Picture yourself teaching high school students expository writing. You’ve assigned them a personal essay to write. You frame the topic:
“You may recently have heard of the term, ‘Right to be Forgotten.’ It was introduced in Europe, and it refers to the right of an individual to enjoy his or her present life without fear of being stigmatized by past behavior digitally preserved. It’s an especially important right to evaluate in today’s connected world, where digital trails can surface at any time and shame us.
“I want you to think about Right to be Forgotten in broader terms. Suppose you ask a young person what Right to be Forgotten means? Suppose you ask a very old person? How might the answers differ, depending on who you ask? And finally, what does Right to be Forgotten mean to you?”
I asked a few colleagues and friends how they might answer. Their answers ranged from relief at the thought that things in their past might now be put to rest; to perhaps wanting to be forgotten, given the relationship they had with their “loved” ones; to a notion that to be forgotten is the normal situation for people, a generation or two after they have passed away.
These are all great points of view. I had a somewhat different perspective. It began with my mother, and an image I had of her when, at ninety, she was recovering from hip replacement surgery. It was that point in her life — similar to the point in many other older people’s lives — where a fall and broken hip (or, frequently, a broken hip that leads to a fall) is a major step in the loss of independence that begins with absentmindedness and fragility and ends in a nursing home.
Mom had been placed in a “transition facility,” a cautious name we give to buildings housing elderly people who no longer require the rigor of hospital care but who are not yet ready to be released — in Mom’s case, to assisted living (our gentler term for nursing home). Mom would have raised the roof if she’d been told she wasn’t going home again, that she would be forced (”for your own good, Mom”) to surrender the last of her freedoms, would be “placed” like so much baggage in a “neighborhood,” where everyone she saw would either be uniformed or be an age similar to hers. She would go from managing on her own — however difficult and flawed that had recently become - to being managed.
Even so, Mom was luckier than some, for whom the transition to assisted living is a transition from being engaged to being forgotten. So many folks end up parked and alone, because nearest kin may not be loved ones, or nearest kin may in fact be far away, or tied up with their own challenges. I have been in enough facilities to know the sights, smells and sounds that can attend this relegation to final obscurity: the people, arranged randomly in their wheelchairs, the television on or the meal set in front of them.
Many assisted living facilities try very hard to provide activities and engagements calibrated to the diminishing abilities of their residents. Still, there comes a time when even limited activity becomes simply too much, when the person spends more and more time immobile and alone. Small wonder, then, that while sparks of energy exist, those about to enter this last phase fight it so hard.
What does Right to be Forgotten mean to them?
I remember those last months and weeks when Mom still lived alone in her house. The time she fell at the base of the driveway and had to be taken to the hospital for observation. The time she was prescribed a powerful painkiller for back pain, which so disoriented her that she overdosed and was taken out the front door in a stretcher. The time she had a UTI (urinary tract infection) that tested my caretaker ability to the limits and whose awful, unsharable details will never leave me.
At some point in all this, I asked her how she would manage the house, with its two flights of stairs. She gave her trademark chuckle and said, “I’ll crawl.”
Indeed. In the opening lines of Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” the King is transferring his powers “while we, unburdened, crawl toward death.” Yet Lear’s journey is anything but a crawl. How much of his rage is directed at the treachery of those around him, and how much is it the howling of a man enraged at the forces of nature that conspire to strip him, bit by bit, of all that he has — friends, people, abilities?
Here is William Butler Yeats, finest poet of his age, railing against the inevitable, from the opening lines of “The Tower”:
What shall I do with this absurdity —
O heart, O troubled heart — this caricature,
Decrepit age that has been tied to me
As to a dog's tail?
What of our own well-intentioned actions that gently strip from our loved ones those activities that once defined them as vibrant, active souls? We do it because we must, usually — but the effect is the same. What courage it must take, really, when you think of it: those first moments when you feel the solid ground of your younger self begin to give way under your feet — and then knowledge, certainty that tasks will become a bit harder, movements a bit slower, aches and pains ever more your friend. And yet such is the spirit to remain a part of the greater community that is our human experience, that many of us, faced with the question, “But how will you manage?” will answer, “I’ll crawl.”
Crawl, or howl. Yeats again:
Did all old men and women, rich and poor,
Who trod upon these rocks or passed this door,
Whether in public or in secret rage
As I do now against old age?
