Aya Sharabi/MiC.

Soon enough, I’ll forget your birthday. 

(Which is in November.)

(Tomorrow, actually.)

And I’ll forget your go-to bubble tea order. 

(Honey milk tea, 50% sweet, extra tapioca.)

(No ice in the winter, half-ice in the summer.)

And I’ll forget how you would always try to cover your face when you laughed, and how you could find divination in even the most nonsensical of fortune cookie slips, and the way you could never quite listen to a song the whole way through. And soon enough, I’ll forget what you look like.

Or so I banked on two years ago, but here I am, still able to recall the most minute of details about you despite all my best efforts. I remember reading somewhere once that the human brain begins to forget someone’s face after eighteen weeks. Maybe biology has failed me, though, because you and every person I’ve ever loved continue to persist in my memory, crystallized forever. From chance encounters to fated separations, old text messages to yellowing handwritten letters, I can never seem to let people go. Like Orpheus, I seem to be condemned to forever look behind me, aching to glimpse what’s long gone only to be disappointed to see a phantom. Even if I know I’m turning to look for something that isn’t there, I continue to naively hope for something tangible, something I can touch. Yet ultimately what I’m looking for always remains forever out of reach, relegated to the past and rose-tinted by nostalgia. And no matter how many times I fall for it, being confronted with the unattainable always leaves me with an overwhelming wave of loss all over again. 

I’ve always counted on the impermanence of memory to deliver me from the impulse of looking back, and the torments that come with it. If the present and the past are held together by the thin stitches of memory, unraveling the string is only a matter of waiting. Forgetting is more contingent on patience than anything else. But what happens when waiting isn’t enough? When soon isn’t soon enough? When the most quotidian and mundane of moments can’t help but constantly remind you of people long gone, it’s tempting to take matters into your own hands. And if the only thing you can do is to tear out the stitches with your bare hands, wouldn’t forgetting be worth it, ultimately? If it meant you didn’t have to look back anymore? 

I always thought so. Yesterday, I probably would’ve said yes, and I would’ve told you that forgetting is one of the only ways we can reestablish our unalloyed selves, the people we used to be before we became entangled with attachments to the intangible. But as I’m writing, I’m realizing maybe not. Of course, part of the impulse to look back is motivated by our nostalgia. The more divorced we are from our experiences, the easier it is to romanticize them, in the process sanctifying them and abstracting their true form. And it’s natural to yearn for the sublime, especially in retrospect. But maybe these attachments are emblematic of more than just our longing for people long gone. Maybe they’re also a look into ourselves – a look into the ways in which knowing someone can change who we are fundamentally, and the ways in which we subconsciously embody the people we once loved in subtle, ever present ways. Did we ever really lose them, then, if they live on in who we are? If letting go means washing ourselves clean of the ways in which someone has changed us intrinsically, wouldn’t it be transformative to hold on tightly instead? 

So maybe I’ll never forget that you cover your face when you laugh, or that you find divinity in fortune cookies, or that you always skip a song halfway through, because since knowing you I can’t help but do the exact same things. 

And maybe there’s no need to forget anyone’s birthday, or their favorite bubble tea order. Maybe it’s fine to look back, even if all you see is something that’s out of reach. I know I will.

If anything, at least: happy birthday. 

MiC Columnist Aya Sharabi can be reached at asharabi@umich.edu.