Let me begin with an attempt at a thought experiment.
I try to remember the pain the rear passenger door of my father’s green 1949 Mercury sedan inflicted upon me when it slammed against my hand at the age of five or six. It happened; the hand bears the scar at the spot the metal pinched off some skin. The time when it happened is too distant, though. All I know is a scar exists, but I have no clear recollection of what happened, how it felt, whether I cried or not or even how old I was. Except for the scar on my skin, the past keeps its secrets.
I do recall the distinct feeling of vertigo that spun my hospital room like a top after receiving a morphine shot twenty-some years ago. My eyes refused to focus on any one thing in the room and the air became a thick gel through which my head, a lead weight, sank, spiraling down and down, slightly nauseated, as it slumped back into the sterile bed pillows, until my mind departed, leaving only a void behind. That was after the surgery that removed my gall bladder—or was it the one performed on my inner ear? I can’t be certain.
What about the day I was admitted to the emergency room after collapsing after the completion of a bone scan? Racked by pain spreading throughout my chest, arms and legs, I remember falling to the floor. Before passing out, my fingers became as thick as sausages, red and inflamed, so thick I couldn’t bend them.
The ED doc ordered an electrocardiogram, worried about my heart. Instead, an x-ray revealed air within my chest cavity that probably leaked from inflamed blisters in the bronchi of my lungs that broke open. The pain it caused mimicked the precise symptoms of a heart attack. Later they gave me a name for it: Pneumomediastinum. I remember thinking the word was beautiful and mysterious, though the haze of sedatives they gave me may have influenced my opinion after the fact.
Yet, with the passage of time, that pain is beyond my ability to conjure up. I know it hurt like hell, but I can’t feel the pain when I remember. I only remember collapsing, lying on a gurney, being rolled down well-lighted hallways, waiting in a curtained off cubicle waiting to hear the result of the medical tests, trying not to breath too deeply because that made the pain worse. Now, though, the person who once felt those sharp knives sliding between my ribs no longer exists. I live, as do all of us, only in the present, which flows by in all its seamless glory. A reality created from perception; the feel of plastic keyboard keys as I type, the photons that trigger cells on my retinas, the taste of day old tea I sip from my cup. The memories of past suffering, which percolate from some packet of neural nets set deep inside my head, are ghostly, indeed, when compared to the now.
Not that the precious myths, to which we all cling, lack any basis in fact. Things happened. Events occurred—birth, tears, cries, pangs of hunger, satiation, laughter, colors, school, pets, disease, wonder, loss, love –and a they left their imprint on the substrate of my brain. But these remnants of the past most resemble carbonated bubbles in a beverage that slip around ice cubes in my glass, seeking to escape. They hiss once and then are gone.
Merlin, as portrayed in John Boorman’s film, Excalibur, says it best in his speech to Arthur’s knights revel on a high hill after their first great victories. England stands reunited under the rule of one King and all the knights dance giddily, their faces lit by torches, a manic celebration. Merlin then demands their attention, telling them to remember these feelings, to mark this moment of triumph, before he ends with these words: “For it is the doom of men that they forget.” Indeed, I forget more and more every day. Why else would I have to rely so much on written records of my experiences to augment memory, records that provide mere words to describe what cannot be accurately stored within my own head?
Photographs, letters, other writings, even poetry, are guides I use to prove to myself that I am who I claim to be, that the core elements of my personality continue across space and time. Ironically, our ability to look backward in time is the basis for our belief that we possess a consistent personality, and for many that each of us has an immutable, unique and immortal soul. And what would destroy the belief in our individual selves quicker than the recognition that what are memories tell us is merely a process, a narrative constructed from piling block upon block upon block of stored sensory data, real or imagined, and, in our hubris, claiming that, thus, an “I” exists. The human brain is a biological marvel, but it is not without limits as to what it can do. Its structures and processes, mostly hidden from our consciousness, are not the equivalent of a device with an infinite capacity to record, store and recall the truth of our experience.
That is the crux of the dilemma, is it not—the brain’s limited capacity to store and retrieve massive amounts of information? We cannot record everything that happens, nor can we recall everything we do perceive. To do so would condemn us to a life of endless recollection, like the boy, Ireneo Funes, in Borges’ short fiction, “Funes the Memorious.” What a monstrous life that would be, forced to remember everything with no time for anything other than recalling memories. That ability, if we truly possessed it, would drive us insane.
