Si tu n’étais pas là

My friend’s mom passed away recently. She was a beautiful lady, a ray of sunshine for all who knew her. I’m having a difficult time coming to terms with this, for some reason, mostly because it seems like she was so young, had so much left to give. Instead of being sad, though, I wanted to do something different. I want to share who she was to me, how she touched my life. Some people ask me sometimes how I am who I am, and part of it is because of what she taught me when I was younger.

Dear Mom,

It’s been awhile since we’ve talked, but I can still remember your laugh, your smile, and so many of the things you’ve taught me. I remember being scared to come to your house at first, because I didn’t know if you’d like me. I remember the dogs, the laughing as they barked at me, jumped on me, their paws frantically scratching on the wood and tile. There were hugs, smiles; never was there judgement. I remember countless nights spent on your couch, watching movies. Sometimes you’d wash the dishes or you’d be on the computer, but you’d always be close by. Laundry was a given. I remember trying to cook on your stove. Sancocho, boiled chicken, ginger tea when we were sick. You always hugged me, brought me into your heart. Christmas in Grayslake with your crazy presents, laughing until my sides hurt and I needed an inhaler to keep my lungs open but never wanted one because who cares when it feels so good? The memories are too many, it seems like I can never remember anything until it hurts…but again…who cares when it feels this good? Graham died, and Rachel cried so much, but you were gentle, I know. You loved him. You loved all your kids, those with two legs and with four. You loved your Rupi-bon, your Buddy, your little girls; I feel so lucky to have been your Paulywog. Years passed, mom, and you never stopped caring, never stopped smiling, never stopped trying to calm the dogs down when I walked through the door, still nervous because everyone there meant so much to me. You taught me how to peel an orange (to which you could only remark, incredulously, “You suck” in that way that only you could say it that made me feel so warm), how to make dulce de leche, to care about the simple things. High school dances, pictures in front of the fireplace. You cared for me so much, and I don’t even know why. You were excited when I came, excited for me to be there. Why? I never understood it, but it didn’t matter. You were always there. I passed by your house a million times, back and forth from school, from martial arts, from becoming a better me. The stable. Oh man, the stable. You put me on a horse there, laughed at me as I rode because I was so awkward. Just once, but that was all I needed. Maybe riding wasn’t my thing, but you loved me just the same. Years, mom, years. So long. And I miss you now. I hadn’t seen you in a while, and now I won’t, but I can still hear your voice, the squeals and laughter, I can hear it all so clearly. I can remember your tiny office where you did your work. God when will the memories stop? I hope never. Even if it hurts just a little bit for the rest of my life, I’ll love it, because who cares when it feels this good? You daughter, a beautiful, radiant soul. What can I say about her? She lives with your love, your beauty. I hope you know that when I see her, I see you too. I see all the things you wanted for me, all the things you want for the the world. She tries so hard and yet lives with your grace effortlessly. You did good, mom. You created something beautiful and gave the world a gift. I can’t hold you anymore, so I hope that when I hold her, you feel it too. I hope you feel the love you gave me. I hope that when you look out from the eyes of the horses and dogs and people you’ve loved, you see a world made more beautiful, more peaceful, more whole because they’re paying it forward. I’ll never stop missing you, but I’ll always hear your voice and remember that I’m your Paulywog, and I’ll take another step forward. Thank you, mom. I love you.

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Never regret that which once made you smile.

Gizmodo did a week-long series of posts relating to memory and how the transition to social networking, cloud storage, and a more digital lifestyle has affected our ability to remember things, both positively and negatively.

I often joke that I, like David Bowie, have “the memory of a tiny goldfish.” what this often leads to is me forgetting often important things like birthdays, phone numbers, and previous engagements, despite my best attempts to keep these things in mind and present.

Another side-effect is my increasing inability to remember my life, past events and experiences. Sure, there are formative events, important parts of my life that I do indeed remember, and these will undoubtedly be clear to me for many years, but there are far more events, people, and places that blur together unintelligibly. I lose track of the who’s and the what’s. I get taken by the moment, unable to free myself from what is happening right now. While some people are unable to free themselves from the past, I cannot seem to find my way back to it.

In some cases, this is a good thing, a GREAT thing. I’m sure we’ve all had those moments we would rather not remember, experiences we’d rather forget. Twenty years ago, that may have been possible. Without a persistent digital memory, our past dangled above the abyss of oblivion. If I wanted to forget something, I stopped thinking about it. I burned the pictures, the letters, the drawings. Physical things held meaning, and their destruction was cathartic. Now, however, our lives are transitioning away from fickle physicality and into immortal ones and zeroes. Tiny bits of information define who we are now, and maintaining those bits and bytes from now until eternity is most likely inevitable. Vast data centers will store our information for…well…forever. Our demographics will be used as part of research and studies done by mega-Internet firms. Our pictures will remain tagged long after we have passed on. In a sense, we are now immortal. This immortality, however, brings with it another thing to consider.

Honesty.

In years past, a person engaged in illegal or immoral activity could hide his or her tracks relatively easily by being mindful of his or physical space. He or she could walk away from his or her old life and back onto the straight and narrow. Now, mistakes stay with you. Email exchanges, instant messenger conversations, and posts on forums persist and are accessible for many years after they have lost their relevance. They may no longer be important, but they still exist and are accessible. Can you say that about your notes from high school? Pictures from graduation? How about that wedding you went to? Digital storage and cloud computing make all of this possible.

But what if you want to forget? You can’t. You’ll run a search for something in your inbox, and you’ll be served up an email from a painful time in your life, potentially years ago. Maybe you haven’t thought about it for years, and now there it is, staring you in the face, a reminder of a past you may have tried to forget. In the physical world, the chance that mistakes will literally come back is slim. We can put things behind us, move away, physically destroy our past. In the digital world, we cannot. Just because you deleted that email doesn’t mean the other person did, and those pictures on Facebook, despite being untagged, still exist on their servers in someone else’s profile.

All of this begs us to make one simple change to our lives: live honestly.

We cannot do things the right way each time…we are human, after all. But as our digital worlds collide with the physical world, we are given the opportunity to live our lives more truly, to line up our intentions with our actions and live with purpose.

The next time you find yourself in a situation that may not be entirely characteristic of the person you have been trying to be, think of how you would like to be remembered. Chances are, someone is tagging you when the night is through, and they won’t stop to consider the ramifications of that red solo cup on your future careers. Do you want to have a job when all is said and done? Do you want to be remembered as “that guy who went nuts on the pool table wearing a lampshade as a hat?” If yes, then go right ahead, lampshade guy.

But, if you think for even one second that this is something you might not want future generations of Americans to read, don’t write it. As we move towards ubiquitous image, video, and sound capture, we will have to become increasingly more aware of the weight of our thoughts, words, and actions. So let’s all pull our pants back up and clean up our lives. Does that mean our Facebook pages may become dull and boring? Maybe. Does it mean that our lives will be lived more intentionally and meaningfully?

Unequivocally, yes.