I've been running into a recurring theme lately: people being reminded of significant incidents and people from their pasts that they hadn't thought of for some time. A wonderful journalist and friend who goes by the alias Hollywood Spinster recently posted in her blog about the confused and complex feelings that occurred when she learned that an old boyfriend had died. She was visiting the country where she'd once lived with him, decades earlier, and decided to google him-as one would-, only to find his obituary from two years ago. She writes movingly about her unsettled emotions over the discovery here: http://hollywoodspinster.wordpress.com/2012/01/26/death-of-an-ex/
I'm involved in planning a large school reunion in my home town of Eagle River, Wisconsin. A place I haven't visited since my mother's death there, 29 years ago. Although I'd recently reconnected with many friends from the North Woods on Facebook, there were some I knew I'd have to call. Like one of my mother's closest friends, whose annual Christmas cards I'd left unanswered for decades. I finally found her number and called. Understandably, she was surprised to hear from me, but she was friendly and engaging. It wasn't until about 8 minutes into the conversation that I discovered she thought I was my mother. After correcting her, and more discussion, I realized that she clearly had pervasive dementia. The last time I'd seen her was when she was in her 50's. She's now 86.
After hanging up, I broke down in tears and wasn't sure why. Guilt, that I'd not communicated with her for so long and now, meaningful communication was impossible? In part. Speculation that, since my mother and her friend had been the same age, my mother might have also had dementia if she'd lived? I think it was an example of how the passing of time can bring startling changes to our old realities. Especially when you step back into a world you'd left long ago. In your head, everything is as you'd left it. In reality, nothing's stayed the same.
Another person recently blogged that, given our longer life spans, people are reinventing themselves multiple times in a lifetime. Reading it, you couldn't help but feel energized and optimistic. I thought about how many times I felt my life had truly taken new directions: certainly, when I changed from being single to being married. And again, when I became a mother. And, now that the more time-intensive years of motherhood are subsiding, I feel like I'm on a new journey with my writing.
Yet, with all the forward momentum, there are those stark moments when something unexpected triggers a memory and you stand still, suddenly remembering being in a different place, talking with a person you'd almost forgotten. You hear an old friend's laugh, remember an old boyfriend's smile. And I realize that it's not so much that we move forward and have a "new life". It's all part of the same book, just a new chapter. And you can't fully experience Chapter Twenty if you forgot what happened in the worn and dog-eared pages that came before it.