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I Can’t Remember Anything Without You: Watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind through Grief

Last night she visited me in a dream. I was flying through the air, very fast, when suddenly I found myself in her arms. I caught a good look at her smiling face. Then I woke up, slowly, tears running down my face as I remembered she’s dead. I asked myself: Would I erase that dream if I could? Or what if I could keep the pleasure, the friendly visit, but erase the pain?   

To forget someone is a form of emotional murder, even when the object of your memory has already passed away. As I mourn my life partner Kate, who recently died after a long battle with a rare brain disease, I often find myself grappling with the entirely irrational feeling that I must stay distraught in order to remember her. I see this as loyalty, but it is in fact madness, as is my other, contrary, more selfish impulse: to forget everything, to go back to the time before I met the love of my life, to not have had love at all rather than to have had it ripped from my grasp.

All of this has led me back in recent days to what I see as cinema’s deepest dive into memory, loss and enduring love, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004). Melding the creative melancholia of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman with the low-fi visual magic of director Michel Gondry, “Eternal Sunshine” uses a fantastical question—if you could erase someone from your mind, would you?—to get at matters that are, well, eternal: Are we more than the sum of our memories? Are the good times in a relationship worth the pain of loss? Perhaps most pertinent, does true love really conquer all, or is that just a sentiment we use to keep Hallmark in business?

In case you’ve forgotten (or had it scrubbed from your memory): After an acrimonious breakup, Clementine (Kate Winslet) has had Joel (Jim Carrey) erased from her memory by the technicians at Lacuna, who specialize in this sort of thing. Joel, seeing the allure of wiping away the pain, opts for the same procedure. As the doctor (Tom Wilkinson) explains, each memory has an emotional core. Eradicate the core, kill the memory. But Joel, a romantic at heart, changes his mind mid-procedure. He loves this woman, warts and all, and doesn’t want her erased after all. And so they go on the lam inside his mind, staying one step ahead of the erasers, finding refuge within one old memory after another.

It’s an exceedingly clever film that I’ve always found deeply moving as an expression of love’s durability. But I’ve come to view it differently since Kate’s illness and death. As anyone unfortunate enough to have lost a loved one will tell you, grief operates on a higher plain of pain. It literally makes your heart hurt. It makes the present unbearable and the future undesirable. I’ve had days when I marvel at the reservoir of tears within me. I’ve had weeks when I no longer wanted to be alive. (For a long time those were the only weeks I had).

The common denominator? Memory.

Never the bad memories; only the good ones. A magical trip we took to the Venice Film Festival, and the way she beamed when I spoke on a panel there. A morning spent snuggling in bed with our overweight cat, Wuzz. Or just the way her smile accentuated her deep brown eyes. It hurts to even write about this stuff. These are the memories I’d cling to tightest were I in Joel’s shoes. Grief expert David Kessler says you’ll know you’re healing from grief when the memories bring more joy than pain. I like to think I’m getting there.

What kind of person was Kate? When she was raising funds and writing grants for the Dallas Public Library she befriended Stephen, a young homeless man who hung out in front of the building. One morning he found a tiny orange kitten in the library’s outdoor book drop. Stephen was beside himself with worry for the little critter, which he didn’t have the time or the wherewithal to care for. Luckily he had Kate.

She threw herself into the task of finding a home for the kitten, working the phones, asking around, and finally arranging a meet-and-greet with a kitty-friendly couple I knew. It was a match. They called him Keeper. This is the kind of thing Kate did. In recovery they talk about doing the next right thing. Kate never had to be told. She just did it.  

It’s a work in progress. I still have more triggers than a classic Western—places and songs and foods films that we shared that I can’t yet tackle on my own. I can’t go to Royal China, where we always watched with fascination as the noodle makers did their thing. Or Berkeley’s bucolic Greek Theatre, where we saw her favorite band, Radiohead, on a perfect East Bay evening. I doubt I can ever again watch "Up," with its potent strain of love and grief that reduced me to blubber even in the best of times. The movie wasn’t just mine. It was ours. I can barely even think about it without crying. Actually, check that. I can’t think about it without crying.

The crying is the worst, and I’d be lying if I said I never wished for a means to erase my relationship with Kate from my memory. I wonder: What would my life be like now without the nervous breakdown, which took more than a year from my life? The trips to psych wards, whose sterile corridors made me feel more crazy, not less? The lost employment, the uncontrollable tears, the sensation that my soul has been scraped raw and bloody? In a word, it would be easier. And who doesn’t like easier? To paraphrase Hamlet, forgetting it all is a consummation devoutly to be wished. Just ask the folks at Lacuna.

But all of that discounts the most important quality of all: love. It’s the great equalizer. Joel felt it more powerfully than ever as Clementine began vanishing from his memory. And I felt it in all its might and strength as I watched the Kate I knew succumb to her illness, slowly disappearing. First she lost the ability to speak. Then she could no longer text. Then she couldn’t even read. And it all made me love her all the more, even as I lost the ability to function as well.

What might my life be like had I never met her? I’d still be drinking alcoholically, still be coasting from one lonely hookup to another. Life would be easier without the pain of love lost. And it would be empty.

“Eternal Sunshine” comes down, jaggedly but firmly, on the side of love. Like most any Kaufman film, including the new “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” “Eternal Sunshine” makes clear that an end is nigh. But love survives everything, even brainwashing—or, in my case, even terminal illness and the thousand forms of sorrow it brings.

It’s intriguing that I don’t want to erase the bad memories. For one, I think I’ve already done a good deal of that job. I was a knucklehead early in our relationship, and I think I had to stop thinking about those years in order to get better and move forward. I was emotionally checked out. I went away on a fellowship in Cambridge and all but forgot her. My real relationship was with bourbon. Who wants to remember the bad stuff? Not me. I did my own Lacuna procedure on the foul memories. Writing about them now fills me with dull shame, not pain.

So that leaves the aforementioned good stuff, which, in absentia, becomes the painful stuff. For a while, the sicker Kate got, the more I pushed her away in my mind. Eventually I recognized the long-term harm in this. I realized that, as long as I preserve it, our love will never die, even though her physical form is no longer here.

I am learning, as Joel learns, that the good memories remain good, and that the love, if it was strong, will remain that way. If I let Kate’s love guide me, if I listen to her when she tells me to keep going, I will get out of bed and write and otherwise function as a human being. If I allow myself to remember the good times, I will also remember that I matter to her, that I am worthy of love. These realizations are to be celebrated, not erased. If I keep Kate in my heart, she is safe.

So I’ve reached the point where I don’t want to erase any of it. At the end of the day, she’s still here, as long as I create space for her, and for my memories. The lost cat, the noodles, her eyes, her tears, her kindness. It all matters. Because grief, as they say, is love.

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