Friday, April 7, 2017

Why CAN'T an essay be a story? Essay #13

"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is when I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.  In the first place, that stuff bores me. . . . I'm not going to tell you my whole autobiography or anything.  I'll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas." And this is how The Catcher in the Ryestarts; Holden Caulfield tells us what his story is about. ;He's not interested in his entire life, and he doesn't think you are, either, but these weird things happened to him when he got kicked out of school last Christmas and he thinks somebody should know about it.

It's a classic essay story, the classic essay story about a disaffected teenager. A Separate Peace is also an essay story, about how a school hasn't changed at all, but Gene has totally changed and he is disturbed by how much the rest of the world stays the same despite the awful events that he instigated.

My father has been dead for 1 year, three months, and 2 days. I still want to yell at somebody about it. It's the awful thing about death; One of the first stages of grief is anger, and death usually takes anger well. Death shrugs, walking off while you're still yelling, "I'm talking to you!" Death takes the loved one with her while she's at it. My father has lost his hearing, or he can't answer the phone, but he's not there where I can talk to him about the silly things that piss me off. I could blame him, actually. My father made a conscious choice to stop cancer treatment. He got to a point in his life where his life was not worth the trouble it took to maintain it, and I respect that choice, but I wish he'd told me who I was going to have to talk to when I was upset about something stupid.

We internalize the ones we love. Take comfort in this. Once they're dead, it is no longer important to worry whether what you love about your relatives is who they really were, or just what you remember.  What I miss right now about my Dad might just be what I would have wanted him to say if I called him on the way home, not what he would have actually said, and perhaps that's OK. Veracity is an overrated quality in memory.

On a cold spring morning, when I was eagerly awaiting my 8th birthday, my father and I were sitting on the couch. Correction, my father was sitting on the couch, I was barefoot and sprawled on the couch, sitting with my legs spread out in front of me. I was probably wondering if they were growing while I was watching them. My father saw my toes and contemplated them before talking.
"I wonder when you toes will start falling off," he mused, more to himself it sounded.
"What?" I asked, not sure whether to be terrified or start laughing.
"Your baby toes, honey. When you grow up, your baby toes fall off and you grow big ones. You see?" he reached out to grab my right foot and wiggled two of my toes, "they're already quite loose already."
And I stared at him, sure that he was lying to me, but who knows? I mean, I had older kid friends who should have passed this along to me, if only to terrify me themselves, and not leave it to the grownups to fill me in. I breathed in, and wiggled my toes. I think I was too terrified to pull up my legs and play with my toes the way my tongue had begun playing with loose teeth in my mouth.

It did not occur to me to wiggle the grownup teeth. I don't think I'd realized quite what was permanent and what wasn't, which my father was depending upon for his joke to work.  Why wouldn't my baby toes fall off?  Were they growing like the rest of me, or weren't they?

This set in motion a whole set of stories my father would tell me that were not true. I developed a mind-set that suggested alternate endings, the possibility that what you could make up might be a better story than what actually happened, and perhaps you should go with the better story, when reality was letting you down.
Why couldn't I remember to go with better stories during my adolesence? Why did I have to be so devoted to MY version of the truth, that people scorned me and made fun of me? Why couldn't I start believing in alternative realities then? (When I was 5 my father would tell me that he and Linda Rondstadt were going out for the afternoon, a fact that I never believed.) Perhaps because I figured that believing in alternative realities that made me cool as a teenager were not actually a successful means to becoming cool (which would have been accurate, nothing fails so much as pretending you're something everyone can see you're not). Perhaps I thought that alternative realities were things grownups can do, but they are not welcomed in people who are also unable to purchase alcohol.

And now my father is dead and all I can remember is the stories he told me, the way I wish his story had ended, and the conviction he had that his story was over.  The last two weeks of his life, he told his wife that he felt his life had become a movie and he wanted to end it and cry “Cut!” but he couldn’t.

Nobody was up to telling Dad that the correct call would have been “That’s a wrap!” because everyone in Hollywood knows that when anyone cries that out in the hospital, the machines return to the one solid tone, the lights go down, and the camera stops.

Nobody wants to disappoint a dying man.

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