The capacity to forget


People say that time heals everything. What they mean is that it takes a lot of work to feel bad and that you can’t keep doing it. Sadness is limited, just as joy is short. The heart is forgetful above all else. If you wait long enough, time will heal the pain of loss and leave only scars in the empty places. It will heal jealousy and hatred and love alike. These are things you can name, things you can forget. But there are things that time won’t heal. It cannot heal what you cannot name. It cannot heal when there’s nothing to forget.


Sometimes it’s a small thing. Jack had a Doberman called Ralph when we were in high school. Ralph got his name from the sound of his bark. He was an exceptionally long dog, even for a Doberman, a kind of limousine Doberman. He was an old dog. He didn’t bark so much anymore because there was also a younger dog—a sausage dog called Bruno—who served as a sentry and a trigger while Ralph passed the time sleeping in the sun. Only when things got serious did Ralph get up to go and bark with Bruno at the gate.

Jack immersed himself in a study of electricity in a boyish quest to become evil. He made a capacitor from a sheet of aluminium foil and a sheet of plastic rolled together into a tight cylinder. He insulated the cylinder with tape and left only a short tip of foil exposed. We spent most of a Sunday afternoon switching the TV set on and off and taking turns to gather the static from the screen by moving the exposed tip of the capacitor across it. Jack had a formula and he knew when there would be enough charge in the capacitor to deliver a nasty shock.

“Where’s Ralph?” he asked when we were done.

“Won’t it kill him?” I wondered.

“High voltage alone won’t kill him,” Jack said.

Ralph lay on his back in the courtyard, fast asleep. He was dreaming and his lips flapped as he breathed. His testicles were very shiny. A blue spark shot from the capacitor when Jack held it close to them. It made a sound like an air gun.

Ralph leapt up and bit Jack on the hand. Then he ran to the gate to find Bruno so he could bite him too. We were still laughing when he returned and lay down again, his rear against the wall.

“Hey Ralph!” Jack called to him. “You’re alright old boy.”

But Ralph turned away. He heaved a shuddering sigh and put his head on his paws. For the next few days we wished that we could explain to him that we were sorry, that it wasn’t what it looked like. For a few years after Ralph had died we remembered him in stories about our childhood. As more time passed we thought less frequently about him. Now, more than thirty years later, we understand our capacity to forget and move on. Our regret about our cruelty toward Ralph has been replaced by a different, nameless regret—a sorrow for the loss of sorrow.


It’s this that time won’t heal.


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