Nostalgia . . . for the future

2018 January 18

 

Part of what makes us human is the capacity to magically transform ourselves away from where we are into a time and place that makes us feel . . . different . . . at home . . . authentic. Look up any definition of nostalgia and it will talk about a longing for the past—a kind of eternal homesickness that allows us to return to something we remember ourselves to be when life was different and simpler . . . a feeling that defies who and what we are in the midst of now.

But not all people experience nostalgia in the same way.  If you are in the midst of suffering and loss and disorientation, nostalgia can’t simply be experienced as a yearning for the past because . . .

Caregivers don’t only have memories of what has happened—we have memories of what we expected to happen—but can’t—with the person we love.  Our relationships depend on creating a shared future. Relationships come into existence and take on a life of their own only when we willingly conjure a shared future by communicating truths of what is yet to come . . .

 “We will comfort each other through the night.”

 “And awaken to one another in the morning.”

 “We will travel and see the world together.”

 “And be there for our children and loved ones when they need us.”

 “And we will be there for our children’s children.”

 “Yes, we promise to be there for one another through it all.”

Projecting our relationships—spousal, family, caregiver—into the future is a necessary ingredient of togetherness and intimacy until everything is completely and irrevocably disrupted.

When life is disrupted, we are left with the super-imposed realities of the future and unfolding present that are simultaneously true and false, present and absent, reassuring and haunting, harmonious and contradictory.

“We will comfort each other through the night.” “You said you would be with me but I now sleep alone.”

 “And awaken to one another in the morning.” Now I have to face the world without you but for you.”

 “We will travel and see the world together.” “It’s too overwhelming to even think about the possibility of getting out of the house together even though we used to do everything together.”

 “And we will be there for our children and loved ones when they need us.” We have been there for others and yet, I sometimes wonder whether they will be there for us as we had talked about being there for them.”

 “And we will be there for our children’s children.”  And now they may never know you—or us. I’m worried they will just know us as individuals, not as a couple.”

 “Yes, we promise to be there with one another through it all.”  We are. I’m trying. We’re still together, but we aren’t together in the way we had talked about. Not in the way I ever wanted us to be. We’re separate but not alone. Together, but not in the way we used to be.”

Grieving over what can no longer happen is always a part of caregiver nostalgia. It’s a nostalgia with burdens we couldn’t have anticipated. Our burden is trying to reconcile our present with a future we had etched together in the thousands of daily conversations we needed to keep our relationship alive and maintain our faith in the enduring power of us. But now, we are left with a growing rupture between the future we created with our loved one and the present we are now living together—but alone.  We are now left living with memories of what can’t be or won’t be, while also knowing that even though we built these memories with our loved one, they may no longer be able to help us rewrite them in ways that comfort and sustain us.

Most people’s memories are unidirectional—they flow only in the direction of present to past through the rivers of experiences and profound moments that already occurred. Caregivers, on the other hand, have a much more expansive view of memories. We don’t simply have memories of what happened. Our memories aren’t quarantined to the past as they flow through us and around us in ways that seemingly defy the gravitational laws of memory.

Caregivers have ongoing memories of what will not or cannot happen. These memories, contrary to what others might believe, are just as vivid and detailed and poignant as any memory of what has already occurred. We see them. We feel them. We hear them. They are as real as anything that has happened in the past. The difference is that they can’t be seen and recorded by photo albums or watched by an audience of others. These memories—these future memories—live only for us and the person we loved and still love and care for.

If you want to tell someone where you are—tell them you’re lost in between—reliving the future in ways that you have already experienced and yearning for a life that you had lived and rehearsed with the person you now care for.

Caregivers experience not only a homesickness for the past but a nostalgia for what can no longer be even though we know we’ve already lived our future once before in the everyday conversations that made our relationship possible.

Tell them you aren’t anywhere in particular, but you’re living and reliving a relationship that can’t be contained by the deceptive classifications of past, present, and future. Those classifications might work just fine for historians—but not for people who deeply care for another.

 

 

4 Responses leave one →
  1. January 19, 2018

    Another superlative commentary on the emotional agony of the spousal caregiver. Your writing is so creative and so right-to-the heart and truth of our caregiving experience. Thank you for understanding and articulating our lives in such an extraordinary way.

  2. January 20, 2018

    Thank you Terri. I’m so glad the Unprepared Caregiver continues to speak to you and The Well Spouse members. So appreciative of being able to work with and learn from all of you.

  3. January 20, 2018

    Zachary, what a superb, insightful, and helpful article. Thank you so much. I will continue to ponder especially this: “the direction of present to past through the rivers of experiences and profound moments that already occurred. Caregivers, on the other hand, have a much more expansive view of memories. We don’t simply have memories of what happened. Our memories aren’t quarantined to the past as they flow through us and around us in ways that seemingly defy the gravitational laws of memory.” Beautifully written.

  4. January 22, 2018

    Thank you, Norris. I appreciate your ongoing support!

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