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Memory is at the Heart of Patti Callahan Henry’s Latest Novel “The Favorite Daughter”

By Patti Callahan Henry

If ever the past of an author and the future of a book have collided, it is here in The Favorite Daughter. I have long been fascinated with memory – my education and master’s degree are in Nursing and my focus was on neurology and brain trauma. Memory haunts all my work, but takes center stage in this one. Who do we become without those memories?

Life is made up of thousands of memories, if not millions. The smell of a favorite childhood landscape. The touch of a loved one’s hand. The sound of a lover’s whisper. The sight of a baby’s smile. The ache of loss and heartbreak.

Do such memories define us? They often seem to, and yet – what is a memory? Amorphous connections inside the brain? Electrochemical signals? Synapses connecting with the patterns of things that have happened to us? These are – of course – questions that don’t have a fully satisfactory answer. What we do know is that when someone we love begins to lose their memories, it hurts. Though they might sit there in a familiar chair, in a familiar house, with their body alive and well, their life seems to be fading away. We feel confused and disconnected. We feel as if we don’t know them or as if they don’t know us. It’s painful.

Visit Patti's WAM page.

I wanted to write about this, and as I was doing my research I listened to a podcast by a woman named Dr. Pauline Boss, who has a term for the pain we feel in this: ambiguous loss. She writes, “Human relationships are ruptured indefinitely by ambiguous loss.” Rupture. That’s a powerful word. And yet, when someone we love suffers from Alzheimer’s, that loved one is simultaneously present and absent. These dueling facts pull us in opposite directions. Have we lost them or not? Is it fair to mourn someone who is still alive? The questions go on and on.