DeWitt Clinton —
I’m having trouble remembering anything lately. Sure I know I’m here where you are too, wondering about what’s next, but who isn’t? I’ve had a serious memory problem all my life, even though I know I’m still here in this little room in this little house, in this little village, in this little metro area, but that’s not to say I don’t know where I’m at just now as that might make you try to call our local cops to check me out. I’m really fine. I still know where I am, so don’t worry, please. I’m in a room, and I know what’s in the other rooms, it’s just that when someone asks me about something that happened on an ordinary day 45 years ago “remember when you said…?” I really have no idea not only what I said but what I was doing that made me say that or what I was wearing if I was wearing anything and how could anyone really remember that far back, anyway?
What’s the brain good for, anyway, if we can’t recall everything we’ve ever done? I remember shooting an elephant in my neighbor’s backyard in Ottawa, Kansas as an eight-year-old with a BB gun and later visiting with the sheriff in the downstairs living room of our parsonage, promising not to shoot old ladies in the butt anymore. And I haven’t shot at anyone since, except at shadows of North Vietnamese soldiers inching their way up in the dark hoping to overrun the tiny little Hill 477 where I was on the south end of an overrun artillery battery. But that was long ago. Why remember that anymore?
I can remember slumping over into my mother’s lap on a steamy Sunday morning while dad was up front preaching about something from Luke or Corinthians or some other mystifying testament. By the afternoon I was in the hospital doing Lord knows what but after several more deaths, and a sweet girl dying just before me of the same symptoms, I was rescued from the dead with drugs from a close call with spinal meningitis which turned out to be a local plague, if there is anything like that. I don’t remember much, and I’m sure some part of my old brain pan was fried a bit too long during my hospital fever.
Why do I just break out in tears when I hear about another report where a kid is in the hospital, almost dead, from the same nasty, or has a hearing/brain disability the rest of his life, or hers? Why would I want to remember any of that? Still, I can’t remember what I had for breakfast, but then if I try to remember blueberries, then I am sure they were on the bowl of oatmeal with mixed nuts and 2% milk. Okay, I’m good, I do remember a few moments ago.
Why then is remembering such a big deal with everyone, or is it? Isn’t it simply a re-write/revision of what we really experienced, highly edited for dramatic story telling purposes so people will still keep listening? Perhaps so. Nobody wants to know when we went to the bathroom, or if we brushed, or how long our shower was, or if we took the trash out, or if all the leaves are blown off the lawn before the first snow. It must be that chores don’t count as well for “memories” as close calls with death.
But I can remember a few happy times. Beaches on the island of Cozumel, hiking down the narrow trail of the Grand Canyon, never worrying about how to get back out before sunset. Stepping onto one stone at a time all the way up to the Acropolis. Light rain. Slippery rocks. Construction cranes on pause until more funding arrives. Standing in ancient Rome under the Arch of Titus, looking up and seeing a depiction of the menorah from Jerusalem. Ecstatic moments of coitus in complete bliss in wonder of someone so beautiful and pleasurable. I can remember crying after long races I’ve been in, so bloody glad to have crossed the finish line. I’m not laughing, but crying glad. I’ll need a couch expert to continue discussion on that.
What did I do last week? I have no idea, really. Perhaps I got out of bed, drank some coffee, looked at the world of news on my computer where I’m at now, poured some pills, found some old clothes, helped companion to dress, helped her down the stairs, drove her to a clinic, stopped by for coffee, returned home, looked at yoga poses for the day—who knows what I did, do you?
What is memory, anyway? I keep working on trying to understand how to live and be “present” in the present, as every health brochure says that will help some. And it’s not just the Buddha who cautions about the past and the future, but Epictetus as well who I’ve become fond of reading the Roman, once slave, over and over. The past is then an invention, sort of, isn’t it? Don’t tell me that past you remember is exactly how something happened. How could that be? If we don’t consider the emotion of the moment, the intellectual banter, the temperature, our clothes, the clarity of our brains, and the amount of light coming through the window shades, or from the lights above, how can any of it be a true depiction? Of course, of course it’s true to you.
Sometimes I just want to be done with the past. Besides, all the friends I’ve ever known are not knocking on the door asking to come inside for an iced tea. I don’t even have any ice tea if a friend does come by. What’s happened? Why can’t I remember all the plots and narratives of all the novels and plays and poems and essays I’ve ever read? I’m more forgetful than I am in remembering. It’s not that I forgot to pick up a carton of milk, or iced tea for dinner, it’s just so irritating to try to remember something when I can’t remember it. Why remember any of this stuff? If I have had a few moments with you, and you now knock on the door, I’ll be happy to see you and catch up with you, but how do you catch up with old memories? We always make them a bit different every time we try, don’t we. And who still enjoys listening to a terrible slide show about when so and so did this or that. How interesting?
I can remember most of the “X-Files” plots because they were all true, as “the truth is out there,” but I am having trouble remembering even last night’s movie that was even better. Perhaps I’m in-between spinal meningitis and late on-set of early Alzheimer’s but perhaps I’m just scared about losing what I am not sure I’ve lost.
Okay let’s try April 24, 1957 or if you weren’t on the planet yet, let’s try April 24 when you were 11 years old. What were you doing? What thoughts did you have in the afternoon? Why did you get into trouble with your Mom and why did Dad hear about it later and cut you a deal? How many lima beans did you gag on? Did you like A1 or Heinz 57 on your meatloaf? Who were you worried about in the late afternoon? How long was Zac the Cat lost in your closet? Why can’t you remember any of this, or something even close, or remotely close, or somewhat close or even vaguely close? The brain recorded all of it, but why has it been erased? Who erased/deleted that day?
I can’t even begin to think about remembering the future? It’s not so much that I look forward to waking tomorrow morning, realizing I have another day on my ever shortening warranty of life on earth, right? An undiagnosed virus in the spine? A nasty spider bite that almost took me out in Vietnam. A slice of apple caught in the throat. Throat closing quickly due to unexpected drug response. Blood in the sputum and rat poison for an embolism. Resuscitation after heart stopped during a scheduled colonoscopy. An asystole after a prostate procedure. Lucky me? These I remember but I still don’t remember what happened a week before or after, or a year before or after.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter that we don’t remember everything as most of our time is now, isn’t it? It’s trying to recollect the present that gets confusing. And no memoir/autobio is ever going to include all ordinary experiences that are quickly forgotten. Did you cross the street with no traffic or with a car half a block away, or did you jump out when the light turned yellow hoping you’d make it to the other side? Lucky you that you are still reading this.
Seeing movies over and over helps a lot. They seldom change, except when we see more into a film each time it rebroadcast, and of course, we get to say the lines after the fifth replay or so. How can you not say “play it again, Sam”? So there we are. No wiser, no dumber, or let’s hope not. It’s probably all stored in the right brain, anyway and the lefty is sometimes at a loss for what to remember as it had way too much emotion added to the mix. I remember all the Vietnam movies I have experienced with noticeable undesirable terrible flashbacks. Comedies go right through me, and I can’t remember even the simplest of one liner jokes. Sometimes I fall asleep through some movies, or stay awake hours after, petrified. I know not to watch dismemberments after 4 pm. I can’t watch another Holocaust movie. I remember being whacked with a fiery paddleboard in third grade because I was…? Luckily we’re still not in third grade with Mrs. Neblong, right?
So the next time you ask “remember when” and I look a bit dumbfounded, just give me three clues, slap me as if I’m DiNozzo in a NCIS episode, and ask who is the President.