What We Carry: Our Memento Nasci and the Genesis of Identity

The Memorial

It has been repeated to me since I was a little boy that I’m named after my grandfather, Robert Blair. And my grandfather … he taught me how to drive.

Robert Blair

The lessons started long before I ever took the wheel. I remember being on a country road in Lithuania—the Baltic country where my grandpa was serving as an LDS mission president. His choice to volunteer for the role (where he helped establish the presence of the Mormon church in the area) made sense; Grandpa spoke over twenty languages, so Lithuanian wasn’t an issue.

My family was visiting him on our way to England, where my dad would act as a professor in a semester abroad program. That day Grandpa was driving us to a memorial: The Hill of Crosses.

I didn’t care about our destination. I was nine, and memorials were boring. What I remember is that we were going fast. Grandpa told stories from the driver’s seat as I leaned forward from the middle row, eyes lingering on the dash display, wondering how fast 120 kilometers per hour was. All I really knew was that it was faster than 80 kilometers per hour, the last posted speed limit. I guess I wasn’t too surprised, then, when the green-striped police car on the side of the road started trailing us, sirens blazing, when we passed it.

Grandpa was calm. He stepped out of the car and over to the hunter-green-clad officer. The officer started speaking to him in Lithuanian, and my grandpa got a puzzled look on his face.

“I’m sorry,” said my grandpa, the linguist, “but do you speak English?”

The officer was flustered and let my grandpa go without a ticket.

I’ve always bragged about being named for my grandfather. He’s long been a distant hero to me. Then, six years ago, my grandpa was honored at Brigham Young University for his academic work (the work for which he’s often dubbed “The Indiana Jones of Linguistics”). He showed up to the ceremony with an oxygen tank. That night I realized that I might be losing the chance to get to know him. I asked if he’d let me interview him, to hear his life’s story. From then on we had a standing appointment each Thursday night. After we’d talked through the chronology of his life, we talked about everything else: Grandpa frequently started conversations with the question, “Which major world problem should we solve today?” His memories would often serve as the bridge to connect us: His life and my life intertwined.

And now he’s dying. “I keep trying to make sense of it on paper, but I can’t,” I once told a girl that I once loved. “I’ve seen people I know die before. But he isn’t just someone. He’s my best friend—one of my best friends. He’s my hero. And … I don’t know. It’s like he’s me. I wouldn’t be this person without my grandpa. So when he goes, where does that leave me? If I’m not me without him, when he’s gone, what does that mean?”

What We Carry

We’re all dying, slowly, but my grandfather is on that last, long chapter of his life. Two years ago he started bleeding internally for no reason in particular. Not long thereafter he had what he dubbed “a bit of a problem with gravity.” I don’t know how people handle this process; I don’t know how to wait for the death of someone I love. There are so many ceremonies and processes and support systems for the passing of a loved one, but the gradual waning beforehand aches fiercely and we are given little else besides the ticking clock. We remind ourselves to remain grateful for whatever time he has left, and we try not to feel guilty for wanting him to stay around in a breaking body for even longer.

“I love life,” he told me. “But I’m in a pain, Robbie. I’m in a lot of pain. I think I’m dying.” Every time he coughs he has an out of body experience. He thinks of family he’s lost. He wonders what dying feels like. He’s told the Lord he’s ready, repeats this to me as if it’s a comfort. Every day there are problems with his blood pressure. I have become obsessed with medical monitors; I take my fleeting comfort in stable vital signs. I have learned a great deal about the pressure of blood.

I keep trying to explain, to put down all the pieces in hopes that others will understand, but I never feel like I quite get there.

McDonald's Cheeseburger

Grandpa once told me a story about a time he was at a McDonalds in France. He wanted a cheeseburger, but he couldn’t remember the word for it. He tried to explain each part instead. “Le petit pain”—a bun—”et de la biftek haché”—and the ground beef patty. The McDonald’s worker nodded along, and unsure if he’d expressed it right, my grandpa kept going. “Et de la tomate, et l’oignon”—and tomato, and onions—”et laitue, et les cornichons”—and lettuce, and pickles—”et fromage”—and cheese.

He looked up at the McDonald’s worker to see if his order made sense. The worker just tilted his head back toward the kitchen, and shouted, “Un cheeseburger!”

That story’s a family favorite—the sort we pull out when we want an excuse to laugh. And we do laugh about it, even now. Because what else do you do? When you’re watching someone get so weak that a brief conversation exhausts them, when you see them trapped in their own breaking body, and when you realize they’re forgetting their own stories?

I think of the Hill of Crosses. How people from around the world carried these mementos with them, little reminders of a story that mattered so much to them. Of a person whose meaning changed the way they defined themsleves. This, in a literal sense, is “redemption.” To be deemed again, to have our meaning altered. And these mementos—the crosses and prayer beads and statuette saints—piled up until the hill was overflowing with them. Today, this memorial has more than 100,000 crosses.

