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28 June

Memories: the early years – I recently received an e-mail from a friend who had read my background story. He commented on one particular moment in the story that he found very vivid, and I was excited because that moment remains a very intense memory for me, and somehow that got through in my writing. I began to think about memories, and how some moments seem to be permanently etched into my mind, while others are completely forgotten.

“Of all the people who have come and gone in my life, all that is left now are my memories of them.”

I tried to think back to my earliest years, where my memories stand out like a smattering of dim stars against the sky at dusk. I believe my very earliest memory is of a ride at an amusement park. The carriages are shaped like helicopters, and there is a joystick in front of me. I am riding with my father, and he is laughing and offering words of encouragement and advice as I vigorously push the joystick back and forth. We are flying through the air, and I am laughing, probably having the most fun I have ever had in my life.

Looking back on it now, I realize two things: we were probably not that high off the ground, and I was probably not really controlling the helicopter. Or maybe I was. I’ll never know, and it doesn’t really matter, because in my mind I’m the one doing the flying as we dip and dive through the air.

There are many other memories, but I could never put them to a timeline. They are like my photographs: stacked in envelopes and plastic bags because I never had the time to actually organize them. The only reason we have photo albums at all is because my wife organizes the pictures we take these days.

I remember some things from when I lived on Long Island, before we moved to upstate New York when I was five. One day I walk to the front door to find my grandmother there, yelling at two girls in the yard. There was a big bush that had been removed, and all that remains is the stump, and the girls are lighting firecrackers and putting them in the stump. My grandmother yells, “You’ll wake the baby!” I think, “What baby?” It is not until much later that I realize she was talking about me.

Across the street from our house is a wide expanse of grass. It is so wide that I can barely see to the other side. We often go to play there, mostly just running around—running and running and running on the grass that never ends. At one end there is a large tower, and every afternoon a great, wailing horn sounds from the top of the tower. It starts out very low and slowly works it’s way up to a high pitch, and that note rings out for what seems like an eternity. It is so loud that you cannot talk to anyone while it is sounding, and it is difficult to think. In fact, we always stop whatever it is we are doing when the horn sounds, and then continue when it fades away. The horn sounds every day, so it is practically a reflex. I don’t know what the horn is for, and it never occurs to me to wonder—it just is.

I am at the beach. I think it is Jones Beach, on Long Island, only because that is where we always go. I wouldn’t really know one beach from another, to be honest—they all smell like salt water and sunscreen. I am walking toward the waves as they roll in from the ocean, when someone calls to me from behind. I turn around, but at that moment a big wave hits me and knocks me flat on my back. I look up at the sky, and then the water begins to cover me. It does not wash over me like a curtain, but it closes around me from all sides, and the sky becomes an ever diminishing circle of blue. I watch as the circle grows smaller and smaller and disappears with a whoosh, and I can no longer see or hear anything. “So,” I think, “I am going to die.” I am not afraid, and I do not struggle or try to get up.

We have moved into our new house in upstate New York (apparently I didn’t die), and I am playing in one of the large boxes we had used for packing. It is a rather tall box, and I am stuck at the bottom, so I roll against the side and the box tips over. I look out and see the green grass and trees, and then a head appears. It is another boy. His name is Bobby, and he lives across the street from us. He is the first person I meet in our new neighborhood.

One day my younger brother Brian and I decide to have a long distance race, consisting of a large number of laps around the house. I am faster than Brian in the sprint, so I figure I will win easily. I get off to a good start, leaving Brian far behind. As time goes by, though, he begins to catch up, and then he passes me, all the while with a ridiculous grin on his face. He’s not grinning because he beat his older brother in a race, he’s grinning because he’s running, and that’s what he loves to do. I’m too astonished to be annoyed that I lost, and I stop to watch as he continues to run around the house, oblivious to everything else. Many years later I will watch Forrest Gump and smile as I think of Brian.

I am ten years old. My father’s face is grim, and there is something in his eyes I have never seen there before. “Mommy lost the baby,” he says, and then he begins to sob. I have never seen my father cry before, and I don’t know what to do. I don’t really know what he means, or how someone can lose a baby, but it must be bad. I finally understand that the new brother or sister I was expecting isn’t going to be coming after all. This news doesn’t sink in, because I am in shock at seeing my father cry.

One day, years later, my father comes home. I am standing at the top of the stairs when he opens the door, steps in, and closes the door behind him. He looks up at my mother and me and says, “The church burned down.” Then he begins to cry. This is the second time I have seen my father cry, and it does not make sense to me. Crying is reserved for things like losing babies, but a church is just a building. No one was hurt in the fire, and the church can always be rebuilt. Why is he crying? I must admit that, to this day, I still do not understand.

I am nearing the end of high school, and it is time to fill out application forms for university. I want to go to a Christian school, but my father says that state schools are my only choice. I grumble about this, and to my surprise my father suddenly bursts into tears. “I wanted to give you the best. I wish you could go where you want, but we don’t have the money.” And he hugs me and continues crying. I don’t know what to do. My world is falling apart around me. This is the third time I have seen my father cry, and this time it is because of me. My father is unshakeable, he is a pillar of iron set in the foundations of the world. He is not supposed to cry. For a moment, I wonder if there is anything left in the world for me to hold on to. I tell my father that it is OK, and I realize that there are so many things I don’t know about him, and so many assumptions I made that were wrong.

