The River Oblivion

Mapping the boundary between death and forgetting

Illustration by Allie Yacina

My maternal grandmother lived, for most of the time I knew her, in an A-frame cabin deep in the woods of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Once or twice a year we’d make the drive south, past cow towns, through valley fields pocked with spools of hay, then east into the foothills, beyond the shops selling taffy and fool’s gold, up the winding carsick road, and finally to her pine-surrounded home. Nearby were massive granite slabs cracked by alpine creeks, which in summer swelled to deep blue pools on their slow way to the lowlands. I could tell, even as a child, these woods were different than our woods—sun-parched, lemon-scented, dark but never spectral—nothing like the musty mushroom-damp of the forests of the north.

When my sister and I were young, one of us, attempting to say Grandma, called her Grumpy, a name that stuck only because it fit her poorly. She was known to be kind and wildly creative. “She was not a traditional,” my mother likes to say. In my grandpa’s reel-to-reels, she is lanky and handsome, her calm demeanor streaked with certain mischief. It isn’t hard to draw a line from her to me, not only in resemblance but in essence, and because I like what I see in her, I like the parts of me that seem like her.

We were young, still, when her odd behavior started. She began repeating questions and, though she played along, often seemed confused in conversation. She would give back gifts we’d brought to her from home, acting as though she’d chosen them for us. Objects disappeared, reappeared in odd spots. At one point, she stole my much-prized neon Swatch watch and claimed it as her own. Worse, she turned mean, quick-tempered—her face, without warning, swiftly twisting into spite. My sister and I, when this started, were the only two kids in her life. When the growing abyss began stealing names and faces, ours were the first to go.

Then one day she walked down the redwood steps of the A-frame, beyond the stone garden at the edge of the yard, and disappeared into those woods. She was found, finally, thirsty and confused. She disappeared again, and again was found. By then my sister and I were in middle school and my dad was sick with cancer. There was no way we could care for her. After a long phone call between my mother and her siblings, my grandmother was moved to a facility—a nice one near the Bay, where I imagine the salt air offered some subconscious comfort, where she made childlike art until she died, where she could lose herself safely, wandering hallways eternally fluorescent-lit, instead of the forest dark.

 

The ancient Greeks believed that along the far edge of the underworld there ran a river of forgetting: the Lethe, the boundary line between death and new life. Of the five rivers flowing through Hades, the Lethe seems by far the least worrisome. There is the Acheron (the river of sorrow), the Cocytus (the river of lamentation), the Phlegethon (the river of fire), and the Styx (the river of hate). As the myth is told, each shade of the dead—in other words, each soul—must drink from or pass through the Lethe in order to be reborn, and, by drinking, each soul loses every memory of their previous earthly life.

Though the Lethe would come to appear on nearly every map of Hades, it is absent from the earliest Greek myths. Within these stories there is no moving on, the dead essentially stuck in infernal storage. When Odysseus journeys down into the underworld and encounters his mother, Anticlea, an emotional scene unfolds. Three times he attempts to embrace her, and three times he fails, passing right through her spirit. When he cries out to her, she explains, The soul flits away as though it were a dream.

In the myth of Er in Plato’s Republic, the Lethe is not a river, but a plain with a river running through it. The appearance of the Lethe represented one of Plato’s big ideas: that deserving souls might go on to be reborn. This change, the addition of this river of forgetting, would set up Western thought for the next two-plus millennia. Of this they were all obliged to drink a certain quantity, Plato writes, before his description takes a turn for the disconcerting: Those who were not saved by wisdom drank more than was necessary, and each one as he drank forgot all things. It’s here I begin to feel troubled by what seems to be missing information. Aside from the mentioned salvation, how does one know when to stop drinking? How much is more than necessary?

Plato’s influence is clear in the works of Virgil. Like Odysseus, the Trojan Aeneas journeys down into Hades. There he meets his father and, in a scene near identical to Homer’s, they fail three times to embrace. But instead of despairing, Aeneas’s father simply points to the river of forgetting, where a crowd of souls has swarmed the banks, waiting to be reborn.

 

Forgetting has long been a twin to death. The word lethe (λήθη) in classic Greek means “forgetfulness,” “oblivion,” or “concealment.” In certain works, the River Lethe is referred to as “the River of Oblivion.” In Milton’s Paradise Lost, it’s “the Oblivious Pool.” The word lethal, when first used in the 1500s, described spiritual death. It now simply means “deadly.” I suppose what so unnerved me as a child, observing my grandma’s dementia, was not its sadness but its uncanniness. It did feel, in a way, as though death had stretched its tentacles into life.

 

I’m writing a book about hell. When I share this fact with others, within the muck of the pandemic, it can easily take the cadence of a joke. But often people respond with a question: What’s your version of hell? I suppose it’s another way of asking, What do you fear? I do fear many reasonable and terrible things—gas explosions, accidents, freezing, drowning, rejection, death in general—and I believe that that most classic of hells, eternal fire, endures for obvious reasons. But the scariest thing I’ve known in life is my grandmother’s mind unraveling. When it comes to suffering, I’d rather be burned alive.

