grief and memories

Making Them Immortal

Since Rick died, I’ve been afraid that I’ll forget things about him. I’ve never had a very good memory. At best, it’s sporadic. I can’t remember what I ate yesterday, but I can remember vivid memories from my childhood. I supposed most people are like that, but in my case, I’m usually surprised by the odd things I can recall with detail and the important things that I can’t begin to remember.

My counselor says we each remember occurrences differently than others do, because during every situation, we focus on what was significant to us, personally. That makes sense. Rick and I often saw opposite sides of a typical situation, or I hadn’t noticed something that he found very obvious. It all comes down to perspective.

But, in general, I’ve always considered myself someone who doesn’t notice the details. I remember the gist of something, but when I hear someone else’s recollection, I’m often stunned by what I DIDN’T notice. The address was on the side of the building? I didn’t see that. The guy was wearing a blue hat? Really? I was thinking he was hatless. Discovering how much I’ve missed that others were aware of made me begin to doubt my memory. Until now.

As more and more time has elapsed since Rick was here, I realize how many very distinct memories I have of him, the things he said, the looks he got on his face, the songs he sang, his movements, his habits, his likes, his dislikes. I can recall extremely vivid details about him in any given moment, and usually with only a small memory trigger. And the triggers are so obscure!

For example, seeing a pink rose the other day reminded me of the day on our last vacation in Florida when he walked into the condo with a bouquet of pink roses for no reason. He just said it seemed like I was having a tough day working remotely. And I can picture every detail of the condo, and then recall that he was in remission, and how sad I was all the time (but trying not to show it), how difficult it was knowing this would be our last time in Florida because he was probably going to die. And then I remember the restaurant and the pizza we had that night, and holding hands driving around the area in the car, and so on, and so on, and soon I’m drenched in tears. Because I saw one pink rose.

But, still, I worry that I’ll forget all these lovely memories, because I’m getting older, and the old bean doesn’t work like it used to. My time with Rick is also moving further and further into the past. So, yes, I’ve been a bit concerned that I’ll forget things about him and that the memories will fade.

To be honest, it isn’t just Rick’s memories that are important. I’ve always been like this, had this incessant need to keep the memories alive. I’ve loved cemeteries as far back as I can recall. Even as a teen, when my friend Jackie and I rode bicycles around Mackinac Island in northern Michigan, I tested her patience by lingering in the graveyard in the center of the island. I found the old inscriptions fascinating. These people existed, and lived their individual lives earlier in the century and even centuries before. Looking at the old dates and imagining the lives their occupants led was enjoyable to me. When my grandmother first started telling me stories about my ancestors, I hurriedly grabbed some notebook paper and started taking notes, and making a rudimentary tree. With the advent of records online, sometime in the mid-1990s I began a digital tree, then created a website, and now, the tree dates back to the 1400s and has thousands of individuals – all people who still fascinate me to this day.

I’m frustrated when I find only names, dates, and locations, because I want to really know these people and to memorialize them. My grandfather Bill on my dad’s side had another wife before he married my grandmother in 1920. My grandpa died when I was 18, and I heard him allude to her very few times, and even then, I only knew she existed because my dad had a half-sister. Grandpa told me she died in the flu epidemic of 1918-19, and Grandma said he didn’t like to talk about it.

That was it. That’s all I knew. Years later, when I began doing genealogical research, Rick and I traveled to Canada together so I could explore the records (that man was so patient!). In the St. Thomas library archives, I found more about her: her name was Laura Jones and she died when she was 24. They had been married six years. I went to the cemetery and her burial record noted that Bill’s great uncle had paid for her grave. I doubt my grandfather could afford it. Yet, sadly, she has no gravestone and I stood at her unmarked grave feeling despondent that this young woman had lived such a short life and was now remembered by no one, no one at all.

I haven’t given up. I later found more records online – my grandfather and Laura actually had two children: one died at birth in 1913. (Side note – the other daughter, Maxine, grew up and I found one of her granddaughters in Canada. We’re now close pals who talk nearly daily on Facebook.) Unfortunately, Maxine’s granddaughter Nancy knows nothing about her great-grandma Laura. And so, the search for more facts continues until I can learn Laura’s story and write it down for posterity.

Two quotes have rung true for me. The first was by Alex Haley, who said,

…in all of us there is a hunger, marrow deep, to know our heritage – to know who we are and where we have come from.

The second was Banksy:

I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.

Both of those ideals sum up my philosophy of life. I can’t let those who have gone before us be forgotten. It’s in my blood, this fevered need to be the keeper of the memories. Is it because I’m a genealogist or because I’m a writer? Or do I have the perilous job of being both? Because I can’t seem to stop. I need to record every detail I can about my mom, my dad, my grandparents, and even a young woman named Laura who died a century ago at what should have been the threshold of her life. She never really lived, but I’ll do all I can to keep her alive. I’ve also begun a book about my Uncle Jack who died at 18 on Normandy Beach. I have all his letters home, and reading them over and over makes me feel like I know this young man I never had the opportunity to meet.

I can’t stop writing about these people, keeping them alive. I won’t let them die a second time. I will keep saying their names.

And now I’ve added Rick to the list of those who have gone before, those whose memories I’ll try to keep alive. Rick was so much a part of my life, that I only thought of him in terms of my personal loss, my grief at his absence in my life. But recently, when I was compiling my first year of blog posts into a book, I realized that in doing so, I’ve added him to the list of those I’ve memorialized. I’ve told his story. I’ve kept him alive through my writing. He won’t be forgotten for a long long time.

This need to memorialize people is my passion. In fact, about six months ago, I got the idea to write a sonnet to Rick. That probably sounds crazy to most people, but it worked for Shakespeare, and Milton, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I decided to dedicate a sonnet to Rick, in hopes that it will provide  some closure to the chapter of our life we shared, and what better way to do that than through a medium used by writers for centuries before me? And when I finally finish my Ode to Rick, I’ll know that in some small part, perhaps I’ll keep his memory alive.

About the author

Katherine Billings Palmer is a technical writer, poet, and essayist from Garden City, Michigan. She’s won several academic writing awards, including first place in the University of Michigan Dearborn Critical Essay Contest for her work about poet John Donne: “‘The Sun Rising’: A Lover’s Boast.”

In 2017, Katherine’s husband, Rick, died of complications from small cell lung cancer. She wrote a series of poems and essays about her struggles to cope with her grief. I Wanted to Grow Old With You is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.

Her latest book, A Widow’s Words: Grief, Reflection, Prose, and Poetry – The First Year was published in January 2019 and is also available on

Katherine is a guest blogger for the Hope for Widows Foundation and writes about her grief journey at

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