THIS IS US

My Memory Knows What It’s Doing

Notes on grief

Savala Nolan
Human Parts
Published in
4 min readDec 20, 2022

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Photo by Anita Jankovic on Unsplash

I’ve been thinking about my memory lately. How it works and why it makes mistakes.

Every once in a while, for example, I hear a truck coming up our hill that growls and chuffs in the same register and pitch as my dad’s old maroon Ford, that dented dinosaur, and something tiny and impossible but nevertheless palpably real surges up in me — a minuscule stitch of time, momentarily lost, surfacing in the wrong place — and I think, Dad’s here! I forget, in that instant, that my dad passed away four years ago.

He loved John Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things.” The decisive, jaunty piano in the song’s first bars, then the rich, honeyed purr of the horn, how it tumbles merrily into runs and trills. I don’t think of my dad as a playful person, really, but he enjoyed the gaiety in that record, how Coltrane and his musicians unfurl it with such springing, coltish fun yet stay in the pocket, never fully slipping the borders of the song. There’s magic in that dexterous, both/and space, and a contradiction — we never lose the melody even though it’s barely played. We hear all the familiar notes even though they’re hardly there.

The song always makes me think of him. When it pops on unexpectedly, it’s 50/50 whether I will, for less than a microscopic instant, think I should call my dad and say hey. Before that thought has even fully concluded, I am already remembering: I can’t.

It’s strange and not exactly pleasant to be slapped out of the present moment and then back into it, boomeranged hard and fast between then and now.

Why does my brain do this?

Four years without my dad, and here’s what I think: My memory is trying to reveal something to me about the enormity of love. It’s trying to tell me that big losses are incorporated slowly, very slowly and bit by bit, and never all the way. That it takes deep reams of time for any of us to truly get that something, or someone, is over, is gone — and even then, we might sometimes briefly fail to recall this fact. In our love for them, we might falter.

My memory is trying to tell me that the choreography of time is full of glitches about which we can do nothing, and maybe should do nothing…

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Savala Nolan
Human Parts

uc berkeley law professor and essayist @ vogue, time, harper’s, NYT, NPR, and more | Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins | she/her | IG @notquitebeyonce