Her Alzheimer’s arrived early—an oblivion that moved with terrible speed yet was slow enough for everyone to suffer. And though I have no proof, no genetic test on which to hang my dread, I sense the curse is coming for me. I might be proven wrong, but until then, fear takes the shape of unearned knowledge: someday I’ll lose my selfhood down that same swift river.

My mom and sister, too, are terrified by the specter of dementia. We quietly monitor ourselves, each other, afraid we’ll miss the signs if a crack appears. My sister and I have decided the odds are only one of us will get it, and we’ve each decided the other will be spared. “You’ve got the better memory,” she tells me. “But I’m constantly losing things,” I say. Then she reminds me that I’ve been like that since childhood: spacey, lost in my head. But you have kids, I think, knowing this means nothing, that having a family line didn’t save our grandma. A tether to the future can be severed just as quickly as a tether to the past.

Months into this long pandemic limbo, I cannot shake the sense that the oblivion is looming. Writing, which once seemed to me the greatest hedge against forgetting, now feels closer to surrender than resistance. What is memory, after all, if both everything and nothing seem real? I am rattled by my mind’s repeated failures. Whatever reservoir I’d been drawing from is either flooded or drained. For a while I stop writing altogether. Instead, I ask my mom to teach me how to sew.

 

My mother and grandmother are just two within a lineage of hearty, handy women. My grandmother’s grandmother left her hometown among the lakes of Eastern Canada, moving her dying, diabetic sister to California because she’d heard there was a cure. My grandmother chopped wood, tiled and plumbed the bathroom of her cabin, and built the sunporch off the dining room herself. Left with six kids when her husband died, she simply carried on. My mother was the first woman to take woodshop in her high school, a big deal at the time, and I am writing at this moment at a dining room table she built by hand. They also—every one of them—made quilts. In my mom’s house now, there are four generations of quilts—fabric scraps in every color, blankets hanging in various places, folded over chairs.

You might be in the clear, I think as my mom sets me up with a pile of supplies. She is pointing out various patterns, mentioning quilts she made ten years ago. Nearly eighty and sharp, she loves being called on for memories, a natural keeper of stories. I suppose my sister and I will be charged with holding those stories once she’s gone, vessels we’ll give safe harbor before nudging them on toward another generation.

She is also, at times to my dismay, a keeper of objects—not a hoarder, but she does have a hard time letting go of things. Collector is a better word. I once called her, asking to borrow a drill when mine broke. By the time I arrived at her house, she had laid out several options on the table—a tableau arranged as though it were meant to be a museum display: the history of the drill. There was a hand-cranked antique. There was a heavy electric model with a power cord so long she had it snaked across two chairs, and two more modern cordless drills, the most recent one neon orange and nearly disposable.

 

“What will our kids remember about this time?” my friend Danielle asks me early on in the pandemic. We are watching her daughter Ramona, who has corralled their backyard chickens and is now sitting calmly among them as though she were their teacher. The sky is gray, the clouds unrelenting, but I know when I replay the scene later in my head, it will seem as though the sun had broken through. The pleasure of watching Ramona and the chickens, the pleasure of watching my friend be a mother, these are feelings that will translate to an image: light. I know that when Danielle says our kids, she means society’s kids. I have no kids, a fact that hangs in the air between us, but on this day holds no charge. Danielle is a good mom, and much of her mind is focused on creating good memories for her daughter.

It occurs to me in that moment that when I consider memory, I am nearly always thinking of the past. When Danielle considers memory, she is nearly always thinking of the future. Then it crosses my mind that perhaps this is a reason to have kids. My main tethers to the future are borne of making and of longing. Making, once complete, can only ever dwell in the past. Longing is a leash stretching forward, but with who knows what—perhaps nothing at all—at the other end.

When my mother asks me how Danielle is doing, I do not share these thoughts. Instead, I tell her about Ramona and the chickens, and as I tell her, I am carefully cutting out four-inch fabric squares that I will later cut into triangles, then sew into squares again, and this will all somehow become a quilt. These are movements I’ve seen her do many times but have never done myself. I can’t help but worry about her mind in isolation. “I check in most days,” I tell my sister, who now lives in London and who also worries.

 

It’s worth mentioning that my memory is good. Startling, even, according to my partner. After fifteen years he refers to me as his memory, often calling on me for details of our various adventures, for dates and places, conversations and connections.

For a long time, to stave off Alzheimer’s, I tried even harder to remember—everything. I recounted details on the regular to anyone who’d listen, mainly my mother and sister—conversations in cars, covers of ’80s VHS tapes, faces of regulars matched with drinks from my years serving coffee. Still, there were scenes that seemed to have slipped their moorings—a row of backlit figurines, a department store parking lot—and no matter how gently I tugged on the thread, no story returned to claim them. I poured myself headlong into this project of not forgetting, until one day I read an article that claimed researchers now believe Alzheimer’s is more likely the result of not forgetting than a failure to remember, that the brain’s self-cleaning system somehow breaks down, that it’s the unpurged, unimportant memories clogging up the operation. All that time, I’d been shoring up the hard drive for no reason, possibly toward my ruin.

