The other night, my son and I had dinner with old friends, the parents of a guy he’s been close with since day care. We know a lot about each other’s families. During our evening’s wide-ranging conversation, we spoke frequently about Michael, who remains relevant and important in my daily life, despite being gone for almost two years now. At one point my son looked at me and said, “you know, mom, I think the way you deal with death and your willingness to still include dad’s presence in discussions is not normal – it’s a little unusual.”
I suppose that’s fair. The truth is, I think that’s in keeping with lots of conversations I have about lots of topics. I have a tendency to say aloud what I think other people might be thinking. But while I verbalize, others choose to tamp down the urge to share those perhaps off-limits ideas with others. I’ve never understood why there seem to be conversational rules and I’ve never personally subscribed to that notion. While I can recognize that I was a little more judicious about what I uttered when I was a kid, once I reached my late teens, I got done with repressing myself. My default style is to go all in with my emotions, my thoughts and my intellect. I always felt like cutting to the chase was the most efficient way to face life. My first serious adult boyfriend told me he had lots of trouble dealing with my “all or nothing” behavior. I wanted to talk about everything, not holding back, not sweeping anything under the proverbial rug. I’ve chosen to live that way, outside the lines.
I like to be out in the open about almost everything. The secrets I keep are generally associated with the choices of other people in my life. I don’t expect everyone to feel like me or do as I do. I just feel more relaxed outside those invisible lines than in them. I always thought that stuffing down what you really felt would make you sick. Maybe that’s because my mind is so loaded with thoughts and images that it’s easier to just put them out there rather than sinking beneath the weight of them. Additionally, putting it all in the table is a release from constant self-monitoring. It works for me, although I’m keenly aware that I tend to see a lot of raised eyebrows, as I expound on anything and everything.
After a time, most people get used to me. Some even choose to participate with me in my incessant pondering, dissecting and sharing my stream of thoughts. For years now, each morning I receive an email from a dictionary service which provides a “word of the day” with a concise definition. For the most part, I know the words, a testament to a lifetime of reading. But every so often one comes along that I’ve never seen and that has particular relevance. There was a new one a couple of days ago – “hypermnesia.” The definition started out reasonably enough and then, specifically for me, devolved into a little bit bizarre. The description was: “abnormally sharp memory or vivid recall, seen in certain mental disorders.” I know have an abnormally sharp memory – I’m not so sure about certain mental disorders. I suppose anything that doesn’t fit between the lines could be categorized as a mental disorder. I don’t think I’m abnormal. I’m just not usual. What I do know about my powerful memory is that it’s a classic gift/curse deal. Being able to remember so many life events in vibrant technicolor with Dolby sound is kind of cool, but sometimes not.
I remember being in the kitchen at our duplex on 17th Street in Sioux City, Iowa when I was between two and three years old. I was low to the ground back then. Sunlight was coming through the window and I could see floating dust particles lit up by the sunlight. I can also see my mom, wiping up drops of blood from the floor, dropped by Trixie, our blonde cocker spaniel who was in heat. My mom put a diaper on her. I thought that was a marvelous thing to do. By the time I was five, Trixie was gone because she’d bitten me in my armpit.
We’d moved to 101 E. 23rd Street and on to King, the wonderful collie. I remember a lot from that part of my life. One day at Hunt School at recess time, kids were teasing me and calling me fatty. I don’t think I was fat back then, but I know was big for my age.
I climbed to the top of the metal jungle gym on the playground so I could think. I thought calling someone names based on appearance was a terrible thing to do. A person couldn’t do much to change what she looked like. I decided that I would never use insults like that in my life, that I would find other ways to fight back that had more meaning. I’ve never forgotten that and I still feel the same way today. When I think of the people who infuriate me the most, I never resort to a physical insult. The whole Trump/orange gambit leaves me cold. The only thing physical that I say about him has to do with the haughty, entitled expression on his face. A different matter altogether than his corporeal being. There are so many other intellectual and psychological issues about him. Why call him a name based on his looks when there’s so much more material available?
But back to the memory issues. Once, when my husband and I were waiting for an elevator at our local performing arts center, a man and his wife walked up to wait along with us. As soon as I saw him, I remembered seeing a photo of him in our local newspaper. He was a pretty famous scientist, and at one point, my son spent time working in his lab. I’d never met him but was so certain of who he was that I introduced myself and asked if he was who I thought he was. He said yes and then asked me how I’d identified him. When I told him, he thought that was unusual and my husband piped up and said, “Well if you think that’s weird, you can guess how it is when she says – do you remember that time 26 years ago when you made that annoying remark and you were wearing that blue plaid shirt and those torn jeans?” So yeah.
