Today is a day of mourning marred by the senseless hateful massacre at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. It’s a day that won’t be forgotten and an anniversary that will haunt everyone who loved someone lost or changed by it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about good and bad anniversaries. Last week I was writing a project post for this blog about some collages I made for my 20th Wedding Anniversary Party. Once I started working on it and thinking about the party I was overwhelmed by other sadder memories. Because that wonderful party was on 30 November 2014, just two weeks before my father died on 15 December 2014.
I thought to myself “People forget happy anniversaries like weddings. People remember the day their heart was broken.”
For a year after my father died I calculated time in relation to his illness. If someone mentioned a trip I’d been on, a piece of work I’d done, I’d think about how close that was to time I had spent with him during his final years. When the first episode of the TV series The Night Manager began in Egypt during the Arab Spring, the footage of Tahrir Square reminded me of the last political conversations I had with Dad on his last visit to New Zealand in 2011.
Mourning and nostalgia pull us away from living the day in front of us. When my nostalgic wedding collage post made me think about my father’s death, it suddenly felt frivolous and egotistical to write about it.
I think I know why this happens, our brains’ convoluted neural networks are not a logical database. Our memories of places and things, our habits and ways of working are connected by multiple associations to the the people we live with. Everything we did with that person (even things we did while of thinking of them) is suffused with them. Taking away those associations would be “a kind of brain damage” as the cruel procedure in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is aptly described.
When someone we love is really gone, this makes the places and things we shared with them seem wrong. Our focus runs backwards to the time when that person was there, turning everything, even the calendar, into a sign of what we have lost. It happened to Joan Didion after her husband died:
All this year I have been keeping time by last year’s calendar: what were we doing on this day last year, where did we have dinner, is it the day a year ago we flew to Honolulu after Quintana’s wedding, is it the day a year ago we flew back from Paris, is it the day. The Year of Magical Thinking, Harper Perennial 2006 at p 225
Joan tried to start working again after her husband’s death by reporting on the 2004 Democratic Convention. She knew that she had to avoid actual places and people she had been to with her husband, but she would be OK because the work didn’t require her to go to those places and the people had changed since her last convention in 1992. But it didn’t work:
I did not realize that there was still room for error until I was walking to the Fleet Centre for the opening of the convention and found myself in tears. The first day of the Democratic convention was July 26, 2004. The day of Quintana’s wedding had been July 26, 2003. Ibid at p 177
Whilst I was thinking about all this (and not writing anything) I had the television turned to CNN, we were waiting for the results of the final super Tuesday in California on 7 June. All the news reports mentioned that 7 June 2016 was the eighth anniversary of Hillary’s concession to Barack Obama. Back then on 7 June 2008 she said, “Well, this isn’t exactly the party I’d planned, but I sure like the company.” I thought, may be I can write something about anniversaries, they change their meaning over time. The day of a personal disaster might bring something else in the future.
As the results came on 7 June 2016 it became clear that she would be the first woman presidential nominee for a major party. CNN started playing her speech. I wasn’t paying complete attention, probably knitting and using the internet until something she said echoed what I had been thinking. She began to talk about her mother:
This past Saturday would have been her 97th birthday. She was born on June 4th, 1919, and some of you may know the significance of that date. On the the very day my mother was born in Chicago, Congress was passing the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. That amendment finally gave women the right to vote. And I really wish my mother could be here tonight.
And I was reminded anniversaries are not binary, good days and bad days. The past gives us strength and pain, our personal suffering, our public suffering, are tied to the events that make us who we are, that make, or break our civilisation.
We all wish with Frodo that tragic events like the Orlando massacre did not happen in our time. But we “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” as Gandalf said.
Everyday, whether it is an anniversary of something terrible or something wonderful Is a day that could be about something else, new work, new love, a second chance to become president.
The day my father died was such a difficult, such a sad day but the sunset from his room was beautiful, the way my sisters came together to be with him in his last moments (even if it was hard to maintain afterwards), the way my friends supported me through the inter webs and in person. I lived it the best I could but not every day is that day. I was stronger on that day because I had with me the memory of how we had celebrated the good day.