Friday 8 October 2010

Nostalgia: Ah, but you can never go back

This always happens to me. I travel; I stay some place then I hesitate when I leave feeling a touch of nostalgia. Business recently required me to fly out West for an overnight stay; one of those fly in for a meeting, fly out immediately afterwards. Despite my short stay, I hesitated at the door of my hotel room. Of course, a last look around for anything I may have overlooked but also to have a last look at some place I would never see again.

The entire family went to a timeshare in Vermont last December. It was a great week together of skiing, swimming outdoors in a heated pool, meals together, card games and a few movies. After packing everything up in the cars, after collecting all our garbage and recyclables and carrying the bags off to the appropriate place, I alone went back to the apartment for a last look around to see if anything was left behind. With nothing found, I walked to the door. I turned and looked back to the main room and hesitated. I thought of our week together, a couple of amusing incidences and the meals at the large table with all 6 of us. I had a moment of nostalgia realising I would never be back; we would never back.

Oh, there would be other vacations, other places but this vacation, this moment was finished and it would be never repeated. Well, maybe repeated but not quite like that. Who knows? Time changes, people change; who knows how the family and / or the circumstances would be different in the future?

Funny, eh? I'm not sure if this has something to do with getting older. Ha! When one is older, I guess one can say with more conviction that yes, "I won't be doing that again." At 20, who knows? You may just be back at that resort and may just have the same timeshare again. At my age, I'm no longer so sure about that. Besides, been there, done that: time to move on and try something new. Not necessarily enough time left to do stuff twice; I should concentrate on sticking with what's new. There are a lot of "first times" still left in the world.

Princeton University's WordNet succinctly defines nostalgia as a longing for the past. Wiktionary further qualifies it as
  1. A longing for home or familiar surroundings; homesickness.
  2. A bittersweet yearning for the things of the past.
Ah, how we have that idealized version of the past in mind. But while we long for the past, thinking it was maybe better than our present circumstances, can we say that the past was really all that it was cracked up to be?

I grew up in the 50's and 60's. It seemed like an era of innocence, when all was right with the world. I read today about the sex scandals in the Catholic church, the horror of Paul Bernardo, the arrest of Col. Williams. I have no recollection of any such things back in my youth. Were similar things going on but I was just unaware of them? Maybe the saying is true: Ignorance is bliss. If I have some nostalgia for my childhood, I have to admit it is because I'm looking at that time through rose coloured glasses.

The 50's saw the Korean War and the beginnings of the cold war. The 60's saw the Cuban missile crisis, the threat of nuclear holocaust and the war in Viet Nam. Yes, there were lots of bad things happening; I just don't necessarily remember them. What child truly understands all that is happening in the cold, cruel world? Ha! As a child, it's great. All that real world stuff is taken care of by your parents and you can just kick back and have fun. Gosh, who wouldn't long for that? :-)

You can't go back
Unfortunately, you can't go back. You can never go back and even if you manage to get back, it is never the same.

At university, I was pals with a guy. We had some great moments in class, in the cafeteria, studying for exams and shooting pool. Years later, in a fit of nostalgia, I looked him up and we got together for a coffee. I had moved on; he had moved on. It was pleasant swapping stories but we really didn't have anything between us. That time spent together was very much due to the moment, to the mutually shared experience of going to university. Without that experience, we didn't have anything which could be construed as a friendship.

Over the years, I have come to accept this as a fact of life. You share a moment, have a good time then say sayonara, adios, meet ya on the other side.

Have a nice life
We all say "Have a nice day" or "Have a nice week". We also say "Have a nice weekend" or "Have a nice vacation". The inherent idea in each one of these gestures is that we are going to see the person again sometime in the future, probably the not so distant future. However, there are some people we meet that if we think about it, we will never see them again.

The first time I heard this, I admittedly didn't quite grasp the significance. Somebody said to me, "Have a nice life." I walked away but was a little perplexed as I found this a curious thing to say. Have a nice life? What exactly does that mean? After mulling it over a little, I suddenly realized that the implied meaning of this phrase was that we would never see one another again. I was stunned. Wow, never again.

The truth of this phrase, the reality of the situation struck me as an astounding revelation. That person would disappear into the world and I would never see them again. The world is so large, our individual lives are so distant, the permutations of chance are so great that the probability of me running into them is nonexistent. Amazing.

Cruising into the sunset
Yes, you could exchange telephone numbers or email addresses and plan to meet. But would it be the same? I return to my university friend. We were great pals at university but our meeting afterwards proved that our friendship was based on a mutually shared experience, nothing more. Once this experience was over; our relationship was over. You may say that it's sad but it just seems to be a fact of life.

My wife and I went on a boat cruise a few years back. During a cruise, you usually sit at the same table and share your meals with the same people. We met some nice couples, had a great time sharing stories of our days, life aboard ship, the stops at various ports of call, etc. but when the cruise was over, we walked down the gangplank never to see these people again. It's not that I didn't like them; it's not that they were not nice people; it's just that our relationship was based on this mutually shared experience. I go home and return to my own family, friends and colleagues. I return in essence to "my life". The experience of the cruise was in part my time with these people. But just as I closed the door on my stateroom never to return, I said good-bye to these people never to see them again. Have a nice life.

By the way, before you think of me as some cold hearted... ah, bastard, I would add that I have found it rare to meet someone with whom the relationship persists beyond this mutually shared experience. I've met a lot of nice people but I have to admit I can't keep up with them all. Family, work, a few occasional friends; life is already pretty busy.

