I made the long trip back from my brother’s house alone this time, what with my hubby’s new weekend schedule prohibiting him from coming to family gatherings. Armed with only an mp3 player, but thankfully minus the floating soccer ball balloon mistakenly not tied down in the back seat, I drove the hour plus distance with my thoughts half on the road but mostly on my nephews and my grandmother.
My oldest nephew was celebrating his big 5. He’s tall for his age and still insists on being tilted upside down whenever he sees us. He’ll hold his arms out with a huge smile and ask to be “upside down.” Being the pushovers we are, we always cave in. This time he still wanted to be flipped and swung, but he held on for dear life all the while laughing. All of my reassurances that I had him and that he could let go fell on laughing ears as he tilted and clung.
Another sign he’s getting older.
I remember back when I was shocked to find that being lifted by my armpits HURT. I didn’t want to believe it at first, since being lifted and swung made me feel like a feather, so I surely could still do it. Nope. Ever since that first painful lift, I would never know what it would be like to be picked up and tossed about by someone I trusted to hold on and not let go. It’s a memory that keeps me lifting and swinging my nephew as often as he wants for as long as he’s able.
When I used to teach, I would show my students a clip of a Hovis bread commercial from the 70s. It featured a “rustic” voice talking about the old days when he used to ride his bike to the baker’s and be given a slice of Hovis sandwich bread. I chose this clip because for many American ears, the accent of the speaker made his words almost indiscernible. I would ask them what they thought he said and many either didn’t understand a single word, or a few would try to puzzle out a couple that they had caught.
I would then show them the same clip but with subtitles. It was amazing. Almost immediately everyone’s faces brightened with understanding. After a third viewing without the subtitles, most could follow along.
Never again, I would tell them, would this clip be as puzzling as that first time. Never again would they feel that sense of confusion, newness and uncertainty. If they were ever to see this commercial again, which we all agreed was unlikely, they’d know what was being said and their response to it would be different than that first time. And for many, those initial feelings would be replaced.
Because they had learned it.
Learning can be attributed to books and schools, but we “learn” all the time. My nephew’s growing knowledge that being tipped could be dangerous or that it might be uncomfortable shows as he clings to my neck with a death grip.
My grandmother with her memory gaps relearns and in a way relives a moment many times over. I watched her with sadness as she repeatedly picked up a quilting book and flipped through it like it was the first time. I watched her face smile as she happily ate her pizza and asked if there was a place near her. I answered like it was the first time, even after the eighth or ninth time, but I could feel an ache. It was as if her learning and my nephew’s learning were different. Since she was in her 80s, I felt as if she had lost something and each repeated question drilled it in even further. However, with my 5 year old nephew, he had a whole life to experience so his learning felt full of possibility.
But on my way home, I realized that I was wrong.
Just like with my nephew, every experience for her is a new one. The concept of gain and lost shouldn’t belittle the fact that both are living now – more so than most of us, including me. I could, for example, do the drive without hardly thinking – taking the right exits, merging with traffic, watching my lane. It was all automatic. Life in a lot of ways, is automatic. We wake, we do our daily tasks and we go to bed. This doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyed, hubby and I can dissolve into a fit of giggles or get sucked into a good discussion between all of that routine, but it isn’t lived in the same way. Things aren’t new, they lack that sparkle, that eye-opening first time-ness, that both my nephew and my grandmother experience daily.
The sadness I felt was for something that she could never attain again. But while she might have lost the ability to retain memories, she’s gained the ability to live and relive in that moment, just like my nephew.
Something, I have to be honest, I wish I could say for myself.