Riding in the back seat of their 1967 Chevrolet Bel Air. The windows slightly cracked, the cold fall and winter wind chilling him to his bones. Shivering, huddled in whatever sweater or jacket he was wearing.
Isn’t that the way he thinks? Whenever a hot-blooded person meets a cold-blooded person; one of them just has to sort of find some way to adjust to the other’s preference. Compromise sounds swell but seems to seldom occur. Especially if one of you is a parent, the other a child.
That was the case with him. He was the child.
The trips were all returning to Chester from whatever relation of his dad’s they had just visited. He can count on one hand the number of times they had made such visits to mom’s family – excluding grandma of course but she had also lived in Chester and the drive home was less than five minutes. The drives home he is remembering were all in the twenty-minute going on four-hour affairs.
The radio? Was it on in the front seat? It might’ve been. Or his father might be playing some eight-track tape. Either way, the roar of the window pushed him down to try to conserve body heat while damping out any auditory memory he might have of music.
Memory and time. Both are a funny, existentially crushing phenomenon.
All the people? Of his dad’s five brothers, only the two youngest are left now. He thinks about them sometimes. They were good uncles and all his memories of them are pleasant. They lived and moved in a different world from the one he stumbled through he thinks. They lived in a world of alcoholic fathers, chaos, poverty, fistfights, and driving fast usually inebriated. He lived in a small world of quiet, non-avoidance.
They are all gone for the most part.
His dad died at 53. He’s already outlived his father which is weird and he’s never sure if that meant ‘he had won’ or what.
His mom? She passed just this year. He saw her towards the end but from the news he received from his siblings over the past couple of years – they weren’t that close, not since he left for college in 1979 – she was gone years ago. After college he had gone a bunch of places; the Air Force, Germany, a brief return to Illinois, Texas, etc., he had put Chester in his rearview mirror and had hardly ever paused to look back at what was left behind.
But he wishes he could find that time. Those times. When you are a kid, time seems interminable. His first 14 years felt like a hundred. Summers seemed to go on forever. Even the school year, with the occasional snow day, seemed to stretch out endlessly in front of him.
This is a cruel design flaw. Why should children be the ones blessed with the long, deliciously slow passage of time? As a child, he never considered anytime as particularly precious but in retrospect, it was. All of it was. Or had his growing older made him foolish?
He wants that time back. He wants to find a way to return to it. To see it all again. Both the good times and maybe even the bad times. He wants more than anything to find a way to ‘slow’ it – the progression of time. To find a way to connect and stay connected to his siblings, his cousins, his parents, his friends. He feels guilty. He had found a way out of the dead-ended life of that small town and he thinks he should have found a way to bring them along, especially her, especially his sister. He thinks he failed her and what’s done is done. There’s nothing for it now.
But he cannot. When he looks back and tries to see how that ‘time’ moved away; how that time he had spent lying on the back seat of the family car became this time of lying on a bed in some friends’ house in Wylie Texas. He wants to replay it but his memory is not cooperating. His memory isn’t long continuous or coherent sequences; it’s more like isolated snapshots, images, pictures, and moments. He remembers lying in the back seat and he thinks he can remember getting out of the car but he’s not sure if those are actual memories or memories he’s constructed after the fact. Memories that he’s extrapolated or filled in by some less than excellent algorithm.
That was how it was for his accident also.
Who am I without my memories he wonders? And he’s seen firsthand and through study, that memory is hugely unreliable. It is malleable, suspect, capricious, and ultimately not a trustworthy narrator.
He remembers standing there with his mother on the street. Waiting to cross. Or does he? Maybe he’s constructed that memory by what she told him after the fact? Maybe he’s manufactured the memory of standing there. He wants to say that he was holding her hand, but was he? He honestly can’t say which side of her he had stood, maybe her right? But he’s not certain of this either. Faded snapshots, slowly slipping away. And now with both her and his father gone, who can answer his questions? And why hadn’t he thought to ask these things years ago, decades ago? Oh, he knows why! Because back then in his twenties, thirties, and a good chunk of his forties, he was still immortal! He believed he would never die. He knew, academically, of course, that he would die but he knew it only in the most abstract manner. Today he doesn’t need to believe he will die; he feels like he is seeing it daily. Each new ache, each new weird body sensation, every additional worsening of his eyes, his ears reminds him frequently that his time is running out; one day he will be no more.
