The thing about memories is they’re flat. They’re like movies playing in our heads, two dimensional projections of moments from our past.
When you leave a part of your life behind, in your mind, that place stays constant and unchanging. It remains forever as you last experienced it. In reality we all know that’s not the case and the things we leave behind go on without us and change and evolve.
I left my job as an I.T. Manager in the Renal division of Baxter Healthcare more than three years ago. When I look back at my days there, or try to imagine what my former co-workers are up to, I always go back to my office in the lowest level of the Renal building in McGaw Park, even though I know that Baxter has completely vacated and moved out of the McGaw Park campus, and the Renal division no longer exists, at least not as a separate entity. All of that has happened without me, and as my memory recalls a place that no longer exists, so it is that I don’t exist in the world that has taken its place.
Memories of places are memories of people, too. There are certain people who are part of the foundation of the worlds memories preserve. Without these people, the place wouldn’t be the place.
Kathy C. was one such person. She was on the periphery of my work, a member of the Quality Assurance department while I was a manager in I.T. For thirteen years, her and I worked together, she making sure me and my team had followed all of the requirements and procedures for designing and developing validated systems, me asking her for guidance and interpretation. Our relationship was often times adversarial and contentious, as she’d catch on to those instances where I tried to take shortcuts in the process, and other times where I’d argue that there was room for interpretation in certain steps, and that overly rigid adherence to the procedures only added unnecessary time and cost to the process. Eventually, a mutual respect grew and deepened and a friendship developed. We never completely buried the hatchet, as arguments would still ignite from time to time, but we knew and respected where the other was coming from; we knew each other well enough that we understood what made the other tick. She learned that I wasn’t just a loose cannon looking to cheat and circumvent, and I learned that there was reason and intelligence behind her outwardly rigid façade. Above all, we learned that each of us had a sense of humor, and we were able to make each other laugh.
I just found out that about a week ago, she passed away. I didn’t even know she was sick. Apparently, she’d been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer in March. That’s all I know, and I don’t know how accurate even that is. I just know that she is dead, and that a part of the foundation of my memories of working at Baxter has crumbled.
I wish I had known. I wish I could have talked to her one last time, that I could have told the story about the time I told her new boss that Kathy was the quality “pro to call” (which is a hysterical joke if you understand the nuts and bolts of developing a validated system) one last time, and shared one last laugh. I wish I’d had the opportunity to tell her how much I respected her.
But that’s the case with every death. We bury the dead and with them all of our unarticulated wishes, all of the things we left unsaid. And we bury a little piece of those worlds we inhabited together.
As I write this, I’ve got music on. Lucinda Williams is singing a Randy Crowell song, and the lyric “the sanded down moon in a tar paper sky” echoes in my head. Maybe that’s all that memories are. Maybe that’s why they can make us ache like they do. Time is sanding us down. The night sky of our memories may as well be made of tar paper, because we can’t feel it, we can’t walk out into it and feel its dew on our bare feet.
All we can do is squint and look out into those misty worlds and find the people and places that were important to us, and if we look hard enough, we’ll see them as they were, and understand why they were important. And that’s the thing – what was important to us once will be important again.
It’s important that we remember this.