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  • Writer's picturejamesbriankerr

"Memory is a Shared Thing" - What We Lose When We Lose a Friend

I lost another good friend recently.


Jerry and I went to high school together and knew each other for more than 45 years. During our school years and for about a decade afterward, the two of us along with a fellow classmate by the name of Ed were nearly inseparable.


We went to movies and live theater shows together. We went down to Philadelphia to walk South Street and have dinner in Chinatown. We took long walks along the beach in Ocean City, New Jersey while reciting lines of poetry and talking about philosophy. We went on crazy road trips that I will never forget.


So many memories. They are imprinted on my mind like the long, rambling notes that Jerry scribbled in my yearbooks. These were back in the days when we were young and life was spread out in front of us like a vast ocean to be explored.


When you’re young, death is something you talk about on an abstract level—which Jerry and I did quite a bit during our philosophical discussions—but you don’t really ever expect it to happen to you or those who are close to you.


Then it happens and you know it’s real. You see it close up and it hits you like a punch in the stomach. For Jerry and me, that first reality check came a decade after our graduation when our friend Ed died in a car accident at the age of 28.


It was quite a shock to the system, and I remember remarking to Jerry at the funeral that we needed to keep doing things together, that Ed would want us to. But it wasn’t the same after that. Life swept us away and we saw each other only occasionally over the decades that followed.


Now, Jerry is gone as well. Which means that of our gang of three that spent so much time together, I am the sole survivor. It’s a strange feeling, akin to being the last guest in Agatha Christie’s play And Then There Were None (which, interestingly, we saw once in Philadelphia sometime in the late 1970s).


The longer we live, the more of these losses, these blows to the stomach, we must sustain and find our way through. It doesn’t get any easier—not for me, at least. Every time I lose a loved one or friend, I have a hard time sleeping for a few weeks as my uncomprehending mind goes through memories, processing them, grieving them.


We’re often told when we lose someone to take comfort in the memories. But memories aren’t always comforting, especially in the early stages of grieving. Memories sting. They remind us of what once was and is no longer. There’s a certain desolation in memories in that we stand in them alone, without the ones we’ve lost in the mental pictures we hold of the past.


One of the realizations I’ve had as I’ve grown older is that memory is a shared thing. We don’t remember things alone; we remember them with the people we shared those times with. Human memory, after all, is notoriously faulty. Time has a way of distorting the original facts and circumstances of our memories. When we share our memories with others who were there with us, we can clarify the memories and shine the light of truth on them.


So when we lose a loved one, we lose our access to the shared truth contained in memories—not just ours, but theirs. Our family is witnessing that now in real time as we see our 90-year-old mother lose her ability to remember things. One of our shared joys in the past was talking about things that happened to our family in the past. But now we can’t do that any longer. It’s sad.


I last saw Jerry in person at my book launch in early 2022. Jerry was always a big supporter of my writerly ambitions, and though we hadn’t spoken much in recent years, I was thrilled to see him walk in the door with a big smile and ask me to sign a copy of my book for him.


We spent a good bit of time that day talking about times gone by and our wild road trips and the books we were crazy about back in high school. Jerry, like me, was an avid reader. He introduced me to the writings of Kurt Vonnegut, for example, and Kahlil Gibran.


After the book-signing was over, we gave each other a brotherly hug and said that we must get together again soon and catch up. But, alas, we never did. I did message him at one point—ironically, asking him if he could clarify details of a road trip we had back in 1978. He said he would get back to me, but then he was gone.


While sitting at his funeral service, I remembered a passage from Gibran’s “The Prophet” that Jerry wrote in my high school yearbook. There in my pew, I Googled the passage and read it to myself—


“Farewell to you and the youth I have spent with you.

It was but yesterday we met in a dream.

You have sung to me in my aloneness, and I of your longings have built a tower in the sky.

But now our sleep has fled and our dream is over, and it is no longer dawn.

The noontime is upon us and our half waking has turned to fuller day, and we must part.

If in the twilight of memory we should meet once more, we shall speak again together

And you shall sing to me a deeper song … and we shall build another tower in the sky.”


It was as if Jerry was speaking to me from the grave. Perhaps he was.


The thought comforted me. Memories may be the threads that bind our lives together, but it is faith that carries us through.

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