Did you know that memory isn’t like loading a tape and replaying it, with the same notes, words, music, hisses coming out time after time? Every time you remember something, you aren’t just pulling the memories off the shelf, dusting them off, and viewing them. You are re-remembering it. This is one of the pillars of NLP. Or so he’s been told.
Like his accident. Every time he remembers standing there with his mother, he rerecords the memory all over. Did it happen the way he remembers or not? He can never answer that question and that makes
him sad. His mother is gone. He doesn’t remember where his brother was at the time of his accident but he’s almost sure his brother doesn’t remember either (despite his now being the default family historian and interested in such minutiae). For the most part – he tells himself – he doesn’t care. But he wishes that he did. He thinks his reclusive, introverted nature might be a little easier to manage with some more concern, some greater sense of connectedness perhaps.
But how did those times become these? How did that set of conditions lead to this set of conditions? Where will these conditions lead him next? Where did the other things go? And why did he let them?
He knows he needs to read Proust. It’s been on his list for decades. He supposes he should get around to it before there’s no more time to get around to anything.
He had spent three months backpacking the Appalachian Trail. He had had a wonderful time. He had taken a bunch of pictures too. He’s not sure where they are now. But his memories of them are similarly fragmented. He remembers reaching a full shelter, the other folks squeezing over to make room for him in the over-full little wooden hut, then some teenage girl (maybe younger) screaming during the middle of the night. A rat had fallen out of the supporting timbers above. He was certain someone was being murdered and woke up instantly. But he doesn’t remember their faces. It’s just a vague memory.
He remembers hiking with ‘Tomahawk Joe;’ (not his real name but his ‘trail name’ a convention hikers on the Appalachian Trail sometimes observe, or at least they did when he had hiked it in 2000). Tomahawk was a Vietnam veteran who often bitched about how Clinton was a draft dodger and had always slept with a huge knife under his sleeping bag. He would whimper and cry in his sleep as he had dreams about stuff he saw in Vietnam but no one dared to wake him because of that knife. Still, he doubts he could pick him out of a line-up now.
His accident? It was a bad one. He remembers he used to like the feeling of ‘beating cars.’ Until the one time, he didn’t and that was his accident. His mother had said that the whole ride to the St. Louis hospital he had kept shouting ‘Wake me up from out of this dream!’ The car hitting him broke his right femur and the pain had been excruciating. But he remembers none of it. That’s a blessing he knows. Who would want to remember that type of thing? He didn’t remember saying to wake him up either. But he believes that he did – it sounded like something he would have said. His mind never did get around to filling in those memories. He remembers the beginning and the end but there’s a big gap in between. Like his brain had said, ‘we don’t need to remember any of this so I’m just going to shut down your capacity to remember any of this stuff.’
He believes he remembers pulling free from his mother’s hand and darting into the street. But again, that might be a constructed memory. Then a quick fade to black. The next thing he remembers is waking, flat on his back in a hospital bed at some hospital in St. Louis. His right leg had a pin through it as it was being set by the traction device. He was flat on my back for over a week he’d been told. He remembers bits and pieces. Faded, isolated snapshots, only fragments.
That summer was not a great one. He had also, if he remembered correctly, had had a tumor in his right
eardrum and had to be in that hospital to have the tumor removed and an artificial eardrum put in his right ear. He wants to say the eardrum thing happened first and then three days before Halloween or his birthday, he was hit by the car. He can’t tolerate the idea that he was hit by a car ON his birthday but not once has he ever even considered that it was on his birthday. But who would know? His brother? I don’t recall him being there and he would be too young to give an accurate retelling? His sister wasn’t even born yet and so anything she has to say is going to be what she had heard their mother say. There is no objective, discernible truth here that he can find. Maybe the hospitals have records? But the very idea of doing that research leaves him deeply lethargic and bored. He should just … know?
