Some memories are so sweet that we like to visit them over and over again. To appreciate this memory I find a peaceful place and clear my mind of any worry or anxiety. I deliberately pass by the other memories that call to me, No thank you, I don’t wish to revisit that experience. I firmly choose this one – a special time I shared with my mother, who left this earth almost five years ago. This particular memory overshadows all others of her, and like an oversized piece of furniture in a small room, it’s difficult to ignore. I think I know why. With the distractions of children, job, life and distance, my mother and I rarely spent more than a few moments alone.
My mother hated flying; in fact, she refused to fly at all. In order to get her to visit me I offered to fly to Wisconsin and then travel by train from Chicago to Arizona. The idea of sharing such an adventure with me thrilled my mother. So what normally would have required a 3-hour flight became a 36-hour train trip.
The tiny expensive compartment where we sat knee to knee, a drop down table between us and our beds folded away above us, seemed unnecessarily primitive, but nothing dampened my mother’s enthusiasm.
We played cards, drank the wine we brought along, and discussed everyone and everything. During that entire trip my mother shared no special secrets; there was no dramatic life-changing revelation. All in all a pleasant and uneventful journey. Now when I look at the trip, examining it with the gift of hindsight, I think of it as an wasted opportunity. Why didn’t I ask her about her youth, her first love, and her life’s disappointments? I don’t know why I didn’t.
But I’m wrong about what makes this memory significant. It’s not because I rarely spent time alone with my mother. I can’t help but compare the time in that tiny compartment with my mother’s last days, when she was weak from cancer and too-little-too-late chemo. Her anger and bitterness offer sharp divergences to her smile and enthusiasm on the train.
How much of life is like that? While in the moment we cannot grasp how special it is, and even if we could, we lack the ability to make the most of it. Perhaps this human limitation protects us from overwhelming emotion. As a result, we simply enjoy the moment and only later comprehend the tragedy of opportunity lost. I suppose that’s what makes a memory bittersweet.