Before bed every night, Lorena cleared her mind.
She took the memories from her head and sorted them. The white ones were the newest ones—short-term. From these she removed the unimportant baubles—the taste of the egg omelet she had for breakfast, the Top 5 List from the local pop radio station, a blue blouse the office receptionist wore. She put the ones worth keeping aside—the annual report from the CEO, the lunch date with Daniel, and the names of the two new sales reps on the fourth floor. These she would put back later, where they would stay and slowly darken in color, becoming long-term memories to be kept safe.
Lorena sifted through the memories—clean, perfectly round little marbles like pearls—until she found the one she was looking for—the presentation she had practiced for the big board meeting tomorrow. This one she kept on her nightstand in a clean glass. In the morning, she would slip it into the little drawer on her forehead, where it would stay fresh on her mind. Doctors debated continuously on whether memories placed last were indeed first in the queue, but she didn’t care about the science of it. She liked the feeling of fresh memories when she needed them.
Then, she discarded the unimportant memories. The marbles broke like balls of powder in the garbage disposal. Some might say she was paranoid, but Lorena disliked the idea of anyone having her memories, even unimportant ones. The rest she dropped back into her drawer, one at a time.
Some day, she thought, it would be nice to take a long trip. To somewhere exotic, like the safaris of Africa or the Cayman Islands, and keep those memories rolling around in her head until they turned shiny, black, and permanent.
When she received the call from the nursing home, Lorena didn’t answer. It wouldn’t be the first time she avoided a call from them, but she liked to think that it wasn’t all her fault. They had a tendency to call at the most inconvenient of times and she was a very busy person. Today was a good day. The board meeting had gone well and she was looking forward to going home, clearing her mind, and taking a bath.
But when they called again, she knew her quiet evening at home was off. She answered, and by the time she booked a redeye flight and flew home, there was almost no time left.
Her mother was a tall woman in life, but now, with death knocking eagerly at the door, she seemed small, like a shrunken version of herself. When Lorena walked in, those tired, gray eyes turned to her, and wrinkled lips—thin like her own—cracked a smile.
Lorena sat. She smiled awkwardly as memories rattled around in her head—few and far in between. Distant was the best way to describe her relationship with her mother. She looked at the only photo on the wall—their little family back when things were still good, when her father still lived and Lorena herself was still a small child. She remembered so little of that time. Young children formed so few clear memories.
Her mother reached out one shaky hand and Lorena took it. She squeezed it affectionately, but her mind was elsewhere.
“I’m so glad you came,” said her mother.
“Of course I came,” Lorena said like a good daughter.
“You must be busy. You’ve always been so busy, so independent.”
Was that a dig? Lorena had no idea. She often wondered if her choice to remain single and childless contributed to the distance between her and her mother. She rolled it in her mind and decided to let it pass.
“I’m not too busy,” she said simply. She wanted to say something nice, but drew a blank. So she simply sat there, holding the hand of this woman she barely knew but called mother.
“I want to ask you one thing, Lorena.”
“Take my memories to the sea.”
She paused. “The sea?”
“Yes. Don’t open them. Just take them to the sea and throw them in.”
“Are you sure? Wouldn’t you rather I keep the memory box?”
The old woman sighed. “Some things should not be kept.”
She sat in the front row and felt all eyes on her. The small church wasn’t to her taste but it was what her mother wanted. Well-wishers came. Friends, extended family, members of the community paying their respect. Lorena felt guilty. These people came to comfort her in her time of loss, but she couldn’t even squeeze out a few tears for her mother.
Aunt Patrice hugged her every five minutes. Lorena managed to look sad for her.
“You’ve lost so much,” she kept saying. “So, so much.” Lorena decided not to tell her that they were never close.
Cousin Peter meandered around awkwardly. He never knew how to handle social situations. Lorena had a few fond memories of Peter from their childhood, but she knew Peter had a habit of emptying out stressful memories that had to do with awkward social encounters, so she wasn’t sure how much of her he remembered. She didn’t take it personally—for Peter, all social encounters were awkward.
They sat in the pews and listened to Father McGinty talk about her mother. Delilah. Kind woman. Person of strong faith. Active in the community. Beloved by many. Devoted mother.
That last bit was what Lorena couldn’t wrap her head around, this mother who never seemed to be around for the important parts of her life. Where was this devoted mother when she graduated college? When her first book was published? When she had a housewarming party after buying her first house? And when that drunk driver plowed into her, how often did her mother visit in the hospital? She could remember her mother in none of the great events of her life past early childhood. That picture from her mother’s wall sat in front of her coffin—their little family of three, two-year-old Lorena beaming brightly. It was sad, she thought, when you considered that they had both lost her father so early—she remembered little of him as well, just little bubbles of happiness here and there. But perhaps that was what drove that irreparable wedge between them—their family never quite felt complete after he passed. Her mother’s presence had become something of a hole in her life, like a shape cut out of photographs.
Father McGinty finished his speech. He paused and gestured for Lorena to come forward. Lorena did as she was bid, though she had trouble thinking of the pallid form in the coffin before them as anything more than a body. She took the ornate box he handed her and knelt down. Then, carefully, she slid open the tiny drawer on her mother’s forehead. Memories came tumbling out. Perfect, shiny, solid memories.
“May she live as long as you hold her memories in your mind,” said Father McGinty.
