When I was nine years old I wanted to be an architect. And an astronaut. But I don’t trust 9-year-old me. He also wanted a wife.
He probably still does. That's the funny thing about change that we don't acknowledge. The desires and hopes and dreams we have for ourselves don't ever really go away. The job you should have taken. The crush you wish you had been more vulnerable with. Or less. None of it ever leaves. It just hardens. Like a scar.
Last month, my step-grandmother died. I usually just say grandmother, especially to people who I have no intention of meeting again. When anyone talks about their age, I bring her up.
“She was 107 when she died,” I say proudly, before having to acknowledge that she and I weren’t actually related, that I’ll inherit none of her genes, and that all of my biological grandparents passed away in their mid to late 70s, which means I’m about halfway out the door.
Whenever I think about this, I pause for a second to tell myself some ego-protective story like,
“Hush, child, you’re okay. You still have quite a while. You’re 32 now and you didn’t really know yourself till 25, which means you’ve only really been yourself for 7 years...so, assuming you live till 75, (75-25 = 50…and 7/50 is 14%), in this most recent version of Alex, you still have 86% left.”
But that’s not very true. As we age, time goes by faster. Each day feels a little bit shorter, each memory, a little more trimmed. There are hypotheses as to why. Some people think that as we get older, our brains are capable of processing less, so each memory, each day, has fewer bits.
Others believe that the perceived increase in pace is because the stimuli in every successive memory are less profound. There’s less of a need to remember as you move through a world you already understand. As an adolescent, the first time I drank alcohol, had a one-night stand, or heard someone say something racist, were all significant and distinct. But now and for forever, or at least forever to me, I’ll find myself daydreaming, floating through life, lost in a blurred mess of partially-remembered experiences which sum to tell the tale of who I am and who I’ve been — some version of a drunk whore who has come to know that sometimes the world isn’t good.
They say it’s possible to keep your mind sharp. That you can do things to help preserve your ability to remember. But I don’t know that I’d want that. Remembering too much is painful. My grandmother, the one who was 107, remembered everything. Every time someone hurt her. And every time she made the wrong choice, iterating towards a version of herself she didn’t like. She remembered all of it. As if her regrets never scarred, but just stayed as open wounds, festering.
I think I’m better off because I remember less. Memories seem to pass through me, like waves that never reach shore.
I had a friend in college who knew this about me. He used to toy with it. Jay was his name. It probably still is.
“Remember that time we got really high and saw Avatar with Emma?” he asked me.
“Yeah that was so fun,” I said.
But I didn’t remember.
“That never happened,” he said.
And then we laughed because we both knew that I didn’t know whether or not we’d seen Avatar, but also because we knew that I’d continue keeping face as long as we lived. It’s harder to feel guilt than to tell a lie.
But I remember some things. The important ones. Like how I wanted Jack to date me. God, I was so nice to him. Maybe too nice. Or how I used to look down on my cousin for wanting a life different than the one I wanted for her.
I don’t even think Jack remembers me. I mean, he probably does now. But soon, he won’t. Years from now, he’ll be the one that made me feel the most I’ve ever felt about anyone, while I fade into a blurred mess of his partially remembered past.
I wonder what my future self will think of who I am now.
If he’ll think back to himself at 32 and say that he could’ve been someone else. Someone more significant. Maybe a famous architect. Or astronaut. That if only he had spent more time figuring out who he was, that maybe he would’ve ended up more memorable.
I know what my grandmother thought. The one who was 107.
“You don’t really know yourself,” she said to me, weeks before she passed. “You don’t really know who you are.”
I didn’t like what she said. Yet I replay her words quite often.
She wasn’t very happy. And though I think she loved me, she was never very nice. Not to me. Or really to anyone.
But maybe that’s okay.
Nice people aren’t remembered.
As someone with biological family members who died in their 60s-70s, I also do that % of my life algebra. Today would've been my grandmother's 79th or 80th birthday. There was debate in my family over whether the age listed in her obituary was correct because she lied about it so often. I remember explaining to her how my friends and I were fighting to make my church more inclusive of LGBTQ folks and her saying fuck 'em about the anti-same-sex marriage people. Perhaps she wasn't nice, but she was kind.
Don’t worry — Grandma Bea would’ve never accused you of being nice, and I’d bet your little cookie snatching hands were some of her strongest memories 😂