Have you forgotten something?

I stared at the phone, willing it to ring. Why hadn’t she phoned? Alison always phoned. She’d call, say ‘I’m on my way – about 15 minutes – put the kettle on for a cup of tea’. So why didn’t she ring today? It was well past when I expected her home. It was freezing cold outside. Maybe her car hadn’t started, but then she’d call. Maybe she’d skidded off the road, and couldn’t call. Should I head out and try to find her? Then I saw why she hadn’t called. Her phone lay on the kitchen work surface. She’d forgotten to take it with her. Five minutes later Alison breezed through the door, saying ‘Forgot the phone, but have you made tea?’

Alison was fine, of course. Just forgetful. As I have been too. I left my phone in a toilet cubicle at a massive conference centre. When I realised it was missing, a deep dread ran through me. I ran back – no phone in the toilet now. Was someone already using it to call relatives in Australia? Alison, calmly, said ‘I’ll try calling your number’. It rang and a voice answered. The thief! No, a security guard. My phone had been handed in, and within ten minutes I was reunited with it.

We all forget things.

This week – one unusually busy for me because of my studies – I’ve kept this blog simple by jotting down situations when we forget things. (Those I remember, that is.) Perhaps they’ll amuse you; perhaps make you feel guilty (‘yes, I’ve done that too’), perhaps help you think more about what matters.

Here’s my list.

Appointments or events    Until I had my first job I never needed an appointments diary. My earlier life was going to school, doing homework, playing football, watching TV. Then I was off to the big city and the world of work, and life was more complicated. Journalism isn’t a 9 to 5 job, so I had to know whether I was starting at 10.00 am, at 2.00 pm, or 8.00 pm, and who I was meeting with, and when, and where. A diary was essential. Life was even busier when I became a pastor, with more who, when, where notes to make, plus details of events at which I’d speak, funerals at which I’d officiate, and wedding services I’d conduct.

I’d have been lost without my calendar-style diary. I’d forget half of what I had to do. Besides, some things simply mustn’t be forgotten. Imagine mourners gathered at a crematorium or graveside waiting for a minister who’s on the golf course. What if I’d been in my home office still writing a sermon, while at the church building wedding guests were getting restless in the pews, the bride on hold in one room, the groom in another, and the organist stoically playing her way through the whole hymn book? Forgetting engagements like those is professional suicide.

It nearly happened to my pastor friend Jack. He didn’t miss weddings or funerals, but he started getting phone calls asking why he hadn’t turned up for a meeting, or visited a parishioner with whom he’d made an appointment. Jack would apologise, of course. He was sure he’d noted these things in his diary, but clearly hadn’t. But the ‘where are you?’ calls kept coming. That’s when Jack discovered the problem. Somehow, in his old-style diary, the month of May had been printed twice. So he really had noted down his appointments, but when he checked for upcoming events he’d looked at the ‘other’ May, and found nothing scheduled. In the future Jack always checked his annual diary had 12 months, not 13.

Names    I’m impressed when someone I’ve met only once remembers my name. They must have a really good memory for faces. Some don’t have a good memory; they’re just good at noting down who they’ve met and anything they’ve learned about them.

I’ve scrambled through life without a great memory for faces, and without the diligence of writing notes about people. I did try making notes once, just after starting ministry in a new church, but then I forgot to consult it and eventually forgot where my list was. Which was not a lot of use. My biggest struggle was that, after you’ve met someone a couple of times, it’s too embarrassing to ask their name again.

My biggest name challenges happened at large conferences. I would have met many of the attendees before, but perhaps not for one or several years. They’d greet me, ‘Hello Alistair – how are you?’ and I’d lamely reply, ‘Well hello there… So nice to see you again’. I’d no idea what their name was. Perhaps they’d be wearing a name tag, but a furtive glance down to the badge was a dead give-away that you hadn’t remembered their name. Besides, at one conference, a lady complained to the organisers that she’d never had so many men stare at her chest.

But, when Alison was with me at a conference, she’d bale me out about names. First of all, I told her, ‘If I don’t introduce you to someone, it won’t be because I’ve forgotten your name!’ And, second, she devised her own name-discovery strategy. If I didn’t introduce her, she’d quickly step forward, shake the person’s hand and say, ‘Hi, I’m Alison, Alistair’s wife – what’s your name?’ and follow up with questions about where they were from, what position they held, and did they have ten children? (Okay, she didn’t ask if they had ten.) Alison rescued me many, many times.

Birthdays / Anniversaries    Probably most find some cards or gifts don’t arrive on time. Maybe there’s a message that ‘It’s on its way’, which could mean it’s in the post or on next week’s shopping list. Happily, I remember the date of my wife’s birthday and my children’s birthdays. Unhappily, that’s far from a complete solution because I don’t always remember to buy a card or present.