Lorena gazed down at the box of memories, her face reflected in each pristine black surface—ironic, as she couldn’t imagine any of them contained her.
Other people’s memories were tricky things. To experience them was much less like watching a movie and more like walking into another body. The body remembered more than what it saw. It remembered sounds, smells, and textures. More importantly, it remembered emotions. This last bit made memories themselves subjective and unreliable, meaning they were unusable as evidence in court but very desirable as tokens of love for young folks to exchange.
The feeling of putting another person’s memory in your drawer was indescribable. After all, it was different each time. The emotion might be too intense, causing headaches and nausea. Or it might be too mild, and you feel put off after, not having achieved the desired effect you hoped for. Still, it didn’t stop family and friends from popping in the memory of their deceased loved ones once in a while, just to relive them one last time.
Lorena sat in her car, peering out at the docks and the sea beyond. She opened the memory box in her lap. Pearls of memories stared back at her. The white, temporary memories always fell apart right after death, but the black ones stuck around for years. She had even heard of archaeologists uncovering the occasional memory from ancient tombs.
She couldn’t decide if what she was feeling was sadness, guilt, or curiosity. Perhaps there was a hint of anger in there, too, holding this box of memories that had nothing to do with her. And regret, at not having made more memories with her mother while there was still time. She picked up one of the memories and held it up to the sun. It glistened in the light.
In the end it was that little twinge of regret that won out. She held the memory delicately between two fingers for a long time. Then, with a deep sigh, she opened the drawer on her forehead and dropped it inside.
She was warm. Her body ached but her heart was warm. She looked down at the living, breathing thing on her chest.
“Congratulations,” someone said.
She reached up and held the new little life on her chest and sighed happiness and exhaustion.
“Lorena,” she whispered.
She started. The drawer on her forehead flew open and she narrowly missed catching the memory falling out. Other people’s memories were unpredictable. Sometimes they sit as comfortably as if they’re your own, and other times they could barely last a few moments. Lorena set that one in the cup holder. It was only natural, however the nature of their relationship, that her mother would remember the moment of her daughter’s birth. She picked out another one and dropped it into her drawer.
She turned to see a family behind her in the fold-out chairs lining the auditorium, chatting loudly. Then she turned back again at the name “Lorena Anderson.” The young woman walking across the stage beamed with pride, long honey-brown hair flowing under her graduation cap. Same color as her father.
Then, memories. Memories within memories were hazy, but no less vivid.
This little girl, she grew up so fast. Kindergarten graduation. Elementary. High school. College. Now receiving her masters.
A little sadness. Her little girl was gone.
She cheered. There was a man next to her. He was cheering, too.
This time she took the memory out. It was wrong. Her mother had never come to her graduations. Not any of them. And yet, that scene … how could she have known exactly how it looked, when she was never in the audience?
His hair was gray. How could it be gray? He died when she was young, before she could form a proper memory. In what little she remembered, he was always young, and strong. This was a father she did not know.
Birthday cake. Singing. He was turning sixty.
She looked up and saw herself there. Lorena. The Lorena of her mother’s memories.
She took the memory out. Something slid down her cheek, cold and wet. She wiped the tear away and set the memory aside with the others before putting another one in.
New houses smell like paint. And flowers from guests.
The smell of cookies and cake.
The casserole she woke up early to bake, her daughter’s favorite.
Breathing became more difficult with each memory. She had trouble stopping the sobs that forced themselves forward but she couldn’t understand why. Once in a while she found one she did not recognize—her mother’s youth, school days, wedding to her father. But so many memories, far more than not, were filled with her face.
She put another memory in. As the memory began to appear, she felt her finger slide against the bottom of the box, which was not a bottom at all, but an envelope.
Hospital. Her little girl hooked up to machines that kept her alive. Her bones would knit. Her organs would heal. The doctors were optimistic.
Her passenger, not so much.
She looked down at her wedding ring. A family broken in a flash.
She looked up. Her daughter’s swollen eyes were open. They were red and wet, and then she asked the question she knew was coming.
I pray that you will not read this letter. I hope with all my heart that you would toss the box into the sea and move on with your life. But if you happen to open the box, and sift through these memories, then I owe you an explanation.
I miss you, my dear Lorena. I have missed you these last three years, since we lost your father. But you’ve moved on, and I’ve always admired you, my child, for your strength, your independence. I suppose that’s why I did what I did. Forgive me.
You and your father had an argument. A rare one. You were so close. You argued about moving away—he didn’t want you to go, and you told him you were too old for him to tell you what to do. It was a silly argument. It should’ve come and gone, except for that drunk driver.
You blamed yourself. It broke me to see it break you. I feared for you, my child. I saw you lose hope in that hospital bed, saw the light go out of your eyes. You gave up on life. You became a shell.
The doctors were against removing long-term memories. It would cause a ripple effect, they said. It wasn’t as simple as removing the accident—it would only leave questions that would need to be answered. For you to forget, truly forget, everything affiliated with it had to go—your father, every interaction you had with him, and me. Yes—in order for you to move on with life, you had to forget me, too, because I was in nearly every memory you had of him.
I don’t regret it, Lorena. I understand if you hate me, but that means you are alive to hate me. You have thrived, in your new city, in your new life, because you do not remember our life together. We have had a wonderful life together, and I don’t mind being the only one to remember it.
Be happy, my daughter. Memories are only that—memories. Life should not stop for memories. Move on and make new ones for yourself.
Live. And be free.