“The way I remember it.” Memories change all the time. They are malleable. Our situations and moods shift. We grow. We know more as time moves forward and, at the same time, we stand in a constant state of forgetting. I can never be sure if what I remember in the moment actually happened or whether my memories are chimera masking as real.
The way I remember it . . . We were in a motel. It was night. A man’s shadow passed the curtains as a car drove up to the sidewalk. My dad muttered something. Sounds coming in from the parking lot kept him awake.
The motel room was strange and wonderful. As far as I know, I had never been in a motel room before. My mom and dad were on the bed. I was on a roll-away bed. I looked up at the lights that brightened the curtains from time to time. When the lights passed, I experienced a silence I had never known.
I don’t know if it was the same trip, but I believe it was. I was laying across the front seat, my mother cradling my head. I felt hot and sleepy. The dashboard lights cast an eerie glow on the front seat. It was raining hard and the windshield wipers slapped back and forth furiously. My mom was crying. “My god,” she said, “his head is so swollen.” She was crying. My dad sat behind the wheel. I remember him turning left. We were on our way to the hospital.
The way my mom tells the story, we were in a motel room in Dayton, Ohio. My dad never liked motels. They cost too much. He would rather be camping. She had set me in the middle of the roll-away so that I wouldn’t slip off the side.
But I did and hit the floor with a heavy thump. She picked me up and brought me into the bed with her and dad. Soon, however, she felt that I was hot, as if I was running a fever. She found that my head had swollen. She panicked. My dad called to find the nearest hospital. It was raining, she said, and my dad couldn’t really see where he was going.
After driving around the strange town a while, they finally found the hospital. An x-ray revealed that I had cracked my skull on one side. There was nothing to do, the doctor told my parents. They should feed me aspirin for the swelling and keep an eye on me for various symptoms—lethargy, unresponsiveness, inability to move my hands or legs. I shouldn’t be allowed to sleep for a few hours.
I was only six months old.
Some people claim they remember being born. Most people lose the memories of their early childhoods. They don’t have any idea what happened to them before kindergarten. Memories before the age of five are specious, at best, and likely fabrications that stem from fantasy or trauma in later life.
Something about the memory of the motel room, the car, and the rain has a base in reality, but whose reality is in question. I can’t be sure that I remember my experience or constructed my memory from the story of the skull fracture my mom told. I know that I couldn’t have deciphered my mother saying anything. I had probably only said “mama” or “dada” and a few other rudimentary things by that age. Maybe I did hear what my mother said and put the meanings of the word together when I had language. Likely, I didn’t.
The memory is as real to me as the living room I sit in this moment. It’s not just snippets but two distinct and complete occurrences. I can’t be sure they are connected. But they seem to tell the story of a traumatic moment for me and my mother. How my father reacted to the situation I don’t know. He drove.
There are things my mother could not have told me. My dad was wearing a white t-shirt. I remember his elbows and blue jeans. She wouldn’t know my perception of the dashboard lights of the way I remember red and white streaks on the windshield from lights reflecting through the streams of rain. She can’t tell me about how I looked up at the rear view mirror and the ceiling above.
Another memory, again from before grade school. I was about three. My grandmother took my sister, brother, and me to Sunnyside park. It was a hot summer day and we were in the middle of the park. My grandmother must have told us it was time to go. I didn’t want to. I continued to lay in the grass, plucking individual leaves and making ants climb across them.
I found myself suddenly alone. I looked around and saw that they were far across the field, walking toward the cars parked along the street. They seemed a mile away. They were leaving me!
Panic shot through me like a lightning bolt. I started to run toward them, screaming and crying. I ran until my sides ached but I daren’t slow down for fear they would get in that car and drive away. I couldn’t catch my breath. My heart pounded. My legs ached.
I don’t remember anything after that. But it was like my grandmother to threaten us kids with abandonment if we didn’t act on her word and act quickly. Of course, my siblings don’t remember the incident. They were younger than me. But I’ll never forget the panic, the way my insides turned to ice when I realized they were leaving without me.
Did it happen? I think, probably something occurred. I have gone back to the park more than once to pinpoint where I was when they left me. The park seems much smaller. I stand in the middle of the field and see just how far the street was from where we were. What were we doing in the middle of the field? Were we walking back toward the car from the playground at the far corner of the park? Why wouldn’t my grandmother drive down to the playground?
In the end, I can’t be sure any of this happened. Even as I write these memories now, I recall details that a child could not have perceived—what my mother said, knowing that the red and white light in the rain streaks were reflections of other car lights. The incidents bring into question just about every other memory I have.
There’s a framework there. Something happened, that’s sure. What happened, exactly or even peripherally, I can never know. The rain on the windshield, the ants crawling over the leaves of grass, the panic all seem real. Did I dream these things as convenient devices to explain other occurrences and coincidences in my life? To explain my behavior to me? To tell me who I am?