Happy Anniversary!” began the email I received from my Internet Service Provider. “Today, you’ve been with WorldLink for another year and we’re proud to have you.”
Ah, they remembered. I felt all gushy inside. Admittedly, we’ve had rocky times – such as the hours I’ve spent being told that our conversation might be recorded for quality purposes. Or the times I’ve been unable to log on because of technical reasons. But when you’re in a committed relationship, you just make it work.
Usually when I get an anniversary card, I shake the check out and then I look to see how much the card cost, but since neither can be done with email, I was hoping for a free offer.
“On your anniversary,” began their letter, “we’d appreciate your help in making sure that our customer information for you is up-to-date. Can you spare a couple of minutes?”
No gift! Just more demands! This relationship was looking too much like a one-way street. Their questions just spawned my own questions. What kind of relationship had this been if they weren’t sure where I lived? How happy could we have been if they weren’t sure of my name?
But, I understand. Anniversaries can be difficult. Some people find them hard because they can’t think of an appropriate gift while others can’t bear the hurtful memories they bring. But an anniversary where someone is unable to remember anything whatsoever can be especially difficult.
“Chaplain, I need you to talk to a patient,” the nurse began, her voice stuttering with ambiguity. The patient was having trouble recalling a basic fact about her husband with whom she shared 52 anniversaries. The nurse blurted past her hesitation, “Her husband died.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. When did he die?”
“Well, his death isn’t so much the problem. The problem is that he died last month, but she’s forgotten. When reminded of his death, she experiences the pain afresh.”
“Come again?” I too am approaching the age where some spouses are known to forget their loved one in a supermarket, but forgetting their spouse in a casket was a problem on a different level.
“She suffers from dementia,” she said, navigating a difficult explanation. “Last month, she grieved the loss of her husband, but now, five weeks later, she has forgotten his death.”
“Uh huh,” I nodded, “but not really.”
Just as predicted, when we both approached the patient with the news, she listened as if hearing it for the first time. We tried to explain that she had forgotten, but she just became more distressed as she wondered how she could have forgotten the death of one she loved so long.
Then the fear that she had forgotten gave way to the second fear. She realized that if she had forgotten he died, then, logically, she must have missed his funeral.
“How could I have missed it?” she asked. “We were married 52 years and I didn’t even go to his funeral.”
“Yes, you were there,” we assured her.
“No, I couldn’t have been there,” she argued. “How could I have forgotten to bury him? Surely my kids would have told me. I don’t think they know, do you? I have to go home and tell them.”
The two conclusions were trains barreling down on each from opposite ends of the track. She hated remembering that horrible day when the love stopped, yet she was stricken with the impact of having forgotten the love. “If I had truly loved him,” she explained, “I’d have remembered.”
We all find ourselves in a similar predicament as we approach the anniversary of an event that we too would like to forget. We loved our pre 9/11 life so much, that remembering is too painful. Yet, the more we force the amnesia, the darker our world becomes.
I frequently tell grieving people that the first year of loss will be the toughest as they face a year of first anniversaries. It will be the first birthday, Valentine Day, Christmas, and birthday that they will celebrate without their loved one – lots of first times.
In our national grief, we too have dreaded the holidays of this past year. With the approach of Christmas, New Years, and Independence Day, we braced ourselves for more terror as fear competed to become our new reality.
It was the first time we saw fighter jets protecting national monuments or flack-jacketed soldiers at our airports and it is certainly the first time this generation has ever spun a national grievance story into a collective hate for the face of one man.
There is a humiliating pain that exists from 11 Sept that will not go away simply by trying to forget it or by railing against how “this whole anniversary thing is being overdone.” The guilt that comes from wanting to forget will collide with the debt we owe to the heroes and survivors.
Like this woman in my story, the pain that comes with the guilt of forgetting will far surpass the pain we will feel from remembering. And like this woman who went looking for the phone to call and tell her children afresh of her loss, so we too must embrace our pain long enough so we do not forget to keep telling the story.