what do we owe the dead?

10 years

For more than a month, I’ve been burrowed in my study, reading old letters, looking at paintings and sketches, writing about a period in my life–well, several periods, because what went away came back; what I put aside found its way into my daily thinking–which I thought I had figured out. I thought I knew what kind of exchange had been made, what had been given and what was taken. I thought I knew the story. But it turns out I didn’t. Don’t. But am piecing it together like a complicated quilt.

The question I asked myself yesterday was: What do we owe the dead? Do we owe them privacy? Because no one is alone. Everyone has some connection to others. If I write the essay or memoir that I am working on, do I betray old friendships by using names or experiences that lead to names? Because no one is alone.

I thought I knew this story. It was something I referred to fairly often because there’s a visual record, in my house. A visual record which is me. And I had a ready story to go with it. There was some charm in it, some humour–and some scandal. But it turns out it’s much more complicated (a quilt of dark and light fragments, stitched to one another, some of them frayed, some of them durable). It was one thing to read a letter or two and take the words at face value. But it’s another thing, dark and a little harrowing, to read a stack of letters from beginning to end, many of them 15 or 20 pages, densely written, and to see the patterns, the light and the dark, and to follow their trajectories out into the world.


Many of the people who were involved in this story have died. Others are living. Some of them live with a version of the story I’m newly discovering in these letters. I live with a version too. I’d like to say it hasn’t affected my life and in many true and important ways, it hasn’t. But in other ways, I see (reading these letters) how I was shaped by this story.

This is writing I am committed to and will stay with and finish. I wake and I think about it. In the night, last night, awake, I was thinking about it. When I swam my slow kilometre this morning, I was focused on one particular letter. Maybe I hadn’t read it clearly before — and I have to confess when the letters arrived, decades ago, sometimes several a week, I read them quickly and put them away. I was busy. I had a life that was filled with my family, my own work, and although I had affection for the person who wrote the letters, I didn’t have time for the pages of professed love for me, the assurances that I was, well, what I was to him. And was I? It’s complicated. (I was, and I wasn’t.)

Do we owe the dead their privacy? Is it acceptable to write our own version of a story that could simply fade away without ever being examined because…well, why? Because every morning I make eye contact with my younger self and in some ways it’s her that wants me to know what happened. And what did happen? Nothing. Everything.

I am writing about a period in my life. From this great distance, there is affection, beauty, pain, guilt, shame. There. I’ve named them. And maybe writing, taking time to think deeply, to remember, to organize my feelings about the story, and then filing it all away, is all I need to do.

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