Sometimes, when we least expect it, the past comes calling and expects a response. Today it came in the form of a very sweet and lovely email from the youngest daughter adopted by Stanis and Ryan in the early 90's. She was barely five years old then, a shy and traumatized victim of atrocities only war can inflict upon a sentient being still forming the basics of who she would become. For two years she refused to speak. She was Ryan's silent little ghost who followed him all over the house when he was there, and cowered under blankets in her room when he had to go out for even a few minutes. It took nearly ten years for her to feel safe without his continual presence.
Maria grew into an amazingly kind and compassionate young woman who wrote to me when she read my blog entry on Anna's 50th birthday. Ryan was Anna's brother and he died in a motorcycle accident a year ago last September. He never meant to die stupidly, but he did and he did it willfully because he was tired of his own demons, the continual gnawing inside of mistakes he thought he made, people he couldn't save, and guilt that never belonged to him but he took on as if it were tailor-made for him. I couldn't judge him for this because except for the part about the motorcycle and dying stupidly, I could write those same words about myself.
When I first heard he was gone, my first thought was for Maria, for the horror, the unfairness of it, the unspeakable nightmare of once again being the sole survivor of all those she loved. And yet, even then, through all the sadness, the incredible despair of her siblings as they made funeral arrangements for the man who gave them a new life when their old one died, she demonstrated a strength that astounded all of us. In her words, in her actions, in the self-less, compassionate way she turned her grief into a soothing hand to help the pain of others, she embodied the spirit and energy of the man who raised her. But more than anything, she reminded me of someone she never met and knew only through mine and Ryan's stories: her aunt Anna.
Maria never met Anna, and she believed the grief over her death left Ryan unable to share much about his sister. She never pressed him too hard because she knew the kind of pain that comes from such unspeakable loss. Maria lost her entire family in one cruel battle for the soul of her country. She told me she stays strong to honor them so they didn't die uselessly, a concept I think I understand but am afraid to explore too deeply. I only know I am not that strong. In spite of how painful memories can be at times, I can say with certainty I have not suffered enough to find my strength that way. I can never be as strong as this beautiful young woman who wears the love of two people I cared for very much in her eyes.
Maria told me she didn't want to hurt Ryan by forcing the memories from him so he could tell her about his sister, because there were many times when it was painful to even remember she once had another family, much less talk about them. And like all of us when the people in our lives are still relatively young, she thought she could afford to be patient, that eventually he would be able to fill in the blanks for her about the auntie she knew only through photographs and brief slips of memory that came from Stanis, Ryan, and her two older sisters--and I also wanted to tell her, every time she looked in the mirror. She has her mannerisms, her expressions, a way of gazing at what interests her that is eerily similar to Anna. But they never met. It is a mystery I've tried to explain to myself in many ways and none of the ways end up fitting.
So she wrote to me and suggested we trade stories. I would tell her about Anna and she would tell me about Ryan because we both have holes in our memories and sometimes you just need to fill those holes in order to move forward. I am convinced that loss makes us confront all the unfinished conversations, all the words we were so sure would wait for another day, a better time and place, a more appropriate situation. Because of this, I saw it as a noble offer and I accepted.
And as I did so I thought of how I am currently writing my memories of Lydia for her daughters, and now I will be writing my memories of Anna for her niece. It makes me wonder how I ended up with so many memories that belong to other people, how I became the place others stored such valuable pieces of themselves. However, I know I am no different than anyone else in this way of collecting those we love and cherish when they are no longer with us, but we aren't able to let them leave us completely. Everyone has something to leave behind. I've learned that time and again.
We are all made up of those who came through our lives and left something of themselves behind. It can be as powerful as a life-changing experience, or as simple as it was with one person in my own life--just a scent, a certain faint memory stored in my senses from a man whose name I never knew but whose delicious scent will be with me for life. I know nothing about him, of his life, who he loved or how he lived. We shared an elevator many years ago and he found a way to crawl into my tissue forever. Choice had absolutely no say in the matter. Why should it in anything else?
We tell ourselves it's our choice what we remember, but it isn't. Those memories don't go away. They are dormant little weasels ready to break through the ice of our consciousness when we least expect it. When I took that first crack with my ax of memory and freed the first weasel, what came out was a moment that at the time seemed so insignificant, I barely noticed it. And yet it became a defining piece of self that shaped, molded, and continues to direct who I am.
