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When happy memories turn sad
What an animated movie about emotions taught me about life.
This weekend, I re-watched Inside Out. It’s one of my favorite movies and one that holds personal significance on today’s date.
The Pixar film follows 11-year-old Riley as she struggles to adjust to her family’s move from Minnesota to California. At its core, it’s a story about emotions, memories, and the way those things shift throughout our lives.
I first saw Inside Out in a packed movie theater with my husband, Jamie. This was in 2015, two years after my dad died and the same year that Jamie and I moved to Florida. The film, for many reasons, resonated with us. Jamie and I missed our family and friends in Georgia, and we were both still mourning my father’s death.
It was perhaps this swirl of emotions that made Inside Out hit so deeply. At some point, Jamie, seated next to a young boy, started to cry. Afterwards, as we debriefed the movie over beers, we chuckled about that moment.
“I hope that kid learned an important lesson: grown men can cry,” Jamie said, raising his drink.
“Even during movies aimed at children,” I added, clinking my glass with his. We both laughed.
The image that’s stuck with me most from Inside Out is how memories are depicted. In the movie’s universe, memories are trapped in orbs, colored by the emotion of that moment.
Joy, which is one of Riley’s most common emotions, is yellow. Her counterpart, Sadness, is blue. At the start of the movie, all of Riley’s memories are stored away in their basic colors—mostly a sea of yellow, with a few blue-, red- (Anger), purple- (Fear), and green- (Disgust) colored memories sprinkled throughout. Later, as the film progresses, and Riley’s inner world becomes more complicated, we discover that memories can change. With time and perspective, a Joy-filled, yellow-hued memory, for example, can become blue.
In 2015, my dad’s death was still fresh. He died in November 2013, at 58, after a swift and unexpected decline. During our post-Inside Out beers, Jamie and I traded stories about my pops, thinking about those memories in the context of the movie’s universe. Stories we once recalled with simple laughs were now bittersweet—tinged with blue. Somehow, that made them all the more special.
At the time, I hadn’t deeply considered the fact that my memories with Jamie would also one day turn blue. It was a fact that I conceptually knew, but didn’t really think about—that was something for future me, elderly me, to work out. Still, Jamie and I would sometimes talk about the fact that we would die, someday. We’d argue over who would go first; eventually deciding that we’d be that rare, lucky couple who dies at the same time in old age, peacefully holding hands as we passed away in our sleep.
That didn’t happen. Not even close.
Jamie died in 2017 while running a half marathon. Less than two years after we watched Inside Out, my memories of our time together became so blue they were practically black.
To me—and to so many people who knew and loved him—Jamie was Joy incarnate. He had the best laugh, the silliest jokes, and the uncanny ability to poke fun at himself in a loving way. Without him … it felt like there was no joy to be found.
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Today would have been Jamie’s 38th birthday. It’s funny; when you’re alive and in your 20s or 30s, 38 can seem old. It’s undeniably middle-aged. But when you’re talking about someone who’s dead, 38 is impossibly young. Unfairly young.
Thinking about the fact that Jamie died when he was just 32 makes all of those blue-black emotions come rushing back again.
As I was working on today’s essay, my two-year-old daughter burst into the room. She clambered onto my lap, saying “Cass type?”
My mind reeled. It’s bizarre to write about and attempt to process such big, complicated emotions while also trying to be present with such a little, pure person.
I agreed to let her peck away at the keys. This is her contribution:
Jkjjjcnccnv vnvbvbvbbvx6tgryyhhhhhvgh ¬¬lkllkllljl,.vbcb kec,z, ax zxzzxccccxcxcii¨
(If nothing else, she could have a future career as a solid password-writer.)
Right now, more often than not, the memories I have with my daughter are bright yellow, blindingly yellow. Like Jamie, she embodies Joy. I want to hold onto every memory we have together: Her tiny body, sitting in my lap as she types gibberish on the keyboard. Her little voice, singing the ABCs at top volume as we walk through the neighborhood. Her soft hand, holding onto mine as she drifts off to sleep at night.
But just as I have to learn to let go in so many other ways, I have to accept that these memories will change. Some will fade away. Some will shift color. Some I will remember, and she won’t. Some she’ll recall, and I won’t. There’s no holding onto memories or protecting them. There’s no way to ensure that there will be more joy than sadness. There’s just living life, keeping our hearts and minds as open as we can, hoping it all evens out.
Inside Out, as critic Tim Grierson pointed out, is also a movie “about modern parenting and our society’s insistence that we do everything in our power to make sure that our children are happy at all times.” My daughter, Cass, is generally a happy kiddo, but she has her sad days, like anyone else. And she will have plenty of future sad days to come.
As much as I want to protect Cass from hard times, I have to accept their inevitability—and their value. As the movie teaches us, Joy can’t survive without Sadness.
“What’s most cheering about the film,” Grierson wrote, “is that it’s so emotionally astute. You cry because it makes you happy, and you cry because it makes you sad, and you cry because it’s all true.”
Now, when I think about Jamie in that dark theater—crying over a cartoon character, awkwardly trying to angle his body away from the boy sitting next to him—I laugh. And then I sigh. I miss Jamie. I miss how much he made me crack up, but I sure am thankful that I can remember those laughs.
My once-yellow, later-blue memory of watching Inside Out alongside Jamie is now a mix of the two. It’s mostly Joy, with a healthy dose of Sadness. I can accept that.