I don’t like memories. Well, that’s not strictly true. I like the things I remember and I like the ability to recognize the people, place, or thing that I’ve encountered before. I don’t like making memories. Well, that’s not entirely correct either. I just don’t like the process where something that’s been part of my life becomes a memory. There. That’s getting closer to the thing.
I’ll tell you why I don’t like the memory-becoming process. It starts with goodbyes. Now, I’ve said a lot of goodbyes in my life—as most people have. I’ve always found that moment when you realize you’re looking at the life in someone’s eyes for the last time both sad and sweet. I’ve never clung to the notion that life will always continue the same as it always has.
Honestly, my ability to say goodbye and move on makes me a bad long-distance friend. I keep in touch with no one from high school and only a handful from college—and those more because they keep in touch with me. As an adult, moves, new jobs, new churches have taken me from one thing to another. Nothing in life remains the same for long and, when it does, other people’s changing lives change mine.
In the passing years of saying goodbye I’ve noticed something about the birth of a memory. Most people think (as I often do) that a memory springs into existence from the moment you take your first bite of sushi, meet someone for the first time, or slip on ice and drop your latte. A thing happens, a memory’s born. Right?
Maybe. But in my experience, there’s a strange in-between stage where something, especially people, continues to actually live inside you for a while. For instance, I recently moved. I packed a twenty-six-foot truck and trekked across the country with my family. That meant saying goodbye to a lot of people who’d taken up residence in my life.
I mean that literally. The people we interact with every day live in us in a sort of way. I’ve noticed it most clearly in the one or two days that followed my goodbyes. I’ve felt the sensation before, but, for the first time, I feel like I can actually put it to words.
There’s a kind of slipping feel when I lose hold of the essence of a person. Even as I pack my bags and leave them physically, they begin to load up their own suitcases and leave me. Only, not right away. In the days that follow a goodbye, my brain retains the ability to accurately reproduce the person’s voice in my mind, to remember the scent they bring into a room, to recreate the small movements that is their own special ballet of expression.
But as time wears on, each person slips ever so defiantly from residence into memory. I’ve tried to fight it before. I’ve forced my mind to replay my last moments with a friend over and over again until they start to feel strange in the way a word does if you say it out loud too many times. I’ve tried to embed their voice in my head like a favorite song set inexorably to repeat. I’ve even attempted the chemically impossible and tried to hold onto the memory of a smell.
But, like the inexorable nature of canyon-carving rivers, every person must leave me, and my brain must convert the intangible filaments of their whole person into the hard data of memory. With my recent move, I’ve watched that process happen in detail. For a few days I was able to hold onto people—make them stay in my life and my mind. But eventually each of them left me with just a memory.
Memories themselves become hard to hold onto, taking the form of little lies. You’ve likely heard it said that you never actually remember anything as it truly was—you only ever remember the last time you remembered something. It’s the difference between looking at the rolling line of fire-flecked gold that is the Appalachian Mountains in the fall versus the picture you took of it. Both are true. They accurately represent the thing. But one is a living impression—the other a glossy memory devoid of depth.
And so it is with people. For the first few days after saying goodbye, I can hold onto the sheer physicality of a person’s life impressing itself into mine. But then the flattening happens. Their voice starts to sound conspicuously like the one that’s always narrating my inner life. Their living form compresses and becomes a series of moving still-photos in the jerky way of claymation. Their complexity vanishes. The intricate webbing of a living thing ends up smashed into a picture. Into data.
And thus a memory is born.
Sure, with the prevalence of selfie-driven social media, our memories have tools to make that data set as accurate as possible. Once the accursed memory’s born, it doesn’t have to fade. We know what the people we miss still look like, and, if they’re so inclined, we can watch them age as their digital feeds testify to the passage of time.
With phones we can hear the sound of their voice—compressed, digitized, and flung across space before filtering through felt and into our ears. With bytes of digital data our brains can spruce up the memory of a person, cataloguing facts and truths about them. But a memory will never fill the void that people leave when they say goodbye.
In my most recent move, I’ve tried to watch the memory-birthing take place with a feigned, dead-inside detachment. It took just under a week for people to turn into the paper-thin reproductions of my mind’s data storage centers. I knew it was coming this time, and it hurt just the same. But knowing that a person’s presence will inevitably become memory changed something in me.
For the first time in a long time, I’ve desperately wanted to stay connected with the people whose beings pressed almost physically into the inmost corners of my life. And I hope. I hope for the day when I see those people again. I know they’ll be different people. After all, the picture never does the real thing justice. My constant accessing of the memory will have worn it down to the point that it’ll be far different to the person standing in front of me. Any cracks in the remembering I’ll have filled in with my own imagination or wishes, and I’ll likely have been wrong.
So seeing the people I’ve come to love again will be a surprise as well as a relief. They’ll be new persons. They’ll make a different kind of impression in the soft clay of my life. People who, even though they might fit back into the old rhythms of living, will have new music to their lives. I’ll fill my eyes and arms and nostrils with them again, and, for the moment, the memory can die.
Ultimately, memories are lies—comforting, beautiful lies. Something we hold onto because there’s literally nothing else. But I feel like for the first time in my life, I want to be a better friend—to hold onto something more than the memory. I want to hold on to the people.
Because people are better than the lie.
Cover image by Isaac Wendland