His mother had always been a bit of a fearful homebody and she may have visited him every day he was hospitalized. But that’s not how he remembers it. He remembers sad, somber times alone in a huge ward with others. Other strangers. He remembers nothing about them. The TV always playing some inane show or another. Occasionally a candy striper would come by with some toy cart. Did she sell him the toys? Were they gifts? What was her name? What did she look like? Was she young? Old? He doesn’t remember any of it. He does remember one toy; he thinks it was called a WHEELO? A bit of a shaped rigid wire and a little magnetic wheel that would rotate around and around as long as you cared to flick your wrist with the proper rhythm to ensure its continued motion around the cleverly designed handheld wire track.
He remembers the food being mushy, bland, and tasteless.
He remembers being lonely. There were always hospital staff and other patients in the ward but he still felt quite lonely. He had been either seven or eight? He can’t even recall the exact year of all that fun anymore. He knows, even now, that this experience fundamentally changed him forever.
He remembers getting drunk with some girl in college and making out with her while they lay on the ground outside the house where the party was. He can’t remember where the house was, who was hosting, the girl’s name, or anything. He wants to say they were lying in a strawberry patch but he’s sure that wasn’t the case.
He remembers throwing up in the Hanger 9 bathroom on one birthday one year at SIU-Carbondale.
He remembers going to Boobies submarine sandwich shop and getting pitchers of beer and the best sandwiches he’d ever had anywhere. Maybe they were terrible but that’s not how he remembers it.
He remembers watching ‘Cubbie’ throw up after doing three beer bongs.
He remembers Vik and Bryan and Marie and Patty and Jeff and Sue. People that stayed in Smith Hall with him on the third floor in his fourth year at SIU.
He remembers how quickly everyone would vacate the dorms during breaks and when the school year was over. That all seemed foreign to him. How he had always “lingered” as he left. How he was never in a hurry to return to his home in Chester. College was the best life he remembered, and he was never in a hurry to return to Chester.
He remembers telling women he loved them. He doesn’t remember noticing the feeling dissipate after they had gone their separate ways. Paula, Jayne, Christie, Judy, Jennifer.
He remembers once in college, stopping by a girl’s house where she had a rented room and seeing her naked through the window. He hadn’t meant to see her through the window and he felt instantly ashamed, it was just there. He had forced his eyes away and knocked anyway. She took a long time to answer the door of course. He can’t tell you one thing about her, not her name, or major, or if he even ever kissed her but he does remember that she lived in Germany and that he would later live in Germany. Of course, even that fact, her living in Germany, might be suspect. He remembers thinking she was remarkably sophisticated for hanging out naked in her place when she was alone. That’s all that’s left of her.
Time. He wants it back now, please.
He wants to find a way to engage with his sister more. To keep her away from the political beliefs she ended up embracing. How arrogant of him is that he wonders. He suspects the answer is very.
He remembers living with her, his sister for a period after a job in Oklahoma proved to me too much for him. He remembers the snowstorm. How they had lived without power for a few days. How she at one point went to stay with friends, while he had braved the adventure of living through several days of a Joplin winter, sleeping under so many blankets he could barely move, the foolishness with the ceramic pots and tea candles – a YouTube video telling him he could heat an entire room with a proper configuration of those items.
He remembers a packet of hashish someone had in Smith Hall once. It had been wrapped in a sheet of aluminum foil and it looked oily. He remembers feeling that he didn’t want any of it, so he passed on his only opportunity to ever smoke it. To this day, he regrets never trying it though. Though he is also frequently grateful that he has never been offered cocaine – he’s sure he would have become addicted to that!
He remembers canoeing, camping, hiking, building childish ‘log cabins’ that all had huge gaps between each of the branches that formed the little dwelling.