Sometimes my memory can be a source of good times and others, not so much. Right now I’m going through a bunch of memory-inducing events that occupy May and June and which are emotionally challenging for me. Each one comes with a blast of remembered faces, touches, words, clothes and places. The visuals are powerful. I remember numbers, colors, conversations and dreams. May 14th was my dear old friend Fern’s birthday. She’s been dead almost 31 years now. The time doesn’t matter. I can still feel her and see her.
When we were kids her address was 8138 S. Jeffrey. Her first dog was named Frisky and her second was named Lee, an abbreviation of Kai Lee Yung Su, emperor of Eli. I can see her piano with the music for Clair de Lune opened on the music desk. The piano was blond wood. I can see the breadbox on the counter in her kitchen. I remember that her mother Sarah’s nickname was “bench,” a take-off of her last name. I can see her father Nate and smell his awful cigars.
I can see her ridiculous glasses with rhinestones on the frames and her very nervous fingers which were never still. I can remember my teacher in my second and third grade class, accidentally stapling her hand and saying, “by cracky.” I remember my classrooms and my school projects and virtually all my teachers.
I remember learning traditional American tunes in Mr. Hartl’s class, who often played his violin for us. Miss McCauley was another music teacher who had a hearing problem and kids were merciless teasers about that in her class.
I can smell the perfume of my eighth grade English teacher, Helen Brennan, and see the white crescents of her fingernails when she leaned over me to touch my copy of Pitcairn’s Island, part of the Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy. I remember writing my Chicago book that year for Miss Potter, a teacher with a crooked gait – Fern and I made up a snide little song about her having a wooden leg which makes me feel ashamed. I remember burning with embarrassment when I worked out a “new math” problem on the blackboard in Miss Young/Mrs. Coleman’s class – she got married in mid-year – and being unable to explain my reasoning so she accused me of cheating.
I remember being a play leader in my K-8th grade school and jumping rope with the little kids. I’d gotten a terrible sunburn and had blisters on my shoulder. At recess, while wearing a blue and white checked dress, the rope hit a blister, broke it open and for the rest of the day, my raw skin stuck to my dress’s shoulder, oozing and disgusting.
These are just a tiny slices of the stacks of memories piled up in my head. It’s no surprise to me that trotting out my thoughts became a go-to strategy for navigating my life. James Joyce wrote an incredibly long Ulysses about one Dublin day’s events and stream of consciousness thoughts in the minds of a few characters. I’d be prostrated by trying to manage the amount of recall I still have access to, while keeping my mouth shut about what’s currently going on in my head all day. Out come the current events.
So yes, I talk about my dead husband because death doesn’t seem like an issue that should be shunted off into a corner. I guess that’s especially true for me as Michael is still so alive in me. I’m comfortable discussing cancer and fear. I’ve had a lot of practice in that area and it seems I might be able to help people who are struggling, both patients and their families.
I like to talk about sex, most particularly the sex interests of women who no longer are in the reproductive parts of their lives, who only want to be sexual for sheer pleasure. That’s a topic that seems entirely under-addressed in our culture, as if we live in the dark ages where women are relegated to a corner after they’ve supposedly passed their prime. I like throwing light on that issue. I really miss my sex life with my husband and feel like people ought to know that even disease doesn’t have to stop people from living their fullest feelings despite tough times. My doctor told me she thought I should write a book about it to stimulate a dialogue. Not today, though.
My birthday is coming this week and I’ll be totally done with the damnable number 67. I never thought I could so thoroughly detest a symbol. My father died at 67. Then Michael died at 67. Then my favorite brother-in-law died at 67. All of them gone from disparate types of fucking cancer. I can’t wait to slam the door on 67. Even if I die this Friday when I turn 68, I’ll be glad to not be part of the 67 curse. I’ve had enough of it. Maybe that sounds silly or superstitious. I don’t care. After all the deaths and endings I’ve lived through in the past seven years, a little paranoia and attributing some dark value to a number isn’t so awful. Maybe that’s part of the mental disorder associated with my hypermnesia. So be it. Don’t try to talk me out of it. I’m doing this age transition out front, outside any rules and in my own way. Which is what I said in the first place.