My grandmother died today. I’m not really that sad.
I think the traditional followup to a sentiment like that would be something like: “What’s wrong with me? Why don’t I feel sad?”
I don’t really feel that either, though.
I sometimes joke about being a robot. I joke about it because I’ve always been kind of weird, emotionally. I would tend to freeze up whenever I encountered intense situations – become highly analytical, appear stoic and unemotional. And this used to cause me some distress. I really did think, “What’s wrong with me?” I would wonder why I was so apparently heartless.
But it doesn’t really bother me anymore. It doesn’t bother me because…well, because I know I’m not unemotional. No, more than that: I know that any attempt to paint myself as unemotional would be not just wrong, but patently absurd. My brain would just laugh it off. Because I’m ridiculously, obviously emotional. I mean, I probably cry once a week. Heck, I cried over a TV show earlier tonight (actually, come to think of it, it was an episode about someone losing their grandmother). I’m sentimental and I’m nostalgic and I’m idealistic and on any given day I have more emotions than I can deal with. I have precisely zero trouble feeling the pain of loss, and I know that about myself. No, I’m not worried about being a robot anymore.
So why don’t I feel sad right now?
My grandmother died years ago. That’s not me trying to be poetic – I mean it as literally and non-metaphorically as possible. It is a deeply held belief of mine – not just something I claim to know at an intellectual level, but something I feel right down to my gut – that to the extent any of us exist at all, we exist as patterns: particular arrangements of neurons or atoms or quantum fields or god only knows what’s further down. And when our pattern is gone, so are we.
Alzheimer’s erased my grandmother’s pattern. It did so a long time ago. It was a beautiful pattern, a pattern that didn’t deserve to be erased. But erased it was – slowly, painfully, over many years, until there was nothing left of it but a meaningless, empty shell.
Those years of erasure – those seem deserving of mourning. Those seem worthy of being sad about. But today doesn’t. Not really. Because nothing was erased today.
I miss my grandmother. She was a wonderful, amazing person, and I wish her pattern was still around so she could do more wonderful, amazing things. I’m not going to pretend to be sad that a collection of cells that superficially resembled her have stopped functioning, but…
But, still, this seems like as good a time as any to mourn her, and to remember her. She may have been erased, but she left ripples behind – ripples that live on in my brain, and in all the brains of those who knew her and loved her. And I can’t bring her pattern back, but I can sure as heck try to keep those ripples going for as long as I can. So that’s what I’ll do.
I hope that someday we can do better. That someday we won’t have to worry about trying to keep the shadow of an echo of a pattern alive, that someday we won’t have to deal with the people we love being erased.
But in the meantime, I’ll remember you, Nan.