Archive for April 25th, 2007

Yesterday afternoon, my aunt-in-law died. She had been in and out of the hospital since Christmas with congestive heart failure, so it wasn’t unexpected, except in the sense that all deaths are unexpected because you don’t believe in them until they happen. My mourning is private, at least so far as this blog goes, so all I’ll say about Mildred is that I respected and admired her for being tough without being callous, and observant without being indiscrete. But I will mention that what disturbs me most is that, as with too many other deaths, I don’t remember the last time I saw her before she died.

This loss of memory doesn’t always happen. I know that the last time I saw my father-in-law, he had just been transferred to intensive care and a machine was doing the breathing for him. Similarly, I remember seeing Fritz Leiber unconscious in a bed at California Pacific in San Francisco when we arrived on holiday to learn from his second wife Margo that he had collapsed. And in one or two cases, such as my grandfather, my lack of memory isn’t surprising because we had lost touch a couple of years before the death.

But, in other cases, the reason I don’t remember is that our last encounter was so routine. In each case, I can imaginatively reconstruct what the last visit must have been like in broad outlines, but I have no immediate memory of the details. I can, for example, imagine wheeling my father around the nursing home and pretending to understand his aphasic conversation, or discussing poetry with Paul Edwin Zimmer or Avram Davidson jokingly flirting with Trish from his wheelchair. Such incidents always happened when I saw these people in the last few years before they died.

In the same way, I can imagine Mildred inviting Trish and I in and sitting on one of her two chairs near the window. I can imagine her insisting on offering us tea, and leaving so she could get dress for dinner at the assisted living complex where she lived. These things always happened because of the personalities involved, and the time we usually dropped by for a visit.

But, as with other cases, these are logical assumptions, not memories. They lack emotional intensity, I’m ashamed to say. And that seems disrespectful. You should have strong emotional memories of the last time you saw someone close to you. Lacking any, part of me accuses the rest of being distant and uncaring. Perhaps, too, I want the comfort of such memories as I attempt to deal with a world diminished by their absence.

The trouble is, of course, you never know when the last time will actually be until after it’s past.

Maybe knowing that an encounter is the last would give the illusion that life is structured like a novel, and isn’t just a series of random events. But I didn’t get much closure the few times that I knew I was seeing friends or lovers for the last time, so my concern probably isn’t just a wish for structure. Maybe it’s more the case that, had I known that an encounter was the last, I could have said or done more to show my affection.

It would be easy to end this commentary with a cliché, such as a promise to act as though each encounter was the last. But that would be false and forced, and too intense for everybody.

All I really know is this: it hurts that I don’t remember those last times more clearly.

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