Hill of Crosses

There are countless hills in this world, but only a few of them are monuments. The difference is found in what we carry to them.

I carry my grandfather’s stories. And I carry his name. I don’t know how to handle this long, last chapter of his life. I just know that these mementos are more than merely trinkets. They change the entire landscape of who we are.

Genesis of Self

A name is not a small thing. I didn’t realize the full weight until I read Helen Keller’s accounting of her genesis in the world of language and identity. In Keller’s blind, deaf, pre-linguistic experience, there was only a world of sensation. Keller tells of how she was given a doll, and how her teacher attempted to tell her what doll meant. “I became impatient at her repeated attempts and, seizing the new doll, I dashed it upon the floor,” says Keller. It was later that same day that Keller discovered language in the experience famously captured in The Miracle Worker.

“Somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me,” recounts Keller. “I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.”

It was only once the set of sensations embodied by “doll” had a name that Keller experienced guilt. To dash the doll to pieces wasn’t merely changing the experiences: It was destroying its very doll-ness. To understand that identity could be more than mere sensation was the beginning of an entirely new world for her. “When I learned the meaning of ‘I’ and ‘me’ and found that I was something, I began to think,” said Keller. “Then consciousness first existed for me.” It is this process of naming and defining that creates the world of the conscious mind.

For years I have worked to consciously create an identity for myself. I’ve worked hard to become “Rob D Young,” established the identity over years and years. I have created heavy self-perceptions, definitions, a brand of self. I have established a reputation. I have decided who “Rob D Young” is.

It was about six months ago that I started seriously considering changing my name to Robert Blair in honor of my grandfather. I delayed it,  hyper-analyzed it, tried to weigh the pros and cons. I thought maybe I would do it once my grandfather passed, in commemoration. Then a friend asked me why, if it was to honor my grandfather, I would wait until after he could even know about it. I spoke with my grandfather, telling him about my idea of going by Robbie Blair, making no secret of my uncertainty and conflicted feelings. I realized how frightened I was that he would be ashamed. That he would not want me to carry his name. That he would not want to be identified alongside me.

He told me he was honored. And still I find myself  frightened: That maybe he didn’t mean it, that maybe I wouldn’t be worthy of the name. But also something else: That, having built the person Rob D Young, abandoning that identity was stepping into a void. I realized a few days ago that this wasn’t just anxiety: It was the truth. To abandon your signifier is to step away from a constructed world of self and into a vast emptiness. And I realized that my fear of becoming “Robbie Blair” is simple: “Robbie Blair” doesn’t exist.

Burying the Young Man

Yet. That was the breakthrough that helped me realize what I wanted. Stepping into the identity of Robbie Blair is the choice to become a person who doesn’t exist yet. Because I haven’t made that person. There is no amount of thinking through things that will change that fact. The only way to find out if I like being Robbie Blair is to build Robbie Blair, and work hard to make him the sort of person I want to be.

For someone with my career, who has spent so much time investing in a name, the choice to change that name is not a small matter. But realizing that the construction of this identity was my responsibility—that the vast emptiness I was stepping into was not a chasm so much as a blank page—I decided to begin the work.

It’s why this blog’s URL has changed. And my Facebook page’s name has changed. And my Twitter name has changed. This is not simply an act of creation: There is also a loss. There is an old version of myself I am stepping away from, and I am not ashamed of Rob D Young. I am not ashamed of the Young-family heritage. I am not ashamed of my past. Rob D Young has been the person who brought me here, who helped me survive. He kept me strong even when it felt like my world was crumbling. And now I am laying him to rest. Burying the Young man, though not forsaking, not forgetting.

There is a picture, somewhere, of me and my uncle Bobby helping my grandfather walk, one of us under each of my grandfather’s shoulders, supporting him. My mother called it “Three generations of Robert.” The need for this sort of help is new, but we are getting practiced quickly. Three days a week, someone is there to help my grandfather from his dialysis chair to his wheelchair. He stumbles without us. He falls. We help him stand. We carry him.

“This isn’t who I am,” my grandpa told me and my little brother as we helped him to his wheelchair. “I’m not an old man.”

And it’s true. There is something so much more about my grandfather than the body he resides in. There is something of him that remains so vital in the world, so vital in me. The pain now is not in the loss of breath or blood but the loss of all the little pieces that mean my grandfather. It is so easy to think of life and death as a binary pair, two contradictory states of being. But we are all dying, slowly, and we are all slowly being born.

There will come a day when my grandfather will have a real funeral with its processions and traditions, but we are burying the young man day by day. It is a process of long mourning, and of letting go, but it is also a process of carrying and remembering. I choose now to carry his name, more fully, more actually. A commemoration. Perhaps even a memento mori: “Remember that we all will die.” But also a memento nasci: “Remember to be born.”