Insistence of Memory
It was one of those spiritual moments when you realize how infinitesimally small and insignificant you really are. How far away from home. Surrounded by hundreds of miles of open wilderness, the occasional mountain dwelling shacked up in remote corners of a country where you never thought you would find yourself. But it was beautiful. It was so beautiful you couldn’t possibly let your mind play out survival fantasies of the hapless American transient. There was only the vast maw of foreign canyons.
At the top of your particular peak was a quaint tourist locale, still undiscovered by those who peer over maps. The footsteps behind you were of other travelers, but they are feet that took a different path to get here. They live a much different story. While they hiked with backpacks and steep strides, you stared off the edge of the peak, against new silver guardrails, dissolving all the specks of humanity into a distant and unperceivable hum behind your ears.
The mountain ranges themselves, the jagged crystalline emeralds of Earth, turned blue-gray in the distance. They’ve grown in families. You focused intently, burning the image into your mind. Two in the foreground, three, slightly paler beyond. Or was it the other way around?
You breathe in, as deeply as the few clouds would allow, and tried to impress on your mind the essence of this very special place. A place you’d be able to completely repaint at the faintest whiff of mountain air, perhaps one day carried by the south-easternly winds of the Appalachians. But you knew these mountains carried with them the rich history of South American culture and nuance, blowing from a different ocean and over different cities, rising again over the rocky crowns and into your nostrils. You knew that this air would taste unlike anywhere else. Its flavor in your lungs would last as long as you could keep them filled.
You peered over a mountain kingdom. Your eyes traced the folds, jagged peaks, cascading slopes, and immensely detailed canyons—soaking it in. While in this ethereal moment, a hand filled yours. It was the hand that had brought you there. It was the love of something intoxicating and exotic that you followed dream-first. They whispered, as to not disturb the placid fragility, “We will never forget this moment.” Or something like it.
And for a split second you felt the twinge of fear. Struck by the truth about memories, and how you had come to know that they rarely stand the test of time.
* * *
My grandfather told me on two or three occasions that he was going to leave me his gold watch when he died, the one with the rust-colored leather wristband. He would try to explain its significance but I was distracted by the gravity of his death. Why would he tell me that? Now I imagine the courage he must have mustered up to present this idea to a child, much less wrestle with it in his own mind. His death imminent. Health failing. An infinite regress of prospects and hope must have driven him to confer his little legacies with any handfuls of himself he could offer. But I like to think he had a special interest in me.
When the family would come over for a holiday or event, there was a time after dinner when my grandfather would step outside to chain smoke. He was probably once allowed to smoke indoors, when my parents were smokers. Now he was forced to sit on the plastic lawn chair on the stoop. I’d follow, with the rubbery bouncing of childhood.
He had the features of Greek lore. He was like Zeus, even telling me in a cracked and thunderous voice he could catch lightning bolts but I was as skeptical. He told me he was so mighty that he could rip a phonebook in half but I was clever. I knew he meant through the binding. And even though he never performed the feat, I doubted myself for doubting him. What leant credibility to his godliness was when he’d light his hand on fire, and then with a wave of the other, it was gone. Fire was an exciting thing for a boy. I didn’t know then that his hand was deadened by the poor strength of his heart. That he used rubbing alcohol.
While outside, he chiefed Marlboro Reds and I played in the rain. He’d try to tell me all the things he knew. Now I think this is probably what most grandfathers wish to fulfill for their progeny; their last remaining virtue. In the view of my older mind’s eye I now know he was more like Plato than Zeus. Long lectures. Clothed jauntily but hard of spirit and heavy of heart. A massive head on a rotund and aging body, his stoic words of wisdom fell like iron through a thick white beard.
He’d tell me about science and religion and history, though I do not remember the specifics. In my late teen years, I was sorry for not paying more attention to his words. I had to settle for the fact that he must have said something, and knowledge was passed.
When he did die, spiting the doctors who didn’t think he’d live as long as he did, and much to the relief of the family that went through two years of hospital visits and emotional torment, I just couldn’t settle for the watch. I ransacked his bedroom for whatever his three children didn’t already claim their rights to. Something I could use to recreate his knowledge, his voice. I left with the watch, a hat, and one sheet of Grandpa’s writing. It was a letter to a newspaper, decrying the corruption of politics. It marked the lineage of rebellion I carry, and served as a rallying call to my early awakenings as a writer.
* * *
Mom woke me up in the mornings before grade school with just enough time to eat breakfast and make the mad dash to beat the tardy bell. Cereal if we were really late. Mom would annunciate “Scrambled-deggs” and toast—that is if we were up with a bit of gusto. The dawn followed Dad to work and so I wouldn’t see him until his shift ended. My brother, seven years my elder, was self sufficiently on a bus to otherworldly things while I sat at the dinner table eating breakfast and dreading the dullness of elementary school.
There was always a frantic edge to these mornings, but the routine made it feel normal. My mom, having barely sipped her hot coffee was grabbing me by the wrist and jumping into the car with the fog of morning still around her head. The drive was only a few blocks but it seemed my mother would sometimes forget what she was doing and where she was going. We often turned back around to grab things we had left behind. This was normal. Morning was a time for discord and disarray.
* * *
Grandma was a lively pip, a sparkplug, a spitfire. When my mother speaks of her, it’s often about how she’d make friends with everyone on buses or shopping queues. I should remember this too.
Instead, “Jeff, you got a new haircut?”
