On the other side of the mountain, behind our apartment lies the Zürich zoo. Many days on my run, I follow the wooded trails that lead to the large enclosure that houses the famous Asiatic elephants. They are big favorites of the tourists here.
But it makes me sad to go there, to imagine those beautiful, stately animals penned in a place so far, so different, from their native lands. Were they meant to live in Switzerland?
Recently I came across an article about elephants, specifically about their incredible memory.
It turns out that these large mammals have huge hippocampi, the areas of the brain that store sensory information, emotion and memory. Among land mammals, their brain size is second only to humans. And studies have shown that they are able to recognize objects, even people, after many years.
And when elephants die, they form a circle, with their backs enclosing the dead, and they trumpet and cry. And then they reverentially cover the body with grasses and dirt. And they stay with the bones for several days.
And if, when they are traveling across their habitat, they come across the burial site of another elephant, they treat the old bones with a sign of recognition, and they pay special attention. They hold them in their trunks, cradling them and rolling them beneath their back feet.
It appears that this may be a form of grieving for them.
I have an image of these enormous, regal animals circling their dead, quietly remembering the fallen one, and huddling together in a final act of protection and care.
Last weekend felt a little bit like that.
We gathered for my uncle’s funeral, my sisters and brother, along with extended family, to pay homage. To form a circle of grief, to touch the bones of memories, to caress the history embedded in the marrow of his life.
I can’t say that I was especially close with my uncle, but it was important for me to be there, especially for my father.
I was nervous, and anticipated being overwhelmed by the whole thing. But I mostly wanted to be present with my sisters – I needed to feel the familiar connection. There’s been so much time spent overseas, so many experiences unshared – travel, new boyfriends, new stuff at work. How easy it is to move away from the circle.
But how to remember a man I hadn’t really known since I was a small kid?
But I discovered that, like the elephants in their act of solidarity, the memories unfolded, and I was able to access that part of my brain that housed my uncle’s presence.
The first night, the family members gathered together in a circle and shared stories and memories of Gary. The air swelled with warmth as one person’s anecdote flowed into another’s. It was like neurotransmitters firing and connecting each time someone laughed or started to cry. Each of us was a pathway opening up into the larger map of stored memory.
I didn’t have a story to share, but being included was enough. It was wonderful to see my uncle’s life fleshed out into the man I slowly began to recall. And as I looked around the circle of faces, I understood that we were enacting an ancient animal ritual.
Like the elephants, we were rolling the bones of memory around.
Over the weekend it was interesting to hear the stories about Gary – to put the disparate pieces together. I heard people laughing, surprised when a new nugget was revealed. I met people from various parts of his life that I’d never known about.
How necessary it is to touch the bones, each one, to lovingly appreciate each and every aspect of the whole.
And it made me think. We all envision the way we want to be remembered, our legacy, our final farewell. What words will people say over my own grave?
What we leave behind is memories. And when my time comes, what I wish is for my sisters and brother to huddle together in a circle, and tell the stories they remember. I want them to examine the bones, the grit, the utter truth of who I was. And to tell the stories of my life.
Elephants can wander far from their native homes, and when they come upon bones of their ancestors on the ground, recognize them as their own. And they will hoist them tenderly in their trunks and explore their essence, over and over again, repeatedly.
They are honoring their dead. They remember, as we do, the fallen.
In the same way, when the time comes, I want my family to lay my bones down and cover them with leaves, and laugh and cry and grieve. I especially want my sister Deb to retell the times she could make me laugh so hard I wet my pants.
And of course I want to keep storing the memories in my hippocampus while I still have time. I want to leave the earth with my trunk wrapped tightly around everyone I love.
And then I hope my family will set my stories down, and leave them for another day, another time, when my grand children, or anyone at all, might stumble across them in the dust. And they might recognize bits of me, as if we’re from the same herd – because I think we are.
And they’ll remember, like the great elephants who never forget.
Yesterday, when I ran up to the elephant grounds, I wondered what they must be thinking behind their small eyes, fringed with lashes and folded so deep in the dusty wrinkles. And it seemed like such a tragedy that the poor creatures have such large brains but such a small space to wander, to graze on. They really have no place to think.
Are they pacing the perimeter of the fence in order to forget?
It breaks my heart that they have such a huge, crippling capacity to remember the past – but no way to come back to the circle to bury the bones of their ancestors, the family they mourn.
And in the tragedy of being so far from their beloved homeland – how are they not consumed by the memories of what they have lost?