My father
My father died just 2 days short of his 80th birthday. He had a heart attack and spent the last 48 hours of his life in the ICU of the local hospital. I was there the whole time but curiously enough, for me it was an event that wasn't unexpected. For a long time, I had realized that my father would not live forever. I knew that sooner or later I would get the call and that would be the end of it.

Consequently, when I was there in the hospital, I felt the whole thing was surreal. I had known the day was coming; I had imagined what would take place and bingo, there I was; it was happening. Yep, surreal, that's the word. I knew it would happen and finally it was happening. The build up to that final moment was tense. I knew that this would be the very last time I would see my father. It would be the very last time I would speak with my father. This was my last chance; there would be no other. Even before he was gone I was feeling this enormous sense of loss; the finality of the event was almost unbearable. Say it now or forever keep the peace.

I was there for the last beat of his heart, standing next to his bed in the intensive care unit in hospital. The cardiac monitor had indicated a decrease of the pulse; a nurse came to check the device and told me this was the end. We watched the number of pulses decrease during the final three minutes until the monitor showed a flat line.

During the last three minutes, I remember feeling an enormous sense of panic. My father was dying in front of me and it was really the last time in my life when I could talk with him. He was still alive but in a moment he would be dead. In thinking about it, even if I spoke, I'm sure he could not have heard me. I do not even know if he was conscious. With a weakened heart, his blood flow was certainly not good and was there even enough oxygen for his brain to function? I doubt it.

When I saw that the heart monitor indicated no heart beat, I remember thinking, "Damn, that's it!" I was stunned, stupefied. Having spent my entire life with my father, I was now obliged to continue without him. He no longer existed. Before me, of course, there was the body of my father, but it was a body, it was not my father.

I had a strong sense of déjà vu. When I was a child, the family spent every summer two or three weeks in a cottage at the beach. At the end of our vacation, we packed our bags and loaded up the car then we left for home. I remember looking at the cottage through the rear window. It would become smaller and smaller as the car went down the road until it disappeared completely. I had a strong sense of nostalgia. I didn't want to leave the cottage but I had to because I needed to go elsewhere. All good things come to an end.

It was this same feeling of nostalgia that I experienced sitting beside my father. However I wasn't walking away from my father physically; there was no car trip. I was leaving my father in time, in history. His life had stopped, but mine was continuing. With each minute after his death, the distance, the time between us "was growing." Just as I looked through the rear window of the cottage disappearing in the distance, I watched my father disappear into the past.

Over the years I have heard of the concept of life after death. Is it true or not? My father is he still alive somewhere; was he still alive when I was sitting next to his body? I do not know. However, it occurred to me that in a sense, yes, he was still alive in my memories. The body was gone, but the picture, his memory still existed. In this sense, if I could keep the memory of my father, he would continue to live. But we know very well that over time, a memory becomes fuzzy and sometimes disappears.

The nurse left the hospital room and I found myself alone. I noticed that my father's eyes were still half open. I had seen many times in movies someone close the eyes of the deceased by sliding the hand over the eyelids. In remembering these movie scenes, I thought this would be easy to do. I tried to do this but it did not work; the eyelids would not close. I guessed that the muscles had become a bit stiff after death and perhaps what I had seen in movies was not quite true. I tried again by applying a little pressure on the eyelids but I could not close his eyes. What to do? It was curious to touch the body of my father. Once someone is dead, we no longer seem to want to touch them as if they had somehow become... untouchable? Death is something to avoid.

One of my teenage friends became a police officer. He told me how one day, he answered an emergency call that involved a road accident. It was a sunny Sunday morning around 9 or 10. Arriving at the scene, he found a man beside the road that had been ejected from his car. My friend rushed to his side to help him. My friend was holding the head of the victim in his lap when the man heaved a sigh and died. My friend described to me how the situation seemed surreal. This man had died and yet life went on. It was sunny. Above his head, my friend could hear the chirping of birds. Apart from the two cars involved in this accident, it was a pleasant morning.

At the bedside of my father, I thought of this story. I felt that sadness that you feel when you lose someone while recognizing that life goes on. The hospital room was silent. I could hear voices in the hallway but I could not understand what was being said. At one point I heard some laughter from a couple of nurses and I realized that elsewhere, for those others, it was another day at work, another eight-hour shift. Despite the end of life, of this particular life, the rest of us continue to lead our own lives.

It's been years that my Dad has been gone. The memories are no longer quite as sharp; he isn't part of my everyday life anymore. I can't say that I think of him all the time but periodically he does come to mind. I find it curious; I talk to my wife; I talk to my family; I talk with friends and colleagues but it isn't quite the same as talking with one's parents. I may have a success; I may have a failure but somehow there's always this little desire to somehow share it with my parents. Yes, I can tell my wife or a friend but there is something special about telling my parents... well, there was something special. I guess there is always a little kid in side of us no matter how old we get. [chuckles] I've come to realize that the mantle is passed down from generation to generation. The children of parents grow up and eventually become parents themselves and while they arrive at a point where they can no longer talk to their parents, their own children end up wanting to talk to them in the same way. I think we may all have this connection to our fathers and mothers.

The Future
I go to the door; I turn around and take a last look. I remember the good times, the bad times, all the various incidents that occurred. I don't know what will happen tomorrow. Will I back? Or is this the last time I'll see this place? I don't know but somehow I must remember that every journey inevitably comes to an end. That may not be the most desirable thing but if it is so, I must remember I had the luck of taking the journey in the first place.


Wikipedia: Nostalgia


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