I recently spent the morning looking for some identification for Johanna. Her new doctor, and the clinic she works at, needed a form of picture identification for her, preferably a driver’s license. Johanna hasn’t driven in six years and no longer has a valid driver’s license, so I had to dig around old documentation, trying to find something we could use to ‘prove’ Johanna’s identity. As I dug around, I ran into boxes of old pictures, old clothes, even Johanna’s old wallet. Each image, article of clothing, or old card represented a different time – a time when she was able to drive, to shop, or even go out of the house and see her nieces. Every item was a reminder of what has passed, and brought a sense of profound loss. Her ID cards have expired, the old clothes don’t fit her emaciated body, and the nieces in the pictures are five years older. Johanna has been entombed by her disease, her life put on hold as she lives inside this house.
The weight of memory is heavy. Knowledge of what is gone, what is irredeemably lost to time, is a reminder of profound powerlessness. Like trying to make sense of a towering seaside cliff face, endlessly etched by the relentless power of the elements, so I too felt small and overwhelmed sitting on the floor of my room rifling through images and paperwork, swept up in grief and contemplation. I longed to relive some of these moments, while being thankful others had passed. I wondered at all the painful and strange ways we’ve come to our current circumstances and grieved the ongoing struggles of our daily life. I sensed the way these memories have given my life the shape that it has.
When I was done looking through these artifacts of the past, and had found the best picture identification I could find, I did not feel a sense of clarity. Instead I felt the impacts of many moments, happy and sad, that have led to our difficult life now. I wanted these memories to paint a picture of arrival, to fit together and reveal a larger whole. Instead, I just felt a sense of loss, a sense of discouraged stupefaction. Without realizing it, I was looking for these memories to help me make sense of Johanna’s illness and our daily troubles. I was remembering as a way to order the chaos of the past, but instead found myself in the chaos of the present.
Memory is more than the recall of an event, it is the making of meaning out of the past. The trouble with it, then, is when you can’t make sense of it. Every day, I wake up with the knowledge that Johanna’s health is fragile, that her emaciated body bodes disaster. There has been trouble at every turn for her, and so much good seems to have been lost. Yet, as I rose from my search for her identification, I felt a sense of thankfulness. In the midst of our own troubling circumstances I was thankful that the story of the Gospel, of Jesus, was not a story those around him could make sense of in the moment. In particular, I thought of the many instances in Luke’s account of Jesus’ life, when His disciples were confused and unable to understand their Teacher’s actions and sayings. I felt thankful that the message of the Gospel is one of great good in the midst of great trouble. I felt Johanna’s and my story at home in the larger story of Jesus Christ. As Jesus said to his disciples, ‘In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world.’