I have a shit memory. My wife can remember things from when she was four years old, even two years old, but I’ve got nothing. Well, that’s an exaggeration, I’ve got a few things. At four, I remember peddling my little red fire engine in front of our house, and I remember how scared I was of the angle of our carport, how I was afraid I’d tip over. And I remember arriving at the edge of our lot and the heartbreak I felt (and I mean that sort of soul crushing hurt that you never forget) because the sidewalk ended, and how I just wanted to go and go but there was nowhere to go except back to where I started. And it’s weird, because even now I want to get into the car and drive. And I don’t know where I want to go, I just want to drive west, as far west as I can go, and then further. It’s like that need to run never went away.
But other than that dead end sidewalk, and falling out of bed, and answering “Doctor” when my father asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and singing Hello, Dolly to him when he asked me to sing it, and getting a model car kit for my fifth birthday that I was too stupid to put together and that I kept for ten or twelve years and yet still couldn’t figure out how to assemble, I’ve got nothing from my fourth year of life. I didn’t exist, except in vignettes.
We lived in Victoria, Texas, back when I peddled my fire engine. From there until Three Rivers, Michigan, where we moved when I was seven, it’s like my memory is a dot matrix printer that isn’t up to the task. I have something like three memories: The firemen putting out the fire in my parents bedroom, Dean Martin singing King of the Road, Daddy tanked on Christmas. Oh, and sticking a safety pin into a power outlet; yeah, that sucked. So make it four.
From seven until I was eight, my brain did a little better. I started reaching for independence, and I have memories of accomplishments and the sense that I was growing up – those first blossoms of self-awareness, of personhood. But then I got sick when I was eight and ended up in the wheelchair. And for the next five years, I have memories, but they’re less moments than watercolors, feelings, approximations. My brain coping with hell? I don’t know.
At thirteen, I came home from the National Institutes of Health, where I had been a research subject. And I swear to God that until I turned sixteen, I mentally socked away damned near nothing, not that I had much to sock away. I didn’t go to school, I barely left the house, and I had only two friends: David Marshall, the badass, the cool kid, the one who smoked and drank and did drugs – who would die of one of those before the age of twenty-five; and Mike Todd, the neighborhood kid, the good kid, the one who at thirteen you knew – you knew – would at forty-three show up when you called him and would help you get your car started, because that’s who he was. But even my memories of those guys, the only two people in my universe, are spotty. Three years of mental and emotional flatlining.
At sixteen, I found Jesus and became a Christian, a crazy hyper-religious Christian, like if Pat Robertson and Jim Bakker had a baby and baptized him in the sweat of Jimmy Swaggart, that kind of Christian. And there’s a lot of fear from then, of punishment, of damnation and hell at the end – forever. Little good came from that place; ironically, those memories are some of my most vivid.
I left home for junior college when I was twenty-one. I don’t know if it was the panic of being on my own after being coddled for so long or the struggle to balance my religiosity with the real world or my unhappiness in Killeen, where I attended school, but all I bring from there is monotone and black white (hell, not even black and white but gray). Nothing stuck. It’s like there was nothing there to stick.
I was twenty-five when I hit Texas A&M, and that’s where my memories start. And they’re good memories, like Christmas lights strung together to celebrate the rebirth of a child: me. But while they’re too perfect for words, they number so many fewer than those of my friends. I mean, most people I know can outline their time there one semester to the next. There are a couple for whom it was like they wore a body camera that data dumped their entire experience into their brain; they remember everything and everyone.
Hell, I don’t remember what I had for dinner last night. And I certainly couldn’t tell you what I had for dinner last week. And my wife will say to me, “Oh my God, remember that weekend we spent in San Antonio?” And I smile and go, “Yeah,” but I don’t have a clue. We were in San Antonio? Okay. How many other memories am I missing? So much of my life is gone, like huge chunks, maybe ninety percent of my existence, that it’s like I was never there. And it’s not like I’m getting Alzheimers, unless I’ve had some slow chronic version since I was thirty. This is just who I am.
This all comes up because I’m thinking about writing a memoir. Weird, right, that I want to write a memoir when I don’t remember anything? But I feel like I’m supposed to, like I’ve got a memoir in me. I just don’t know where it is…
Maybe if I got in the car and headed west.