He doesn’t understand time. He gets that when one is ten, a year is a TENTH of their life so it will seem to last forever. He wishes he could recover that ability to perceive time move so slowly. Now it zips and slips by like water through his hands.
He remembers where he was on 9/11. He remembers. He notices that there have likely been more years since 9/11 than those that he might have left to live and that thought fills him with a panicky, existential dread.
He remembers eating at India Palace on Preston and how his brain just refuses to process the fact that it was over thirty years ago when he first started eating there. How finite life is. There aren’t many more places he can say he’s been eating at thirty years.
You want a visual example of existential dread. At least for him, this leads to angst.
Take your current life expectancy, be as generous as you need to be with your ‘guess’ now calculate how many tubes of toothpaste you might need to last out your entire life. You could go buy them now – if you had the money. How big would the pile of boxes be? Maybe it would cover your entire kitchen table? Maybe, if you stacked them carefully, it would fit someplace smaller? But doesn’t that just hit you in the gut? It does him.
We are told life is limitless. That seems like pointless nonsense to him now. An idea that will if anything, keep you from fully embracing your life. How can one embrace one’s life fully if one doesn’t see its finitude? Maybe life is richer because we all have a ‘best used by’ date but it seems to him we spend an inordinate amount of time distracting ourselves from our mortality.
He remembers Panera Bread company in Joplin. Going there in the morning for breakfast, setting up his laptop, doing a bit of programming work for his former employer in Dallas, a jewelry store. Telecommuting! Or studying object-oriented programming. He would eat oatmeal or omelets for breakfast work for a few hours, then have lunch there, a salad, soup, or some chicken dish with pasta. Once while there he overheard a financial planner talking to a middle-aged couple at the table next to his. They discussed retirement planning in such generic, sanitized terms. About how much money they might need until the ‘end.’ They talked and talked about it without once using the words ‘die’ or ‘death.’ It was all very bland, matter of fact, and empty of any true understanding of what was ahead. It was responsible to plan but they were, he thought, deliberately shielding themselves from the reality of what they were dancing around: death.
We shy away from discussing our mortality, do we not?
It’s all a matter of time. Sometimes it zips by so quick. Other times it just drags. But as he ages, it seems to zip way more and drag seldom.
When he considers his age now it is with an offended sense of denial. Fifty-nine? How is that possible he wonders? He remembers being 32, 39, 42, 51, etc. but only in the vaguest of senses. He couldn’t tell you what age any specific memory belongs with anymore. Fifty-nine?!?! How did he allow this to happen? The problem with being avoidant or risk-averse is that, yes, it is a safer way to lead one’s life perhaps but so much slides by unlived.
The best he can do now is to try to take better care of himself (and thereby extend the number of years he has ‘left’). And to leave his comfort zone once in a while! Daily would be perfect! So much he’s wanted to do, learn, see, experience seems out of reach or even impossible to him now.
While the illusion of one’s immortality is a hard one to let go of, he feels certain that he might have a decade left. He might even make it into his seventies possibly. And that he damn well ought to start realizing the things he wants to happen in his life. He’s settled for too little most of his life, and he needs to change that. He needs to want more, pursue more, expect more. Not in any way that ties his happiness to achieving those goals either. (As a secular Buddhist, he believes that ‘desire’ is only a form of craving and clinging and those only lead to suffering – that much is self-evident.)
But those goals are a helpful way of planning your ‘calendar’ he supposes.
He decides his best strategy from this point forward is to do all the healthy things I should’ve been doing forever. Exercise, lose weight, drink water, watch the carbs, get good sleep, maintain meaningful relationships, perhaps not let political differences divide him from otherwise fine people, pursue his interests, create, meditate, foster joy, love, dance, laugh.
He decides to try to not whine about his age more. Some people are older than he. He tells himself that they’ve had more happiness though and that tilts the scale in his favor, but surely such things are unknowable and why compare anyway?