“Yes, Grandma, thanks,” became the automatic response. It brought her a moment of excitement every time she asked. And a second later she’d fall under the cloak of dementia again. Her eyes staring into the void.
In the remaining years after her husband died, Grandma mostly stayed in my home, though her mind transcended to a place in time where she must have found the most joy. It was the details of this time that she could hardly recall. Replaying the track of her memory in fragmented loops. Asking again and again the questions that would offer respite for an unsheathed soul.
Yes, Grandma, thanks. Five years earlier I had changed the green mohawk of my high school years into something assimilative and neatly buzzed. Yes, Grandma, thanks. This was long before my grandfather died. Yes, Grandma, thanks. And she floated somewhere in between.
* * *
Sometimes Mom and I would talk and she seemed to be not there. I noticed this most during my impatient teen years.
“Did you hear what I said?” I’d ask with consternation, typical and unbecoming of teenagers.
And the words would play back with the same intonation and percussion, though somehow hollow and without meaning. While I thought I could rule the world at 15 or 16, I wasn’t completely ignorant to the inundation of responsibility that the adult world entailed. I assumed she had other things on her mind.
She would later ask something like, “Where were you all this time?”
“Ma, I told you, I was going to my friend’s house in Queens after school. We spoke about it yesterday. You even repeated it back to me!”
* * *
When a friend of mine dared me to go skydiving I had every intention of chickening out beforehand. My girlfriend did everything in her power to stop me, enlisting my mother has her ally. They tried the best they could to scare me out of it. For weeks my mom would make her way downstairs to my apartment and tell me not to do it, to which my girlfriend would shout, “You see!” This is probably why I ended up jumping out of a plane.
The night before take off, Mom sat down on my couch. “Jeff, I want to come.”
I told her it would be boring to wait for me. She could watch the video tape if she wanted.
“No, I wanna skydive too.”
It was probably the proudest I had ever been of my mother. At 58 years old she suddenly became set on something new and exciting in her life. She didn’t take the deaths of Plato and Grandma well, and this was the determination Dad and I were hoping she’d regain.
Perhaps it was sheer terror, or dissolution, but on jump day I wasn’t really concerned with Mom. She and Dad drove in a separate car to the ranch while I was already on the way with a couple of friends. Once there, she had suited up in the background with some other jumpers, making small talk and laughing with the instructors. They were a group of adults on a journey towards something great and empowering. I nervously made jokes while stepping into my harness, surrounded by other twentysomethings. We were still at the kiddy table, seeking a thrill.
Later on my mother would insist that she was never really scared until she got on the plane. I made the same claim, though less convincingly. In any case, in the moments before throwing ourselves into oblivion we both were recorded as having the wide eyes of terror. We watched the DVDs with friends and family, carefully recounting our thoughts behind every facial expression. This is when it had finally dawned on me that we shared something special, Mom and I. While our experience before the jump may have differed, the giddy retellings of our stories were synergetic, using the same phrases and expressions: “Sensory overload.” It was one of the few bonding moments we had outside of the mother-son relationship. Dad and I have hung out lots of times. Mom and I, almost never.
* * *
“Baby, can you stop by CVS on the way home? I need shampoo,” my girlfriend, my clearest lens, asked me kindly.
“Sure muñeca, I’ll be home in about thirty minutes.”
“You know which one I like right?” She seemed weary about me being able to successfully accomplish a simple mission. This sometimes annoyed me.
“Yes, yes. The blue bottle with the purple cap. I’ll get it.”
Hanging up the phone, I immediately returned back to my independent minutia of driving and thinking and music. When I arrived home, shampooless and facing the screw-faced scorn of my little Latina doll, I had begun to understand the trappings of heredity.
* * *
When Cousin Adam died, everyone fell down. There was understandably little clamor to get back up. My uncle, a recovered drug addict and alcoholic, found solace in God, though in a non-intrusive way. The surviving older brother, at 21, took it as well as anyone could, enduring periods of weakness and anger. His girlfriend helped him through it. Adam’s estranged mother was surrounded by her family at the wake and funeral, incapacitated with grief. I have heard little of her since.
Me, of little Faith, gave the eulogy much to the chagrin of the heavenly father that offered the services beforehand. It included the subtle but apparently controversial line “I don’t presume to know what happens when we pass on” which didn’t go unnoticed. Some thought it was in the spirit of our family, of my grandfather and Adam (who too was a deviant), that I uttered dissent in the house of followers. I too found comfort in writing the piece that would encapsulate the life of a 19-year-old cut short, whose memory would live on in the rest of us. It was the first, and maybe only, time I had written something to serve a greater purpose. I thought of my grandfather. Everyone thanked me for the beautiful words. I knew, albeit not without reluctance, that I’d be called upon to do it again.
Mom did not cope well. Her depression sunk her deeper than when her parents died. She spoke for months about the senselessness of it. How unfair it was for such a young kid to be taken from this Earth, by relatively natural causes. Sleep apnea coupled with whatever recreations Adam stressed his body with. For months she laid in bed. Then she medicated. And now, over a year later, she still haunts the hallways of the house. Her feet shuffling against the hardwood floors overhead when she wakes up long past noon. The woman who went skydiving is no longer with us, though my Dad and I have continued to search for her.
She also has retained some of the traits of her mother. Losing track of the days and weeks that go by. She asks me when she cooked dinner last. She doesn’t remember what it was like to take care of her mother. She forgets she was the type of woman that could jump from a plane. She forgets that she forgets.