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Death and memory

Death and memory

by Marilyn McCord Adams



In my generation, Joan would have been a history professor.  Her mind was sharp; her critical edge for weighing evidence, instinctive.  Reading the bible had been enough for her to reinvent the higher criticism.  Because she was a minister’s wife in sometimes conservative congregations, she usually kept such thoughts to herself.  Instead, she fine-tooth-combed libraries and archives, sifting evidence to trace multiple branches of her family tree back to the old countries.  Sometimes, over dinner, she would regale her children and grandchildren with tales about colorful and scurrilous ancestors, whose misdeeds were tucked safely in the past, over two centuries ago.


In her late eighties and early nineties Joan’s memory began to fade, slowly at first and then more rapidly.  One day, she asked her daughter, “how many husbands did I have?”  Anne got out photo albums, put names to faces, identified the relatives: parents, brother, husband and in-laws; aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews.  Unable to take it in, Joan fell silent.  Then she exclaimed: “you are my memory now!”


It is one thing for the body to stiffen and atrophy, wear out, “dust to dust” returning.  But it is another when the mind has such difficulty pulling itself into focus enough to pay attention, when it becomes such an effort to connect one thought with another.  Dementia carries this process to its logical conclusion.  Not only does it make us forget our life stories.  It robs us of the recognition that we are anyone at all.


If ageing and Alzheimer’s “fade out” the person before our very eyes, what happens in death?  Not only do we want people to remember us after we die.  We want someone to remember being us.  We want to go on being us.  But what sense does it make to speak of our surviving death?  How can we be us, the very persons we have become, if we can no longer remember the most significant factors of our past lives?


Despite her condition, Joan sensed the answer.  “You are my memory now!”  God is our memory.  God is the one who gathers up the fragments, all of the episodes of our lives, and holds them all together, lest any be lost.  When our brains can no longer preserve the traces or make the connections, God remembers us–everything we have been and done, all of our experiences, our successes and failures, our significant others, what projects and purposes we have pursued.  God appreciates what we have suffered, what we have meant to other people, and what we have achieved in our lives.


Certainly, because we do not want to vanish without a trace, it is comforting to think that we will be eternally preserved as objects of God’s memory.  But our hopes were greedier.  We not only want other people to remember us.  We want to remember being us, so that we can keep on being us!


Yet, even if we are not God and God is not us, it is a mistake to think of God as if God were just anybody else.  For human beings, God is a significant other.  Willy nilly, we live and function as human beings only in partnership with God.


Once again, Joan’s interaction with Anne is suggestive.  As adults, the two women were distinct persons, each with her own views and values.  Each deliberated her own choices and made up her own mind.  Yet, Joan and Anne were not strangers but mother and daughter.  When Anne was first born, Joan was her memory–keeping track of when she had been fed and changed, when she had gone out in the buggy or smiled her first smile.  Joan was also the interpreter of Anne’s desires and the anticipator of her needs.


Throughout childhood, Joan continued to be the one who organized the wider frame within which Anne lived her life.  Joan and her (one and only) husband Sam decided where they should live, maintained the household, provided clothing and food and transportation, located the most suitable schools.  As Anne grew up, Joan handed more and more of Anne’s life over to Anne, until she emerged as a fully autonomous adult.  Because–even after Anne married–they lived in adjacent towns, they were in each other’s homes on a weekly basis.  There was a track-record of counting on each other for things large and small.  Their knowledge of each other was deep and intimate.  Trust was well-grounded, and trust levels were high.


The later stages of senior citizenship reversed that process.  Little by little, Joan handed over, and Anne became responsible for organizing the frame of her mother’s daily life: arranging for yard work and roof repairs, advising on business decisions, negotiating with live-in help, eventually signing the checks to pay the bills and doing the accounting.  Joan’s exclamation–“You are my memory now!”–crystallized what had been happening for some time: she had been handing over her life to Anne for safe-keeping.


The infant, safe and content in mother’s arms, is only just becoming a self.  Its dependence is natural.  It experiences it, but it doesn’t conceive of itself as giving up what it has not yet acquired.  The other end of life is different.  Joan had decades of adulthood behind her, during which she had become a person of distinctive virtues and skills, not least of which were high degrees of discretion and self-control.  Ageing made it necessary to let go of one thing after another.  It is a tribute to Joan and to Anne, the extent to which Joan was able to surrender gracefully, entrusting herself into loving hands.


So also, and all the more so with God.  Godhead is really present everywhere and always.  Nothing could be if God were not there holding it in existence.  Nothing could do anything if God were not acting together with it.  With personal creatures this means that Holy Spirit is with us always, moving over all dimensions of our personality, drawing out our capacity to be personal, to enter into one another’s points of views, to give and receive love, drawing out our capacity to be spiritual, to traffic with God.  Indwelling Godhead does not aim at the impossibility of making us peers, but at something equally radical.  God draws us up into conscious and intentional lived partnership, to such an extent that our personalities are restructured, so that friendship with God becomes the core of who we are.


The mother indwells the child’s person only for a few months, but God is our eternal life partner. God is the One Who holds the fragments of our lives together when we forget.  God is our memory not only now when we do remember, but in infancy when we were too immature to remember and in old age when we lose our ability to remember.


Once again, we are material persons.  It is amazing that material is able to evolve structures that can host personal life.  But these structures are fragile.  The storage capacity of our brains and muscles is limited.  There are only so many neural connectors available to support our ability to put things together.  There is no time in our life when we can keep track of everything we have experienced, consciously or unconsciously, even the meaningful experiences we have had.  Indwelling Godhead is our back-up storage, that moves over our depths, aware of unconscious as well as conscious contents and dynamics.  So God always knows us better than we know ourselves.


God is the One in Whom we live and move and have our being.  God holds all the fragments that none may be lost.  In various stages of our lives, God makes some of them available to us, works with us to spark connections.  The Good News is that even when we lose our grip, God is holding all in readiness.  For the faithful like Joan, who have entered into that lived partnership consciously and voluntarily as adults, fading memory and weakening grip evoke an act of trust, that hands over more and more of herself to God for safe-keeping.


One day, a year or so before her death, son-in-law Bill asked Joan: “what do you think comes next?”  She replied: “I don’t know, but I’m sure it will be good, because God will arrange for it.”


Death is the ultimate act of trust, trust in God, who created us, in God, who has all along enabled us to be material persons.  Without fully understanding how, lifelong familiarity convinces us: God can be counted upon to reshape material stuff into structures that can receive a download of our memories.  God is resourceful to rebirth us into remembering being us, so that we can continue to be us again.




The Reverend Canon Marilyn McCord Adams is a priest and philosopher. She is Distinguished Research Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University, and was previosuly Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University, and the Horace Tracy Pitkin Professor of Historical Theology at Yale University


image: Memory (The Heart) by Frido Kahlo


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JC Fisher

“Little by little, Joan handed over, and Anne became responsible for organizing the frame of her mother’s daily life: arranging for yard work and roof repairs, advising on business decisions, negotiating with live-in help, eventually signing the checks to pay the bills and doing the accounting. Joan’s exclamation–“You are my memory now!”–crystallized what had been happening for some time: she had been handing over her life to Anne for safe-keeping.”

I’m in Anne’s role now (the earlier part). Please pray for me and my father.

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