Every now and then I wake up around four a.m., a dangerous hour. It is too early to get up, and sometimes I am assailed by thoughts that won't let me go back to sleep. These thoughts are like small children who come in the night because they are frightened of the dark -- except that the roles have been reversed, and it is I who now feel small and defenseless and they that cast menacing shadows. Normally I don't spend much time worrying about things or nursing old wounds. But wherever these thoughts roost during the day, they seem to come out at night.
The mind is like a dense wood where you must keep to the paths if you don't want to step on any unexploded ordnance lying below the surface. Old battles have been fought here. By now your psychic wounds may be fading scars, and you might take a careless step. There is a soundless detonation, a blinding flash of memory -- no blood or gore this time, only scalding pain once again. You may have thought the intervening months or years had put some distance between you and the source of your pain. But suddenly you are back in the moment. Old hatreds, betrayals, humiliations and failures reverberate endlessly in the nether reaches of memory. Like those old stones that rise mysteriously to the surface of New England gardens each spring, the mind produces its own bountiful harvest of pain.
I had occasion to reflect on the lingering effects of memory as I watched my mother lose hers. In her mid-eighties she was diagnosed with vascular dementia. To everyone's surprise, she became a sweet old lady, which saddened those of us who knew her before she forgot who she was. My mother was once highly intelligent, witty and opinionated -- I'd say, on the whole, more astringent than sweet. She had been adopted by an older couple who divorced when she was three, leaving her in the clutches of my crazy grandmother, who dressed her up like a kewpie doll and treated her as one. My mother rarely talked about her childhood, the way it really was; in fact, she spent most of her adult life running from the memory of it.
Then my mother no longer remembered. While it might be comforting to think she was finally delivered from her pain, I saw it as just one more element of her humanity that was taken away from her. It is not the forgetting that is a blessing but the pain, which if nothing else reminds us we are alive. Where there is no pain, neither is there joy; the two are so tightly entwined that you cannot unwind them without damaging both. "Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?" asked the hapless Job, who nonetheless railed against his misfortunes. There were certainly no romantic notions from him about the nobility of suffering. We are born out of pain, and in pain we often die. Our character is forged in pain, and it is our pain that is finally redeemed as compassion. It is true that my mother felt no pain. But when I looked for some faint glimmer of the person I once knew, haunted though she may have been by her Dickensian childhood, I got only a vacant stare.