Thirty four years ago today… I was born.
They named me Hugh Crocker Howey after my grandfather, Hugh Crocker Murrill. On the same day that I was given a first name, my grandfather, the great male of our clan, was given a new one. He became “Big Hugh,” the only name I ever knew him by.
It was many years into my life before I realized that I’d helped rename the great man–that my humble existence had altered the label used for such a marvelous, massive and magnificent human being. I was probably ten or eleven before it occurred to me that he wasn’t called “Big Hugh” prior to my birth. I’ll never forget how shocking this new knowledge was, like a lightening bolt of the obvious sparking through me.
It was a lesson in time-lines, and cause and effect, that has come in handy quite recently.
Another lesson, a tragic one, that I gleaned from my grandfather is the sadness and tragedy of senility. Big Hugh suffered from Alzheimer’s for a dozen years before he finally passed away. Well, suffered is probably the wrong word. There were a few years during which he knew something was happening, that a mysterious disease was taking away his greatest strength–his intellect. But after this, he didn’t even have the faculties for understanding his loss. These senses were part of what was taken away.
I’ll never forget sitting with him during those transition years. My mother would drop me off to spend time with him; our circular, strange conversations would constantly orbit the rational–but never touch down.
“How did you get here?” he asked me.
“My mother dropped me off.”
He would nod, play with his empty pipe, consider it for awhile, then look at me. Waves of recognition and confusion would twitch his face this way and that.
“Who are you?” he wondered, more out of curiosity than alarm.
“I’m your grandson.”
“That’s right.” He said. More twisting of his pipe and face. “And what’s your name again?”
“It’s Hugh, grandpa, the same as you. I was named after you.”
“Oh,” he said. “Isn’t that nice.” There was a pause as he remembered something about his pipe. A better use than something to chew on, something to clutch. Then the memory was gone.
“How did you get here?” he asked me. Again.
After awhile, he wasn’t suffering anymore. He just enjoyed being driven around the block by his nurse, the only person he truly knew. If anyone was suffering, it was the rest of us.
I’ve been thinking about Big Hugh these last two days. Sometimes the Bern Seer looks at me the way I used to look at him. As if there’s something I’m supposed to know–or remember–but can’t. She’s also more familiar with me than our brief time justifies her being. And she often mentions things that sound like gibberish, but she says them with the calm tone of a shared experience.
Now I know, somewhat, how Big Hugh felt during those transition years. Time travel does things to interpersonal relationships, like a reverse sort of senility. It came to me last night: the Bern Seer knows me from years hence. Years I cannot remember. One of us is at the end of a long relationship and the other is at the beginning. Yet it’s the same relationship.
I haven’t decided what to do with this realization. I suppose I should play along and maintain my wide-eyed ignorance. But now that I know, I can imagine what she’s feeling. It’s what I was feeling with my grandfather that day. And it makes me want to rush to her and say, “I can’t remember why, but I know that I love you. I know that we are the fastest of friends. And I’ll love you back until I can remember again.”
I feel like this is the right thing to do. It won’t clear anything up for me, it won’t change what I’m going through as I struggle to remember things I can’t possibly know… but I can see on her face that she’s the one suffering. And I want to make it stop…