Memory is a terrible liar and a powerful myth maker. And sometimes it speaks to deep, almost unconscious truths.
On January 10, my sister Cathy died suddenly of a heart attack in her home. She lived alone. My sister Karen discovered her body in a recliner chair, with a mobile phone by her side. As Karen would speculate later, in her last moments Cathy must have known something was wrong. She was probably trying to call Karen for help when her heart failed her. This reconstruction of Cathy’s last thoughts sounded very likely to be true, for Karen and Cathy were very close.
I knew the details of how Karen discovered Cathy in her apartment because Karen had called me that night while I was out of town, and she told me everything. She talked of the surge of panic and fear she felt as she drove to Cathy’s apartment to check up on her. Cathy had not been heard from for a few days. Karen knew something was wrong.
In the days that followed, Karen worked through her grief, heroically, to manage the details of settling Cathy’s estate and planning a memorial service. I didn’t have much to do but think of something meaningful to say to remember Cathy at her service. In doing so, I would need to confront a question that most of us need to answer as we grow older: how do you remember a life lived and lost?
This was not an easy question for me to answer. Cathy and I had been born nearly a decade apart. She was the oldest of four kids in the family as we grew up in Battle Creek, Michigan. I was the youngest. I didn’t have a stockpile of shared moments to draw from. No recollection of her imparting sisterly pearls of wisdom when I was a child. The memories I could draw upon were decades old.
And yet I wanted to honor Cathy. What brother doesn’t honor his sister? I could not tell stories in vivid detail. So, I painted a picture instead. Not of her, exactly. But of her mythology.
Instead of trying to conjure everything I could recall about Cathy, I did something counterintuitive: I remembered moments where she was not even present — but moments that represented her. My mind went back to when I was a child exploring the mysteries of my parents’ massive stereo console — one of those rectangular beasts with built-in speakers, wooden doors, and cabinets to store record albums. Here, I had fallen in love with records by exploring Cathy’s collection.
When I was six years old, I found Cathy’s copy of the Rolling Stones’s Through the Past Darkly (Big Hits Vol. 2). I was fascinated and repulsed by the five unruly men on the cover with their pasty white faces plastered against a glass film, as if daring you to open the album. They looked like kids being naughty, leering at me. I did not even listen to the music on the vinyl records. I stared at the images, enraptured. The music would come later. The images cast the spell.
Unruly hair. Menace. Danger. Cathy.
Looking at my personal copy of the album again years later evoked Cathy as the rebellious oldest child who tested my parents’ patience by living on the edge, dating boys she should not have been seeing, drinking, and hell raising. During one particularly infamous week when my parents were away, Cathy hosted several boys at a party in our house, resulting in my collection of Al Green records being destroyed (an experience I wrote about years later). And Cathy was not only rebellious, she was also sloppy. She always seemed to be wandering around the house in her pajamas, taking swigs of milk directly from the carton and putting it back in the refrigerator. Something Keith Richards would do.
Cathy the older sister who wore her pajamas around the house was one thing. Cathy the female Keith Richards was a mythology. But was she really? Fifty years later, I could not say for sure. One thing was clear: Through the Past Darkly framed Cathy in my mind with a clarity that was lacking when I tried to recall actual times we spent together. I mean, she really was not involved in the actual breaking of my Al Green records. One of partygoers had. I don’t actually remember her witnessing any of that. But it was her party. An illegal one in our home. Cathy had caused disruption.
I remembered another album belonging to Cathy: Pearl, by Janis Joplin. Janis Joplin, relaxing with a sweet but vulnerable grin, emitted a hippie vibe in her red pants and beads.
Yes. Now this was another image of Cathy as I remembered her. Cathy the free spirit whose emotions ran close to the surface. Cathy the sensitive soul who taped to her bedroom wall a picture from a magazine of a suffering American soldier in Vietnam. Who dated a Vietnam vet named Gary. Did she really do that with the magazine photo? I’m pretty sure she did. Vietnam was not something anyone in our house discussed. So, a photo of the war would have made an impression on me.
The music on Pearl also made me think of Cathy, especially Janis’s wrenching and emotional version of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.” Cathy always laid it out there with passion, whether arguing with my parents or showing affection to my older brother Danny, with her hand on his shoulder in a family photo that Karen would pass on to me.
I had a new picture: Cathy the hippie down to the red velvety pants that Janis Joplin wore.
At Cathy’s memorial service on January 21, I told the story of the record album discovery and my memory of Cathy the hippie. I almost removed the detail about Janis Joplin’s red pants. But then I decided to go with it. If that’s how I remembered Cathy, through this association with Janis, so be it, even if the pants themselves were simply part of the mythology I was creating about my sister.
After the service, I lingered in the church narthex, crowded with mourners. I noticed a display of photos of Cathy over the years, the kind that you usually see at funeral services. In one of them, she was hanging out with my sister Karen on the hood of a yellow car, wearing red pants. Just like Janis; I hadn’t imagined them after all.
Of course, it didn’t really matter whether Cathy wore red pants. The narrative about her from my childhood mattered. But seeing her in those red pants was a balm. That photo reminded me that even though I didn’t see Cathy a lot when I was a kid because of the difference in our ages, I knew something about her.
Memory had failed me when I tried to recall specific details I could share about Cathy. But memory was also a useful filter. My inability to remember details liberated me from the tyranny of petty minutiae and enabled me to create a mythology of Cathy. I wasn’t sure if those few details about Cathy were completely accurate, but they felt true. They built a powerful picture of my oldest sister.
After the service, Karen would share with me details about Cathy that also gave more basis to the hippie mythology I had created. It turns out that the wild party where my record albums got broken was not the only one Cathy hosted when my parents were on a vacation or a company convention somewhere. Cathy would have long-haired guys over to drop acid, and Karen would hide in her room. And one time, my mom and dad came home early to a house full of men and women sleeping all over the floor. Some weren’t sleeping; they were busy having sex. My dad calmly asked the men to step outside and wait for the women to dress. Then he told Cathy, “We’re not running a whorehouse here.”
We often associate mythology with famous people, like rock stars. We mythologize them because we want to build them up as larger than life to justify their impact on us mere mortal fans. But we can mythologize anyone when we need to.
Coming across a photo of Cathy in red pants turned out to be important to me. That’s because mythology needs to have a basis in fact, however tenuous. A memory created out of thin air would be a lie. The mythology of Cathy was probably a lot more interesting than the reality of growing up around her and experiencing the tedium of day-to-day life. But that grain of truth is what allows mythology to matter: it crystalizes the true heart of a person even as the mundane details that are not terribly important are stripped away. Only the essence of the person remains. This mythmaking allows you to reframe someone. To reinvent a version of that person who resonates. The portrait we create delivers solace.
Why do we bother to write a memorial at all? To stand up at a service and create a narrative about a person who is gone? Because every life should have meaning, including our own. When you write an obituary or stand up at a service, you want to say something more than a bland, “This person was a good person.” You want to recall specific details that give their life meaning as well as your own relationship to that life. You cannot remember everything. But you remember the things that matter. As you write them down, you create a portrait.
You also hope people will create a similarly valuable portrait of you when you die. Will your life have meaning to anyone, too? Will you matter? These are questions we don’t like to think about. For the vast majority of us, we won’t be remembered after the last person who knows us also dies. Few of us achieve the immortality that comes with having a legacy that is recorded and discussed throughout history. A mythology, though, grounded in truth, creates a hint of a legacy. However fleeting.