 

I tell my friend Mark, when he asks, that my version of hell would be some form of losing my mind. His hell, he tells me, is to be held captive by someone else’s mind. Sort of like in Being John Malkovich, he says. He reasons this is likely primal, this fear of the hijacked consciousness, the source of alien movies and all those stories about how “the devil made me do it.” Mark is both a sensitive person and a person who works in advertising, and so is perhaps more aware than most of the various forms of mind control operating at all times around us.

His thoughts bring to mind the Jorge Luis Borges story in which a Shakespeare scholar inherits the Bard’s actual memory from a melancholic man he meets at a pub. That man had received Shakespeare’s memory from a dying soldier, who had received it from someone else, and so on. It was as if someone offered me the sea, the scholar thinks. But soon, images begin to float into his head, separated from meaning. Words grow noisy in his consciousness, thoughts become muddled with his own, until eventually, it all becomes oppressive: In time the great torrent of Shakespeare threatened to flood my own modest stream. He had hoped to possess the memory, but instead finds he is possessed. Tormented, he finally dials a number at random, bestowing Shakespeare’s memory on the first person who answers. Even then, his mind is altered forever.

The more I think about Mark’s vision of hell, the further it seems from my own. It is scary, the idea of an outside force acting as a puppet master, making one do and say strange or terrible things. But scarier than that: the idea of doing and saying strange or terrible things with my own faulty mind at the controls.

 

When the early Christians built on the myths that came before them, they, like the Greeks, believed that one must cross a boundary from death into a new life, that the soul will receive a clean slate. But in their view, centered on individual salvation, it was not forgetting one received, but forgiveness, which I suppose is forgetting in a different form.

The saddest of the damned in Dante’s hell is the famous man who begs to be forgotten. Sadder to me, even, than the suicide trees, sadder than the forever-wind-tossed lovers in the second circle, who at least have each other for company. While there are other tortured sinners who beg for the relief of a second death, this man begs to be swept into oblivion.

Dante sparked the Renaissance by yanking back the old myths and superimposing them onto Catholic doctrine. His Inferno borrowed much from the geography of Hades, but in his version the River Lethe doesn’t run through the underworld—it flows from the top of Mount Purgatory. Toward the end of The Divine Comedy’s second section, the poet drinks from the Lethe in order to be forgiven, to move toward Eden and eventually Paradiso. Soon after this, still glowy with atonement, he finally sees Beatrice, his once unrequited crush, who in death was promoted to godlike perfection. There comes a strange moment, a slight tiff between the two. It’s as though Dante drank too much of the Lethe and, instead of losing the knowledge of his sin, he has lost the knowledge of being a sinner altogether. Ever calm, Beatrice reminds him, Recollect. You have drunk today from the Lethe. In other words, remember that you have forgotten. Or this: Don’t forget that you’ve been forgiven.

 

When I was in college and fervently Christian, I would memorize long passages of scripture, hoping they’d settle within me in the form of moral knowledge. I couldn’t say now whether I did this in joy or desperation. The only verses I can still recall are the ones set to music.

 

For a stretch of time when I was young, I would not—could not—hug my mom. It began in adolescence, while my dad was dying and my grandmother’s mind was on its way out. It was not a conscious effort. My body somehow just wouldn’t allow it—the lake of pain between us was too wide, too difficult to cross. I find the notion of it now unimaginable—that cruelty—because my adoration for my mom feels boundless. But my teenage self still lives within my body, and in the early, anxious days of the pandemic, when I watch my mother from across the porch, forced to keep my distance, it is that period in my life that comes to mind. I can’t recall how long it lasted. I hope she doesn’t remember it at all.

I sometimes try to imagine how it felt to be my grandmother, to be lost in that dark wood, to be lost in the fog of forgetting. I wonder how many times she walked out but then returned before she walked too far; and once she had gone too far, I wonder what story propelled her forward—if her mind spun forth the way a dream would, detached from purpose yet feeling purposeful, as if somewhere in her body, the knowledge of love remained.

 

My mother, when my grandma stole my watch: We can laugh about it, even though it’s sad.

 

She has, at this point, taught me how to square a scrap of fabric, how to thread the bobbin, how to feed my quilt into the teeth of the machine. She has taught me in the way my grandma taught her. And these movements themselves are a means of remembering. Science tells us so. But needlework, long thought frivolous, falls outside the ways we measure labor and production. It often goes unnoticed, the power of passing down repeated motion.

There are those stories, of course, of patients with dementia who have lost all words, and yet when sitting down at a piano play Bach with exceptional precision. We don’t think of it as memory. It’s stored as intuition. This idea, more than anything, gives me comfort: if my worst fear comes to pass and my mind leaves early, my hands will likely still know how to thread a needle, how to finger-press a seam, and how, when beginning to stitch a line, I should first reverse directions—forward, back, forward, back—to hold the thread in place.

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