what lies beneath
My friend Charlie has a tic that only surfaces when he’s annoyed. It’s subtle: one shoulder rises swiftly and drops while he tilts his head slightly toward its partner. It only takes a second. I know this is specific to becoming irked because it happens every time our conversation swings this way:
“Do you like Dan Deacon?”
“Yes. I mean, well, we’ve talked about this.”
Charlie’s friend Stuart – my ex – had this game figured out. There was a time when we were very close, to the point that the descriptor of the name he’d just dropped would already be leaving his lips at the same moment I would turn my quizzical expression to face him. “I would like to go see the Steve McQueens – those huge, wonderful video installations that you might not hate – again, with you.”
And I would nod, synaptic nodes flush with recognition. To say that I have a terrible memory would be inaccurate – I don’t. I have an incredible mind for detail. My 11th grade English teacher made us memorize and then recite the first pages of Walden and to this day I can shut my eyes and go to the woods to live deliberately with the best of them; I can rattle off verbs in five languages. I also find faces stored in those deep recesses, ones I should not possibly remember with a track record as spotty as mine. My mother had a friend named Charlotte when we lived in Alabama. At mention of the South, the soft lines and swoops of her face float to the surface alongside outlines of hazy afternoons, tiny apartments, our first Christmas.
Obviously my grasp of other forms of mental storage is significantly weaker. I have trouble recalling to whom I’ve told which stories; on what day of the past week events occurred; names of people, places and things; tasks my mother or boss have assigned and the time at which I must be completing them. I also often forget the contents of things I have read or watched. The New York Times ran a particularly remarkable article this week about a Colombian family – brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and grandparents and cousins – rooted with an Alzheimer’s gene so deep and swift that the majority of them slip into dementia before 40. I carefully refolded the paper on the 5 train after I’d finished it, smoothing the sides deliberately and then pressing the newsprint to my heart. It was a short attempt to pierce the ache swelling there. The edges weren’t sharp enough.
The article’s most tragic characters were not the family members already living as ghosts but rather the people solemnly waiting for that same specter in them to awaken. Some, already experiencing early symptoms, were in denial, but for the most part they had already lain down in the path of atrophy’s creeping tide. It is a disease caused by lesions that form right on the brain tissue, ones that you cannot feel as they grow but whose treason is apparent in a decline that is slow and then quick: you forget where you put your keys, and then your car, and then you don’t know who you are anymore. The family’s story did not jar me into thinking I am suffering a similar fate. And while Alzheimer’s remains one of my greatest but most distant fears, that idea is a silly one: I am too young, without any family history, and with a memory pattern that is inconsistent with the symptoms. Instead, it ignited a discomfort in me borne out of the realization of what a common gift memory actually is. I had foolishly never thought of that before.
And in the same vein, I had never considered what might be at the epicenter of my own problems remembering: it’s always just something that I have accepted as fact. But this morning on the F train, I had to reread the same poem three times, ironically enough, because I was thinking about tweaks to this piece at the same time. And I can picture but not recall more than a handful of conversations I’ve had while walking, peering into my iPhone for directions, while drunk or working on a laptop. I can never remember artist’s names because I am too engrossed by the experience of their artwork; I started zoning out my mother completely once she started calling in excess of ten times a day. But it runs deeper than that. My family has no great generational stories, no traditions from the past, no custom of perpetuity. I could not tell you the names of my grandfathers or what they did because we never could pause to reminisce. No one ever built a shrine for the past in me – I was reared to forget.
I have just one sister. We used to autopilot our conversations but now, both adults, engaging one another is far more interesting – we spend our time actively sifting through the rubble of our family’s secrets. There was no Times reporter on hand to record what lay dormant under our floorboards and whatever symptoms run through us are not so clearly defined. Sasha and I go over it all now, words stretching across the great gaps between us, because tiptoeing past the beast of our family’s dysfunction each time proved too exhausting. “Dad used to take an antidepressant, but he stopped — once in D.C., and again, briefly, in Kansas — I can’t believe you didn’t know that,” said her voice, acute and solemn, in my ear. “I thought you knew that.”
Family history was always my worst subject. Looking back on it now, the mood swings, the good periods amid the very bad, the times when I saw him at home after however long it had been, I also can’t believe I didn’t. Or at least I think I didn’t. The disturbing recognition of my lapses in memory as crimes of my own inattention rather than pathology is only making it harder to tell the difference between the things I never knew and those I have since forgotten.