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Remembering With a Name

04/21/2015 10:18 am ET | Updated Jun 21, 2015

My newborn son's name is Carlos, after my late grandfather. When my grandfather began losing his memory, he collected scraps of paper he saw on the street, around our house, in the trash bin. He used these bits of paper to write notes, things that were leaving him: his own son's name, the last time he ate, the day his wife died. The problem was he would forget where he put these scraps, and so we would find notes hidden around the house, a time or a name by a plant, a date by his socks.

Remembering gives us dignity, and trying to hold onto the present is a desperate grasp at feeling alive. Even the pain, or especially. At the lunch table in 1999, my grandfather started sobbing in the middle of eating a sandwich because he suddenly remembered Ruth, my grandmother, was dead. (She died in 1982.)

On the days my grandfather still looked for pieces of paper in the road, he was not lost. By the time he was, lying emaciated in a hospital bed, lips cracked and bleeding from dehydration, he thought my family were nice people coming to check on him. "This is a nice factory," he said at the last Christmas at my parent's house. "It's run so well. These people are so friendly." He laughed, a deep hearty laugh that seemed to hurt, as if he knew.

Looking at my son both hurts and fills me with a sense of peace, his name an echo of a time before. It is also a reminder, too, that with beginnings there is a finite end, and this terrifies me; one day this Carlos will cease to exist, and his memory will bring both pain and peace as well.

But not now. Now he is curled sideways in a newborn dream while I think of Carlos, the one born in Houston, Texas in 1926, one of eight children, to parents from San Louis Potosi. He was a man that worked tirelessly for his own eight children, finishing college while working full-time and becoming an engineer. He was also a man, in his seventies, who could barely walk, would eat so slowly it seemed that he moved underwater. But that was later. Yet he would say things that, although immediately out of context, would make sense in a deeper way. "There is a war going on," he said over another lunchtime, as I sat next to him, stricken from a recent breakup. "You have to keep going," looking into my bloodshot eyes.

He told my mother, his daughter-in-law, how he thought he witnessed his cousin die by a grenade in the war. He described the detail with crystal clarity, and the subsequent story of how he saw his cousin years later on the street, that he had survived. When he moved into my parents house, he took my old room and I would sleep in the den when I visited home. He would sit quietly listening to Tejano music to pass time, humming.

After his funeral, I came home and found the radio on his favorite station. I don't believe in ghosts but I do believe in memory, in the hum and vibration that it leaves behind. Something of him is alive in my son just by my choosing to name him after him. A name can be more that label or placement of identity; it can be something that you want to happen. I want the memory to thrive, as painful as it may be. I want to remember being swung in huge arms, his embrace almost painful it was so hard. I want to see my son and hurt fiercely, for him and because of him. This is living, something about hurt that pulses.

Maybe I've always wanted to break a little. When I was young, I would reenact dramatic scenes from "General Hospital," moments of never-see-you again or don't-leave-me. But it is more than bittersweet in this newborn phase to think that just as he begins, one day he will leave, like the Carlos before him. Perhaps it makes me cherish this time more deeply, and as I watch his tiny chest rise and fall, his eyelashes fluttering, a small smile, I think, dear God, let me remember this, even if its painful.

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