I am forgetting her. I hate it. Now, over two years after her death, I have a hard time remembering her. I knew this was inevitable. The longer we live without her, the harder it is to remember what Maria was like. It’s been a while since I sat down and looked at videos of her. Most days it’s just too hard. When I do watch videos they spark my memory, but this just raises a difficult question. Am I really remembering her or am I forming my mental images of her on these videos? Videos are not alive. They are not her. Increasingly the memories I have of Maria are only the mental images from photos and videos. I can’t picture her in any other form. My other memories are gone. I am forgetting her.
When I was in my early twenties, I became enamored with the writings of Henri Nouwen. Nouwen was a Catholic priest, writer, and theologian. He was an academic who taught at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard, but he eventually left the prestige and acclaim of the university and moved to Toronto to live among and care for the mentally handicap. He left the best and the brightest to serve the most needy and vulnerable. I was impressed with his life.
I had initially borrowed one of Nouwen’s books from a library and then proceeded to purchase and read another fifteen or so of his books over the next two years. During this period of time I was developing my own philosophy of life and ministry. I thought a lot about my future and the principles I would live by. Like most ideological young men, I thought I had some great ideas about how I would impact and change the world. There were several principles that I was particularly passionate about, and I thought I was quite brilliant for developing my profound ideas. If only everyone was so wise as my twenty-two year old self!
Skip ahead seven or eight years. I had moved on to other authors and ambitions in my late twenties. I was married and getting more established in life, but I still believed in some of the key principles I had developed in my early twenties. I hadn’t read any of Nouwen’s books for a few years when I came across one of his short books that wasn’t part of my collection. I had no recollection of reading this book, but as I cracked it open, it all started coming back to me. I had completely forgotten about this little gem. It was the first Nouwen book that I had borrowed from the library years before. It is the original book that sparked my interest in Henri Nouwen, but I had completely forgotten about it. Then, I made an even more startling discovery. All of the brilliant principles that I had developed in my early twenties were taken directly from this little book! I wasn’t profound at all. I had simply stolen Nouwen’s ideas and then forgot that the ideas were his. So much for all of my youthful wisdom and originality!
This experience not only humbled me, it taught me something about formation and memory. I had no direct awareness of this book. I had completely forgotten it and could not have recollected any of its content. Yet, I was deeply formed by the book. I couldn’t have recalled its title, themes, or anecdotes, but the ideas it contained had penetrated deeper than my conscious memory. This book continued to shape my beliefs and my character long after I had forgotten it. It formed the man I was becoming despite the fact that I had lost the memory.
I wonder if my memories of Maria are similar to my awareness of that forgotten book. As I forget more and more details of her life, it does not mean that her value is diminished or that my love for her has lessened. It simply shows my brain’s inadequacy to sustain memory. All memories fade in time. My memories of Maria’s life continue to diminish, but her life, the person she was, continues to shape me, deeper than I am aware. I am forgetting her. But, her life still impacts all of us. She has shaped my family more than I can know or grasp. Her life mattered deeply to all of us, even if we can’t fully remember her life. Her life mattered, even if I am forgetting her.