Backtrack. It is several years after Mommy lost the baby, but it looks like I’m going to be getting (another) little brother or sister after all. My parents’ friends are looking after Brian and me while my parents go to the hospital, and we are sleeping at their house. In the middle of the night, Ron wakes me up with a smile on his face. “Guess what?” he says. “You have a new baby brother.” I am grouchy from being woken up in the middle of the night, and all I can do is grunt and frown. I hope desperately that he is not going to keep me up, and thankfully he doesn’t. I have no idea that my little brother is over a month premature, and that the doctors tell my father to choose between my mother and the baby—and he refuses. Or that even after the baby is successfully delivered he isn’t supposed to live, and my parents are supposed to wait for him to die—but they don’t. And that is why they name him Matthew, “Gift of God.” I know none of this at the time, though. All I know is that I am tired, and I want to go back to sleep.

I am in elementary school, and I have a hopeless crush on a brown-haired, brown-eyed beauty named Alicia. I finally work up the courage to ask her to come over to my house after school to play. We are walking toward the buses, when suddenly Alicia says, “Why are you holding my hand?” Surprised, I look down to see that I am, in fact, holding her hand. I have no idea how this happened, and I shrug and say, “I don’t know.” But I don’t let go, and neither does she.

I have an enemy at school, and his name is Andrew. I don’t know why he doesn’t like me, but he makes my life miserable. One day, during recess, we meet on the playground. Before I know it, we have decided to fight, and suddenly I notice that we are surrounded by six girls, three cheering for Andrew and three cheering for me. It is absurd, almost surreal, but it feels good to have girls actually cheering for me. Andrew and I flail at each other ineffectually for a while, and then Andrew grabs my jacket and pulls. It rips. “You tore my jacket!” I yell in a mixture of surprise and anger. “Sorry,” he says, abashed. The girls disperse, and the fight is over.

I read, in the Bible, “A gift given in secret soothes anger” (Proverbs 21:14). It never occurs to me to consider whether the advice is logical or not. I go out to the store and buy a small hand-held game—something that I would very much like to receive as a gift—wrap it up, and place it on Andrew’s desk at school when no one is looking. Somehow, though, he finds out, and he approaches me. “Did you give me this?” he asks. “Yes,” I answer. He smiles, and I have one less enemy.

Another gift given in secret—a valentine. It is for Alicia, of course, but I don’t want her to know it’s from me. So I sign it “Anonymous” and leave it on her desk, and this time I am sure that no one is looking. I am flabbergasted when she comes up to me later on and asks me if I gave her the card—so flabbergasted that I forget to lie and blurt out, “How did you know?” She tilts her head and smiles a funny smile. “Well,” she says, “You’re the only one in the class who would know what ‘anonymous’ means.”

Another enemy—but I am a few years older now, and the idea of giving gifts to my enemy seems absurd. One day, when the teacher is out of the classroom, Jeffrey grabs me and drags me over to the radiator. He lifts up my shirt and then holds me down on the radiator. It is not hot enough to cause serious burns, but it leaves marks and it hurts. I am not strong enough to break free of his grip, but suddenly I hear a voice behind us, commanding, “Leave him alone!” It is Alicia, and we are at the age where girls are bigger than boys, so Jeffrey listens. Alicia bends down to look at the marks. I can see the pity in her eyes, and I want to cry. Then I decide that things could be worse, and I’ll take what I can get.

Jeffrey continues to torment me through the years. So when he is thrown out of class one day in high school, jumps in his car, goes speeding off down the road in front of the school, and plows straight into a tree, instantly killing himself, I feel no remorse. His friends place flowers by the tree, and everyone says what a nice boy Jeffrey was. But not me. It is all a sham, and his being dead doesn’t change the fact that I hate him. I say this much to Denise, my girlfriend, and she slaps me in the face. This is the first and last time a girl slaps me in the face, and I suppose I deserve it. But I still feel no remorse. No matter how hard I try, I can’t feel sorry that he’s dead.

As the years go by I remember more, yet the memories are often blurred together. Sometimes a memory will be called up by a sight, smell, or sound, and that memory in turn will bring up other memories. The funny thing is, no matter how real some of these memories may seem, I know that they may be, at least in part, inventions of my mind. Were there really three girls each cheering for Andrew and myself? Probably not—but in my mind I can see them very clearly, and it all looks so real. It is my brain’s way of filling in the blanks, like it does when I dream.

It is a somewhat disconcerting, though, that my memories may not be real. Thinking back on it now, I don’t think I let go of Alicia’s hand. I can see us holding hands all the way to the bus. Then again, I can also see me embarrassed, quickly dropping her hand. I cannot say which of the two scenarios is what really happened.

The past is gone forever—there’s nothing I can do to bring it back. Of all the people who have come and gone in my life, all that is left now are my memories of them. In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether or not they are precise in every detail, because they are real to me. Although my mind may mold these memories as time goes by, they also shape me, and make me who I am.

Until today, these memories existed only in my mind. By committing them to my journal, though, I have made them even more real—because now I am sharing them, and they are here for all to see. For me, it is a trip through the past, a return to the smiles and tears of my younger days. For others, hopefully, it will be a glimpse into who I was then, and thus who I am today.

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