It was the first warm day in April after a bitterly cold winter. I had helped Anna transcribe the video testimony of a man whose mother survived the Nazi death camps. It was an angry, depressing session filled with his rage at all Germans. He repeated over and over again that everything Anna was doing was ridiculous because there were some things that could never be forgiven and no amount of forcing him to interact with the children of those who had committed such horrors would change that. I will never forgive!
It depressed me because Anna was German and I knew other Germans who were kind, loving human beings. And no one was forcing him to take part in her project. He volunteered. But his rage was so total, so complete, so much a part of who he was, it was as if all those things had been done to him instead of to his mother, and he blamed an entire country, even those who weren't even born, for what was done to her.
In retrospect, I remember how much I focused on his anger, his inability to forgive, and how little I focused on what I felt in my response to him. I know now I went numb. I shut him out emotionally so I could continue to write down his angry words, his outbursts, the tears that were not from sadness or compassion, but a rage so deep inside him it poured out as tears.
Anna's voice startled me. She never raised it, never let on that she was angry or upset or annoyed. Anna was an even rising and falling of whatever wave existed. She rode it and didn't let it wash over her. I asked her "Don't what?" thinking I was transcribing the words wrong.
Don't do what you're doing now. Don't become them. Stay true. Always stay true.
I've thought of those words a lot in the time since. There's so much of me that always existed outside the herd that I couldn't fit in even when I wanted to. People sensed I was different and it made them uncomfortable just as their embracing a lifestyle that was mostly self-indulgent made me uncomfortable. I've differed with most people in so many ways most of my life, that I'm always surprised when I meet someone who understands my differences, perhaps shares some of them, and most certainly doesn't run away screaming and shouting phony excuses to justify their own discomfort at having to confront themselves through my view of the world.
Most of my life, if I saw injustice, I spoke up and tried to see where I could fit in, what I could do to right the wrong. If I saw someone that needed help, I offered my hand because that's what it means to be human, to care, to share the planet with other sentient beings. If I had one piece of bread and someone else had none, I had to share it because I couldn't eat it if I didn't. It would taste dry and hard and would never nourish me as much as half a piece shared.
It has been both a blessing and a curse to go through life this way. A blessing because I met people like Anna, like Ryan and Stanis, like Lydia...the list of amazing, kind, and loving people is endless and each day it grows longer. But it is also a curse because it's an open doorway to those who know only how to take and use and never to give or reciprocate. It's not true that I don't see them coming. It is true that I won't allow myself to sink down to their level. I stay as I am, no matter how devastating the consequences could possibly be, because I can't imagine living any other way. I don't see other ways as living. I see them as existing on the most shallow surface possible and not caring enough to live any other way. But I've learned how to protect myself from actual tissue damage. The rest of it is just things and those are meaningless to me. If they ask, I'll give whatever I have to give. No one needs to take or lie or cheat or bullshit me. All they have to do is ask and it is theirs. But they take and lie and cheat and steal anyways. That always astonishes me.
Anna called people like that "empty souls" because everything they put in ran out on the ground without those necessary stoppers of sentient beingness in place. They failed to understand it was their own selfishness, their own greed, their own need for vengeance, their own desire to always be one up on someone else, that left them with such an insatiable hunger. It was easy to avoid becoming them. It was easy to dismiss them as not worth the energy it took to relate to them in any way.
But Anna's scorn, an emotion she rarely let loose, was reserved for those who portrayed themselves as givers, as kind and loving people, but who were so focused on keeping the give and take balanced, that it eventually became the most important thing. She saw them as always keeping score, as having an emotional balance sheet that was every bean counter's fantasy.
So to Maria, I share this important piece of who Anna was that mattered the most: if your love, your compassion, your ability to share has limits, it is not love. It is not compassion. It is not altruism. Limits are for sane people, she always told me. But to live without limits on your heart is to leave yourself open to pain, to disappointment, to betrayal. It's pure madness to live in such a way. But can you really call it living if you live any other way?
I personally can't. I have to live this way because it is who I am. Maybe people who are selfish, who are unable to give of their hearts and themselves, maybe it's just who they are and a whole lot of us weirdos may be wrong in insisting there is a better way. Maybe for them, there is no better way. Maybe that is where their own personal evolution ends. They are like that man long ago hating people who weren't even born yet for things that happened not to him, but to those he cared about. He didn't know the important thing Anna saw in him, the thing she told me kept her going back to try again with him: he hates them not because they hurt him, but because they hurt someone he loves. As long as he can feel pain over someone else's pain, he still has his humanity intact..
It really is that simple.