Nana. And the same sincerity. And the same faith.
My own Nana died many years ago. I watched her as she died.
“I always loved you best,” I told her, while my mother consulted with the doctor. I used the past tense, even though she was awake and fully conscious. I used the past tense while in the present. The way I spoke those words haunted me for years afterwards.
Loss. It’s stolen me again. I’m slowly disappearing, as truly as if my limbs were, one by one, growing paler and paler. Then invisible.
I should have visited Sister Ollie last time I was in the U.S. I could have asked her to tell stories about my Nana. I could have asked if she had anything that had been made by my Nana. I don’t. While I was living abroad, my parents threw out all the things they didn’t value, which included a large portion of my belongings. I can’t fault them entirely. I’m something of a hoarder. Holding onto possessions makes me feel safe. Secure. Like . . . it’s okay if I feel lost at times because I have this thing to hold onto.
Some people are okay with just their memories. I need something I can hold in my hands. I have precious little of those things now. The items thrown away included the afghans my Nana had crocheted with her own sweet hands. The soft, wrinkled hands she’d clasp together and pray to her beloved Jesus with. The same hands she’d use to gather me to her, to hold me close for comfort.I considered the afghans she’d crocheted too precious to take with me while I lived in South Korea; I wasn’t willing to risk them getting lost by the airlines.
“What about my Memory Chest?” I asked my mother, who told me about her clean-up on the way back from the airport, the last time I visited her.
“Oh, don’t worry. I know how much you like your kitten chest. Of course I saved it.”
Inside my Memory Chest I had stowed away every important memory from the time I was 6 years old and wrote my first long story (which, oddly, included a chapter wherein Strawberry Shortcake had a baby. I believe the exact wording I used included: “Push. Push. Wahhh!” Amazing how accurately I portrayed childbirth.) It contained a bag that held pressed, black-red rose petals — from the first roses I’d ever received — from my first sweetheart. It had cat paperdolls drawn by my best friend from childhood, and fancy paper ballgowns that I’d drawn and painted to dress them in. It held diaries that read like stories, written in my adolescence. Programs from my theatre days, all the shows I’d acted in. The first love letter someone wrote to me. Newspaper clippings with my picture or something I’d said quoted in them. (For some reason, I was really popular with newspapers. No matter where I lived, I’d somehow — almost always for a different reason — appear in the local newspaper at least once a year.) My Memory Chest held poems I’d carefully composed. Words of praise written to me by former teachers. Letters I’d written as a child to my adult self, sealed for years and waiting to be read. So I went to the attic, and with every hope in my heart, opened that chest. It was filled with dishes. I think it was dishes. Something like that, anyway. Something useful, and utterly impersonal. The chest itself remained, as my mother had promised, but all of my precious memories had been rummaged through and discarded.
There are more people I’ve lost recently, too. Last year, I learned that one of my favourite university professors died. I’d always meant to return to Dr. McGovern, show her something I did or wrote or achieved. Something really special. She had such utter faith in me, far more than I’ve ever had in myself. Only I never felt like I did or achieved anything worthwhile to show her. So I let go of her, waiting to see her again when I felt I was good enough. And she died before I ever was.
Loss further back. There’s also my best friend from childhood, who died in her early 20s. Amy was my childhood. There’s hardly a happy memory from my youth that did not include her. And I can’t forget my little cat, Bacci, who I raised since he was so tiny he fit fully into the palm of my hand. I loved him like he was a person. And my parents, though I’m pleased to say they’re living and healthy so far as I know — I’m estranged from them. It’s something I chose, and though I won’t explain my reasons for it, it’s for the best. Nonetheless, I still count it among my losses.
Living in a different country than my homeland . . . it’s strange. No one remembers me here. No one remembers me young. How I was painfully sensitive, stupidly optimistic, much smarter and stronger than I ever believed myself to be. I was so, so sensitive that I barely spoke — for years. I didn’t want anyone to hurt my feelings. I didn’t want to get in trouble. But I loved people, deeply, and I was a social creature at heart. I would silently study the people around me and have long, full conversations with them in my head, with their replies being as true to their personalities as I could gather from my observations. Now that I’m older, I own myself more. I’m no longer afraid to speak. But here, in a foreign country as an adult — I exist solely as the person I am now. Nothing deeper. I could have come from anywhere. Been anything.
I feel like I’m losing my own past. I’m walking over a bridge, and with each step I take, another plank behind me falls into the river. There is no return for me. Be it better or worse, I can only keep moving forward.
When my child takes his nap, he often needs the comfort of my presence in order to sleep. So when he cries, I crawl into bed next to him and roll him onto my chest. He presses his warm little body against mine, curls his head over my heart and listens to his first home, the heartbeat he’s known before even entering the world, and quickly falls asleep. And the weight of him, his small warm body, the rhythm of his breath that syncs with mine so that we breathe as one, holds me in place. My soul feels as light as a helium balloon sometimes, barely connected to my body, trying to float away to another place. But my child holds me down, tethers me to the earth. This is what I now have, I think, the present, and I sigh and I tenderly kiss him before falling into a troubled sleep myself.
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by Elizabeth Bishop