But, of course, Alison has a system. For the two of us, all these key dates are in our shared electronic calendar with reminders popping up several days before. For the wider family she also sends out ‘the list’ once or twice a year. As well as birthdays, it lists changes of address, phone numbers, and additions to the family such as new nephews and nieces. But some admit they forget to check the list. Hard to criticise when you’re guilty yourself.

My phone number    In the days before mobile phones, I knew my home number because I often dialled it. But now we call people, not places. That means many more phone numbers, but we don’t need to remember them because they’re stored in our phones.

My awkward moment occurs when someone asks me for my mobile number. I can never remember it because I never dial it. So embarrassing.

Where your car is    I can’t be the only who’s lost his car in a large car park. It happened most often for me while living in America, where a shopping mall would be surrounded on all sides by expansive parking areas. The problem wasn’t just the size of the car parks, but because you might enter the mall by one door and exit by a door on the other side of the mall – and not realise that the sea of cars ahead is a different sea of cars from where you parked. I’ve always found my car again, but not quickly. Some car parks erect signs showing row numbers. Which is very helpful, providing you don’t forget to look at the sign when you park your car.

Time zone    I include this one for American friends who follow this blog. I was scheduled to preach at a church in Indiana, and, since we’d arrive the evening before, our hosts had invited us for a Saturday evening dinner at a country club. All very nice. We set off from Chicago mid afternoon for the two to three hours journey to our next door state.

Then, when we were three quarters way there, my phone rang. Our host, very calmly, said ‘Are you about to arrive? We’ve been waiting for you.’ Alison and I looked at each other, checked the time, and suddenly it hit us: Chicago is Central Time; Indiana is Eastern Time. When we crossed the state line, we ‘lost’ an hour. It was 5.00 on our watches but 6.00 in Indiana. Thankfully, the problem was more amusing than serious, we adjusted the arrangements and eventually enjoyed our host’s company and dinner at the country club. [1]

Time zones are not an issue in the UK. We only have one. But, like many countries, we adjust our clocks by an hour in spring and autumn for the changing seasons. And every year, some people would arrive an hour late or an hour early for church because they hadn’t allowed for the time change. It’s easy to forget.

Things you’ve promised to do    I don’t often borrow library books. If I did, I’d go broke paying fines because I’d always forget to return them on time. If I promise to call or write to someone, I have to do it within no more than two days because after that I’m likely to forget. But I’ll probably remember a promise to help a family member or a neighbour with something practical, because the task will rattle around in my brain until it’s done. Nor have I ever forgotten to pick up one of our children arriving by plane or train – my angst about them waiting, feeling abandoned, would guarantee I couldn’t forget.

But I’m not infallible. It was early April, and for three evenings I’d watched The Masters golf tournament from America on TV. Now it was Sunday – the final round – and there was an evening church service at which I’d lead and preach. Thankfully coverage didn’t start until about 8.00, so with a quick exit and dash home I wouldn’t miss much. ‘Can I come with you tonight?’ my daughter Rachel asked. That was fine. She was 15, and had friends who attended evening services, so it wasn’t unusual for her to tag along. The service went fine. I kept a good pace throughout, not rushing but not dawdling. The sermon was on the short side, but apparently all the more appreciated for that. When the service was over, I greeted those leaving immediately but didn’t join those staying for coffee and chat. This was not the evening for lengthy conversations. I grabbed my briefcase, drove the five miles home, and settled down in front of the TV.

Then the phone rang.

‘Surely no emergency right now!’ I hoped.

The calIer was a good friend who’d been at the evening service. ‘Did you leave anything at church tonight?’ she asked.

‘I don’t think so…’ I began.

‘How about your daughter?’

Sharp intake of breath. ‘Oh no, I’m so sorry’ Quick thinking, ‘but would you like to come here and have coffee and cake with us?’

Laughter at the other end, ‘And bring Rachel with me?’

‘Yes, that would be wonderful’.

A lot of years have passed since then, but neither Rachel nor I have forgotten how I forgot her. Just as well I’m good at apologising. I’ve so often had to be.

Never forget the things that matter most to you    This is the last but probably most important on my list. You could be the most organised person in the world – a place for everything and everything in its place. You could schedule your tasks and appointments for every 15 minute slot of the day. You could have a system to recall any name, any number, any place you’ve visited. But if you forget to care for the things of highest importance – like your family or your health – the rest won’t matter. The same is true about neglecting your character, thus gaining a bad reputation and no longer being trusted. In the film Rob Roy, Rob is accused of a theft he did not do. Friends tell him to run and hide. But he can’t. ‘My honour is at stake,’ he says. ‘I must restore it.’ Reputation matters.

There are things you never get back once they’re gone. The relationship with your spouse or partner, and with your children. The respect of colleagues and friends.

We can laugh about forgetfulness, but not about being forgetful regarding the things that most matter. Never forget those.


[1] Our main host that evening was Carl Erskine who was a pitcher with the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team (later the Los Angeles Dodgers) when they won the World Series in 1955. He’s now 95 years old. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Erskine