* * *
What follows is a story reconstructed from my memories of the memories of others. Is it true, any part of it? Who can say?
I conjure up the ghost of a white-haired old man alone in his room kneeling to God. The great-grandfather of mystery I remember as only a child remembers: frail and distant with the smell of old men who have lived too long. I last saw him as a corpse. My mother had my brother and me kiss him goodbye lying embalmed in his casket. Or maybe this was done at the behest of my grandmother. I know I was four, because that’s what I’ve always been told.
His body lay half exposed in the semi-dark, a maple wood coffin surrounded by deep burgundy drapes. Red roses with thorns sat in a vase before a deep red velvet cord. My great-grandfather’s cheeks had slipped down into his lifeless face, which lacked all wrinkles thanks to the wax the mortician had skillfully layered upon them. I leaned over, lips barely able to reach far enough to brush against the unreality of his cheek smelling of chemicals and powder. Was there a spirit there among the cold false flesh who reached out to touch me?
I’ve imagine him in his prime, based on the recollections of my mother. I see him cutting pig meat for sausages and hams in Dakota’s summer-land; for he was a butcher and a pastor both, speaking to the meat with his knives and cleavers as he spoke to his congregations, often in hot anger, for I was often told about his temper, though as a child I never saw any evidence of it. His knife cut and slashed at the gristle and cartilage in the pork as easily as his voice sliced into the sins of his congregants. I envision his living spirit at peace with the easy movement of sharp edges against tender flesh as he cut away the fat and the bone, singing in German, his strong tenor voice leading the way for those who came to hear him preach. Singing the old hymns, the ones they all knew.
I see him in both his butcher’s shed and the small churches on the stark northern plains to which stoic farmers, their wives and children came, the buildings were fashioned of weathered pine, and blood ran down upon the floor, the blood of pigs or the blood of Christ, the savior of the world. If you have faith, he roared, if you have faith! But either way, blood just the same. A hard man he was, or so you’ve been told. Father to eleven surviving children who were not spared the lash. And not just his sons felt the harshness upon their backs of birch switches he shaped with his hands and knives, but also his seven young girls who carried their welts and red stripes beneath their second-hand clothes. Wounds that were hidden under dresses of black or dark brown, dulled and worn thin over the years as they were passed down from oldest to youngest in their turn.
His fire burned away his wife. My great-grandmother, who succumbed giving birth one last time. Thirteen children she bore from the seed of his loins, and the thirteenth died along with her in her bed while he waited outside. She died only thirty-nine, an unlucky number. Three times thirteen.
He chose no new wife. Or perhaps no woman, young or old, accepted his offer to assume that position. So he turned to his daughters, for what were his girls but servants of their father? He was a man aflame, excited by those needs that only men have, and still young enough to ignite those torches that consume flesh and bones. Afterward he smiled upon their young girlish forms as the waters drained from their souls and their eyes. Thus was he satisfied and like Lot knew no shame when his daughters seduced him with wine and their young bodies, for the righteous are entitled to all God’s rewards.
That’s the story I heard, second and third hand, passed down to me years after I kissed him goodbye, lying in his coffin. It was the dark secret that haunted the women in my mother’s family, her aunts, and, though I do not know for certain, likely my grandmother, down through the decades before and after my birth. How should I remember him now? My mother had only positive memories of him. His singing, the religious music he composed, which she once played for me on an old piano. She was his favorite granddaughter, or one of them, charming, pretty, with a lovely singing voice herself. He could do no wrong in her eyes, or so I was told by her, long before the other narrative about his life was given to me, the one where he played the villain.
So, was he saint or sinner, angel or demon? I cannot say, I can never know. All my great aunts have died, and my grandmother, and my mother. And with them, their memories left this earth. I have only fragments of fragments from which to fashion his story. What do I remember? Only that I called him “White Grandpa,” because to a young child having two other grandfathers, plus a great-grandfather was too much to take in. His hair was thick, and shockingly white, and thus the name. I was told he liked it. I can still see his hair, like snow, pure, beautiful and thick. That is my memory of him, now sixty years old. The rest is a mystery.