June 19, 2005

Who are you?

How much of your time do you spend trying to answer the question of who you are, how do you know you exist, what defines you? A least some of it, I bet, if you are at all self-reflective. You have also probably spent more time at various points in your life contemplating this question than at other times in your life. But it's always there -- how do you know?

Descartes had a simple answer -- Cogito ergo sum. Je pense donc Je suis. I think therefore I am. Rene wrote it in Latin, first, but I intially heard it in French. He defined his existence by his capacity for thought. Simple, no?

Too simple. I think that you are defined by what others think of you. Do you really exist if no one knows your name or recognizes you? Or are you a ghost, just sort of touching on this plane, temporally. I think you exist because others believe you exist. You are a hero if you are thought of by others as a hero. You are unkind if, etc. See, other people are, among other things, a mirror to reflect your own existence back at you. Without others, you don't exist, except maybe in your own mind and even then, who can really say. Think about it, too much self reflection, too much self contemplation, too much inside your own head and the rest of the world becomes less, or maybe more, but just the same your existence changes. I think.

Moreover, I think that your family is the most important source of you. What do I mean by that? They set the expectations that you try to measure up to, they are the ones from whom you hope to receive praise for your accomplishments, the ones you keep coming back to in order to affirm your growth, physical or other. They are the wellspring, the measuring stick. They confirm your existence and your place in a hiearchy.

What happens if your existence is suddenly called into question by the rest of the world? Or at least by someone very important?

You crumble. At least a little.

That's what happened to me yesterday.

I took the Girl Child to go see my grandfather in his rehabilitation facility where he was recovering from his broken hip.

He didn't know me. He asked me if we were in Texas and I told him no. He asked where we were and I told him -- in the rehab facility in Westchester, NY. He asked me if I was the Secretary of the facility. I told him no and we discussed how long it might take us to get to a mountain in Nevada. He didn't believe me when I told him how long it took.

I felt like crying.

I think that when my grandfather didn't know who I was, my place in the world became less firm. My existence wavered and I realized, if enough important people don't know who I am, I cease to exist.

I am posting this without re-reading. Sorry if it doesn't make any sense, but I wrote this one all for me. I needed to.

Posted by Random Penseur at June 19, 2005 04:51 PM


I wish I had something of comfort to offer you. Unfortunately, I can't think of a damn thing to say that might help, except that I am, of course, very sympathetic. My parents and grandparents died many years ago, so I've been spared watching them go through extreme old age. But I've watched some of my friends go through this kind of pain recently with their loved o nes, and...all I can say that might help is, you are so not alone.

Your feelings are shared with so many others and you have every right to feel the way you do about your grandfather.

This was beautifully written, too. Touching and truthful and strong. I hope that writing this brought you some relief. :-)

Posted by: Amber at June 19, 2005 05:11 PM

What to say... maybe, instead, each relationship is truly two-way, and as long as one of you remember it's enough. It may be less satisfying, but the bittersweet makes the good that much better.

Posted by: Ted at June 19, 2005 06:35 PM

my nana stopped knowing me about ten years ago. it is a day i can not forget.
she used to remember for a minute when i would sing to her on the phone.
she hasn't been able to comprehend the phone for years now...and so...
i focus now on the things i can do to make her smile. i send her things and photos. when she sees my son for the first time...it will just be the innocence of a child that makes her smile.

i see myself there.
in the photos my mother sends me of her smile.
even though with every one i see...i do crumble.
it is often in the crumbling i find my moment of grace.

i hope that in writing this...you found a moment of grace. if not then...then maybe when you are ready to reread it.

Posted by: sn at June 19, 2005 07:11 PM

My father died of cancer last year, but right up to last few days, he knew us. I cannot imagine what it would be like to love someone, to see them and to know that they see you, but also to know that they don't remember you or all the memories you should have in common. But at least you still go in spite of the pain and unhappiness. There are only inadequate words of sympathy to offer.

Posted by: Peggy at June 19, 2005 07:29 PM


So sorry to hear about this...I can't imagine how awful it must be for you.


Posted by: Madame Chiang at June 20, 2005 12:35 AM

It's a painful thought to think of someone you love and respect so dearly forgetting who you are. My grandmother on my fathers side went that way for the last 3 or so years of her life. She only knew people for fleeting moments, and was angry and almost resentful to people that came to visit her, I think partially because they knew here but she didn't know them.

I'm a coward and didn't go to visit her enough when I was in town, I still regret that. All you can do is be there and hope you can catch that fleeting moment of coherence and recognition. I got that for a handful of seconds when she first saw me, she whispered "David" then a couple minutes later she didn't know me anymore.

Posted by: Oorgo at June 20, 2005 01:19 AM

Nous aimons, donc, nous sommes. Voici, tu dois exister.

Posted by: Mark at June 20, 2005 01:34 AM

Oh sweetie! I have nothing intelligent to add -- but I offer the biggest hug you've ever received.

My heart is weeping for your pain.


Posted by: Margi at June 20, 2005 04:43 AM

No words. Only empathy.

Somewhere in there, we have to believe, they remember everything. And in their hearts, all the love remains. It just gets lost in translation. Keep that with you.

Posted by: Jennifer at June 20, 2005 09:29 AM

Thank you all for your kind comments and helpful advice. I'm very appreciative.

Posted by: RP at June 20, 2005 10:34 AM

Oh, RP...I'm so sorry; that's got to be tough.

Strange, as I first read this post, I was starting to formulate a debate for what defines you (since my perspective goes in a different direction). After reading your experience with your grandfather, none of that matters.



Posted by: Allison at June 21, 2005 09:27 PM

You know, RP, just because he doesn't know you on the outside doesn't mean he's forgotten you on the inside. When my Bub was sick (Alzheimer's) she didn't recognize me when I went to see her. When she died, my Mom told me that Bub would ask for three people often...my Granddad, my Uncle, and me. That's why I say not knowing you on the outside doesn't mean he's forgotten on the inside.

Posted by: Howard at June 22, 2005 09:48 PM
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