On one of my visits to the transition facility, I noted that Mom was looking from her bed to the window, where overcast daylight could be seen. She couldn’t see outside, of course, being bedridden: nothing more than a patch of gray was available to her. Still she looked. Outside, I knew, were trees, and nearby was a branch of the Rouge River, that stream which had once flowed clear and slightly tinged with red (hence its name), but that over the years had become green, contaminated by factory waste, the coarse industrial heartbeat of America, the Rouge forge, part of the Arsenal of Democracy that Detroit had been when Mom was younger, but that now, like her, had diminished, the ebb inevitably following the flow of work, promise, life.
Was there rage, then — silent rage, all alone? No one will really know. But rage likely wouldn’t have been Mom’s way. Looking out that window, she may well have appreciated the light, been grateful for the attention of those who administered to her, been eager in her diminished way to befriend those who, like her, were now confined to a smaller life.
And outside that window, I knew, down by the recovering Rouge (for persistent cleanup efforts had helped its restoration), there were ducks and other water life. From this, I developed a poem which, while a poor shadow of what Yeats accomplishes in his far better verse, nonetheless I hope captures the play between those of us still busy in our lives and those of us every so gently moved aside and out of the way of the not yet forgotten:
When We Are Ninety
No ideas hold. The young
reject the draft; the old
flit from nursing home to job
expiating past neglect
with present ministration.
and bosses glare.
Behind it all
this immense, sad stillness
awaits our living.
We're an important
full of hustle and verve
alarmed by tabloid lashes;
beset and breathless, we
upon the pause of life,
nor yet yield
to the diastole.
It is all intake:
to exhale is madness
a pointless surrender
to the kid next over.
When we are ninety
if life doesn't surprise us
if we don't step too soon from the curb
if a bit of dinner doesn't lodge
if a clot doesn't loosen
if a gun doesn't fire
if a scrip isn't abused –
if we don't weaken
If we are ninety
and we sit
husked and drying
while all about us bustle
our savior generation –
If we stare over the fields
from our steeled window
will we see the ducks
dabbling in the unseen river;
will we know at last
they build their nests for a season
raise young against death
and dip their living bills
into the cold and changing stream?
We must all make our individual peace with what inevitably awaits us. If we have the good fortune to live pain free to a ripe old age, let’s hope we also have the courage to recognize the nature of this world: with rare exception we will be forgotten, and beyond our children and grandchildren, no one will remember most of us. If we outlast fifty years past our deaths, let’s hope we are unforgotten because of the good, not the evil, that we have done. I’d rather be forgotten as a poet than remembered as a Hitler.
Mom eventually went into an assisted living apartment, with at least some of her original furniture around her. On her last day there, she had been seated for dinner, where no doubt she would have smiled and made what conversation she could to those around her. I like to think that the last gesture she made before the stroke occurred was her characteristic smile. That would have been her.
I can see that smile now. And I can hear her laugh. And that is how I remember her.
So Right to be Forgotten is a two-edged weapon. On the one hand, we have all said and done things we later wished we hadn’t. Regret, and its more powerful cousin, shame, are conditions we social animals share. Right to be Forgotten is a way to curb the pain of our imperfect pasts. It is enough for us to live privately with our shortcomings and past mistakes. Right to be forgotten ensures that we can heal ourselves, learn, and move on.
Those who would argue otherwise, that it is all right to dredge up the past and cudgel people with it, might pause for a moment, Christian or not, and remember these words from a familiar prayer, a subtle statement of a corner of the Golden Rule:
... forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us ...
On the other hand, Right to be Forgotten is a fearsome thing as we descend into the inevitable obscurity that faces most of us. The courage to confront our own oblivion is a gift we can nurture, so that we can accept and indeed embrace what must come. Here are final lines from Yeats’s Tower:
Now shall I make my soul,
Compelling it to study
In a learned school,
Till the wreck of body,
Slow decay of blood,
Or dull decrepitude,
Or what worse evil come—
The death of friends, or death
Of every brilliant eye
That made a catch in the breath—
Seem but the clouds of the sky
When the horizon fades,
Or a bird’s sleepy cry
Among the deepening shades.
And here I can say, as I type these lines, that it is summer. The morning is but half over. The day ahead will be warm and humid. We have planted new vegetables in the garden. Some months from now we will harvest and enjoy them. And in between will be things to do, places to see, people to enjoy, and promises to keep. Every day will bring its own rewards or trials, ups or downs. Every day a memory unto itself. And until the very last day, there are always days to come, each as full of life as the one before.