Things we’re all too young to know

I wonder why I remember some moments and not others. Obviously, going to Copenhagen made a big impression: without that trip, this blog wouldn’t exist. My memory stutters along, large gaps strung together with brief glimpses between like photographs, and short films that fade on either end into nothingness. I have taken my kids to parks more times than I can count, but I remember “going to the park” as the morning that my son, at less than two years old, wouldn’t sleep, so we walked over to play on the swings at 5am, and he sat on my lap on the big kid swings and laughed as the sun came up. “Going to the park” is also the afternoon my daughter ran off, barefoot, in a crowd at Golden Gate Park, leaving me searching for over half an hour until another mom spotted me looking panicked and carrying her shoes, and came over to ask if I was looking for a little girl. She had wandered over to the carrousel and was on her 10th free ride. She’d told the operator she’d lost her mommy, which was true, although it hadn’t exactly been unintentional. I remember we had ridden the Brompton that day.

I wonder why those particular events stuck in my memory rather than a hundred other times when my kids did more or less the same things. Why do I forget so much? The memories that are left take on the weight of all the other experiences I have forgotten, invested with more than they really contain. On reflection I think that they are times that I felt alive. I spend a lot of my time working in an office or sleeping. These things are not memorable because it feels as if nothing is happening. Time spent watching television blends into a slurry of sameness, and the driving parts of the road trips I’ve taken are largely, and happily, forgotten. I remember more of my bicycle commutes than I do of our old car commutes. I remember going to Disneyland as a child, but nothing of the drive there. The dark side of this forgetting is the expectation that the time drivers lose is truly forgettable, which turned out to be extremely untrue when one of them ran me down. I don’t know how to value the time that was lost, or the time that will be lost.

Four months ago, I learned that a friend from childhood (a lifelong non-smoker) had been diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic lung cancer. Now that I work in cancer prevention, I know that there are cancers that are unlikely to kill you (endometrial, skin), and cancers that are likely to kill you pretty soon (liver, pancreas). And then there is lung cancer, probably the only cancer that can make people wish they’d been diagnosed with liver cancer instead.

With an old friend, the memories crowd each other even with all the things that I’ve forgotten. We were lab partners in high school chemistry, a subject in which she excelled and in which I definitely did not excel. She showed me how to see the phosphorescence in the bay, we drew cartoons of the ridiculous books we read, and we dated the same boy, sequentially and cheerfully. During summers in college I would come home after long bike rides to read emails she’d written from Costa Rica or Madagascar, and there are bits of knowledge I carry even now from them, like that countries that were once French colonies have less wildlife than their neighbors because the French ate everything. When we sailed in the afternoons in Birch Bay the water was so shallow that the sun baked it all afternoon until the bay became the world’s largest hot tub. In graduate school we hiked through the Berkeley Hills and shopped at the Davis farmers’ market. I visited her in Bodega Bay during the summer that she had to haul buckets of water every day to save the patches of wild strawberries that she studied for her dissertation. When she became a postdoc in the UK I learned that American PhDs were worth more than European doctorates, which turned out to be useful knowledge when I lived in France. She and her husband visited when my children were born, bringing fruit and cheese and crackers before I was even ready to leave the house. Her work changed over time, to tracking the viruses used in bioterrorism, so every few years the FBI would call me with more questions about our past as her security clearance grew more rarified. And so I remember more than I would otherwise, more than I could write about or share. But it never seemed to matter when I remembered and what I forgot, because there was always more time. Until suddenly, there wasn’t.

Even with so many memories there are some that return, again and again. I remember one summer afternoon, when we met at the park by the bay. I rode my bike, the red Nishiki 10-speed mixte that I rode everywhere then, and she rode hers. I locked up while she did aerial cartwheels on the grass. We walked to the beach and looked through the tide pools, dissected some of the dead wildlife, and considered checking out the body of a seal. We decided against it because we hadn’t brought gloves and it was starting to smell. We talked about everything and nothing.

What makes that memorable? Why does my mind keep returning to that afternoon? My red bike. A green cable lock. The fractal edge of a rocky beach. The sun in the sky. How does one memory hold so much weight? She says she is not afraid to die. I wish I remembered everything.

 

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Things we’re all too young to know

  1. This is a gorgeous post and collection of loved memories. The fear of losing someone when you thought you had decades left to live is impossible to put in to words. A couple years ago I lost a beloved mentor from cancer and there are two words she left me with that are now tattooed on my body, “Live Life”, because today is too precious to let it slip by.

  2. mary

    I agree memories are odd and lung cancer and losing people are both hard. I too had a friend, marathon runner and never smoker, who was diagnosed with stage 4 inoperable lung cancer. A mystery.
    My thoughts go out to you all.

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