Tomorrow it will be five years since we saw The Milkmaid at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I don’t want to give the wrong impression. I don’t carry these dates around in my head, but I am very conscious that in a few months it will be five years since Laura died. That means there are a number of other five year anniversaries coming up.
One big one even slipped by last week. I only noticed it when I went to check what was happening on this date five years ago. Last week was the anniverary of the “kiss-offs” from the surgeon and the radiation oncologist. Now that I think of it, that event was preceded a few days before by Laura’s encounter with a bank door.
My point is not to engage in maudlin remembrance of sad events. In fact, while ruminating about these anniversaries I have become more aware of how grief is turning into memory, by which I mean that recalling these events no longer hurts the way it used to. Thinking about these anniversaries feels less like sticking an arrow into my heart and more like caring that Laura not be forgotten.
The emotions surrounding memories are tricky. On the one hand, you have companies like Disney selling their theme parks with images of the happy memories you will share with your children. On the other, if you are not around for these pregnant events or when memories are shared later, then your absence seems even more marked.
When Anne Mei and I moved out of a big house into an apartment, I had to get rid of a lot of things, especially books. One day as I was debating whether or not to keep Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, I found two thank-you notes inside. From the notes I gathered that Laura freely lent out this book and others during her years as a graduate student in Berkeley. The postscript to one note caused me to keep the book and its notes. It reports a conversation between Laura’s dissertation adviser, John Polt, and another professor, Dru Dougherty. “P.S. Overheard Polt in Dougherty’s ofc talking something about ‘… Yes, and maybe someday they’ll be talking about the early Rivkin like they do the early James.’ !?!”
So there I was 30 years later reading Polt’s anticipation of memories of Laura’s early scholarly output in the context of a brilliant future career. That would never happen now. She was dead. Even though Laura’s death was fresh when I read this note, it did not upset me. In fact, I was happy for two reasons. First, Laura never saw this note all these years later. Even though she did well in her career as a lawyer, the loss of her academic career in a vain attempt to preserve her first marriage was so painful that she avoided all discussion of it. Second, this book and this note would help Anne Mei remember how highly regarded her mother was.
Now Anne Mei is the one living through events that parents recall with pride and love in later years. She drives a car on her own now. She went to her first prom this year. She can vote in November. And last week she received news that she had made it into the All-State Orchestra on her viola.
Some people had told me that these milestones would be occasions for sadly missing Laura. Yes, we wish Laura were here to share them, but we are both realists. We don’t torment ourselves with wishful thinking. She’s not coming back. But we enjoy the thought of how happy she would be on each of these occasions.
In fact, when Anne Mei heard about the All-State Orchestra, I said, “Your Mom did not believe in heaven, but she’s probably up there now screaming in excitement at this news.” This bit of magical thinking also shows how much I’ve changed over the last five years. In the first month after Laura’s death, I thought that if I could achieve the Buddhist state of present-moment awareness, I could somehow be with Laura in “now.” Even after recognizing this as magical thinking, I did spend a lot of time over the next two years immersed in the story of Orpheus who went to the underworld to bring back his wife Eurydice. I was going to write a lot about Orpheus and Eurydice for this project. Also explore the ontological implications of my early magical thoughts. Probably won’t now. I’m learning the answers to Orfeo’s questions in the aria Che farò senza Euridice? from Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice. What wilI I do without Eurydice? Live. Where will I go without her? Here.
Not that my eyes don’t fill with tears when I listen to that aria. Not that I never get caught in a vortex moment any more. It’s just that I don’t feel the need for magical thinking as much. It’s interesting that we understand Joan Didion when she says that she was engaged in magical thinking in her belief that her dead husband was going to return any moment. I think that most people would also agree that my fantasy about joining Laura in the “now” and the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice are instances of magical thinking. But we don’t question the counterfactual remembrance of future events, such as John Polt’s looking back at his young protégé from the perspective of the mature Laura sitting by the side of Henry James. In his case, we might just take it as a figure of speech, but the power of the image created by the words can have magical effects.
“I will miss you” is also a powerful expression of remembering the future. Laura said it to Anne Mei and me after her diagnosis. As I have mentioned before, in the movie All is Lost, Robert Redford plays a man traveling alone in his sailboat across the Indian Ocean. The movie opens as the sailor is writing a farewell letter in his sinking ship. The sailor also tells his loved ones, “I will miss you.” Only a dull-witted person like me would think that Laura meant this statement literally. In defense of the thick-headed, however, I would refer you to the movie. The phrase, like the whole letter, is said in a calm, matter-of-fact tone, but the very words themselves convey the sailor’s grief more strongly than any amount of weeping or histrionics possibly could have. Remembering future events may be a figure of speech, but it works so strongly that it seems to be meant literally.