It was book I read a while back by the American novelist Sue Miller “The story of my father”. It was not a novel and not the kind of book that I would naturally go to, but I heard her read part of it on the radio and it touched me.
Maybe it was something about the father daughter relationship, maybe it was the account of someone who was a believer by someone who wasn’t, but somehow it resonated with me and I was deeply moved. In my excitement I bought a couple of copies and gave them to friends. They didn’t share my enthusiasm and I have since learned that this emotion is not always contagious. They were unmoved by the story and critical of the authors’ motives
Sue Miller’s father died after a long period of Alzheimer’s, during which time she tried hard to hold back the inevitable break down that was taking place in his brain. Later she painfully recognised that all her efforts had no effect. What was happening to him, the fracturing of his mind, was taking its own inevitable course and nothing she could do would change that. At his memorial service she was asked to read psalm 103 which may have been a favourite of his. He was Christian pastor. She, though not herself a believer, was able to read through the beautiful words of this ancient song until she got to verse 15 where she almost choked. “As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field: the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.” She resolved there and then to show that her father’s life was not like that “I saw now, that my father was not as a flower of the field, dammit; there was sense, meaning to be made of his life in terms of a narrative structure, an explanation of his self – the story of my father- as told my me” She would, in the writing of this memoir, redeem his life from oblivion.
I was recalling this when talking with a client, who is also a friend, over a long car journey recently. He is a lawyer and recently retired and we were musing on reaching this stage in life and wondering what actually we had achieved. What had we got to show for a life’s labours? “At least you will have designs and buildings that will outlast you. All I did was put words together and now they are gone.” It was true I might have buildings and designs that I have had some part in creating but they too will only last for a little time. They will change, be demolished and many probably are already on the way to decay. It is true that if you are famous your name might still be known and your achievements documented, or your legacy, recorded in history. But as for you, yourself, your essential being, it will be forgotten. People will quickly counter that your memory is retained and kept alive in your children and grandchildren if you have that privilege. The curious phrase in obituaries “He/She is survived by…” comes to mind, and there is certainly a lot of comfort sought in these words. But the fact is, it is simply not true.
I remember my parents, I don’t think of them every day, maybe not every week but I do remember them and at times wish they were here to talk over something or just for who they were. I knew my paternal grandparents but only a little. I seldom saw them and they seemed distant and stern. I didn’t really know them. As for my great grandparents, I know nothing. I don’t actually know their names (though guess I could find out) I know nothing about what they did or who they were. So in such a short space of time, three generations, they are forgotten and in three generations I will be forgotten too. “The place will remember (me) no more” It is a desperate and despairing thought to dwell on and yet its reality cannot be denied. The fact that our life is so very brief and it will be forgotten so soon isn’t something you really want to dwell on too long.
Sue Miller was devoted to her project but when she got to the end of the story which hinged around Psalm 103, it came to her with astonishing clarity that her father didn’t need her to make sense of his life. “What I learned was that in this way, as in so many other ways, my father didn’t need me to rescue him, to make sense of his life. He accepted what was happening to him, the way he was fracturing and breaking apart, as he had accepted it in possibility well before it happened. For him his life and death already made sense. For him, Psalm 103 could be read through without irony to its conclusion, which goes as follows:
But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children’s children, to such as keep his covenant and to those that remember his commandments to do them… Bless the Lord O my soul”