10 October 2010

The Crumbling Vault of Memory

In Heathrow a vast chunk of memory detached itself from a blank bowl of airport sky and fell on him.  He vomited into a blue plastic container with out breaking stride.                                           
That brief passage, from science fiction masterpiece Count Zero, by William Gibson, remains one of my favorites written in any genre I have ever read.  The stark brevity of it, its immediacy and its hints of much larger concerns yet to be explained make me envious that I didn't write it first.

Then again, I have yet to attempt writing a novel of science fiction.  The genre, in this case, is not so critical as the import of the words.  The concept of "chunks of memory" falling from the sky is one that has haunted me most of my life, at least since my teenage years.  It wasn't until I read Count Zero that I saw it put into words.  Finally I had a description for this unnerving tendency for things to (figuratively) fall from the sky to land on my head and knock me silly.  I am fortunate in that I have never reacted by vomiting,  although there have been some very unsettling close calls.

It happened again today.  Unexpected as always, and this time it wasn't memory so much as artifacts glimpsed while walking from one room of my house to another.  Resting on the mantel of the fireplace in my living room is a collection of curios infused with memories, young and old.  I have a small ceramic sake bottle, a rough gray lidded ceramic pot, a hand-made glass lily holding fragments of river glass, a small clear glass bottle, a notebook made from a sheet of roofing metal...and some craft projects made for me by my daughter.

It was the craft projects that nearly brought me to my knees.

Not fancy by any means, not archive quality artwork, but damn near priceless in my accounting of things that matter.  She made them in preschool.  One is a framed picture of her, taken when she was three, I think.  The frame is made of popsicle sticks, the photo mounted on pink construction paper.  Underneath that and written in silver metallic letters it says 'I Love My Daddy."  I have held on to this photo through two lost jobs and two changes of residence.

The other, larger piece is a laminated card she made last Father's Day.  It is of slate blue paper on which she drew a flower, a sun and added the words "Happy Father's Day!" written in that classic child's scrawl of mixed capitals and lower case letters.  Surprisingly enough, the 's' was not written backwards, and that made me smile.

Below the greeting is a poem in the center, flanked by two photos of my darling daughter. In the left photo, she looks at the camera with rose-window eyes and just a faint hint of a Mona Lisa smile on her face.  In the right photo, she is standing underneath a placard stuck to the wall behind her, on which is written the words "I love you!" alongside a big red heart.  The smile on her face is that goofy "I'm-smiling-this-way-because-the-teacher-told-me-to-smile-for-the-camera" grin we've all put on at some time in our lives.  Her right hand is raised and she is making the American Sign Language sign for "I love you".  The poem is a sentimental piece of doggerel that hits me in my soft spot:
Daddy, I love you
For all that you do.
I'll kiss you and hug you
'Cause you love me, too.

You feed me and need me
To teach you to play,
So smile 'cause I love you
On this Father's Day.
It was the poem that caught my eye as I shuffled across the room on my way to the bookcase.  I stopped in my tracks, pinned in the afternoon light seeping through the window and wondering why all of a sudden I felt dizzy and short of breath and what is this moisture leaking from my eyes? Who ordered the waterworks?  I reached out a hand to steady myself against the painted brick of the mantel.

Something fell out of the blank bowl of my living room sky, crashing down on my head.  It was the feeling of being torn in two directions, this realization of love beyond compare for the flower of my heart and the dark, cold swamp of emotion that is knowing that, in the life that is unfolding before me, I am deprived of the necessary luxury of being in her presence full time.

I wept, from sadness or fatigue or maybe just the melancholy coolness of an early fall Sunday afternoon, trying to sweep the cobwebs of loneliness from the rafters of my mind.  This thing fell from the sky and bludgeoned me in my own home.  I stood there struggled for composure as that thing slipped beneath my skin and wrapped itself around my heart.

I knew from past experience that the best thing to do is not to panic.  Breathe deep,  close my eyes and center myself.  It is a matter of outlasting its presence while keeping the heart beating and concentrating on the memory of the love that I am fortunate enough to have.  It is in this way that the chunk of melancholy slowly melts, to be absorbed into the white-hot core of a heart learning to survive on its own.

I took that thing and pushed it back into its place in the blank vault of my psychic sky.  It stayed put for now, not knowing or caring about the collateral damage from its falling.  As for me,  I think love will become my shield, the invisible dome that protects me from the crumbling vault of memory.


  1. a stunning and heartfelt post. That love you have for your daughter is deep and wide and indestructible. And, I imagine, she feels the same. Your words bring back the pain I felt when my newly ex-husband took our 2- year old daughter thousands of miles away for a family Christmas. I had never been parted from her for more than 24 hours. Not able to stand the loneliness and dread, I hopped a plane for my parent's house for the holiday. It was one of the most challenging times of my existence...and, whew, I made it through to the other side.

    Courage, lots of courage to you.

  2. Yeah, memories can do that to you. Especially long forgotten ones. Sudden memories from my dead marriage do that to me, even still.

    Not really related, but my younger daughter is home from school in western PA overnight and I made lasagna per her request. As I took it out of the oven, she grabbed the potholder I had used. "I remember making this in Kindergarten!" (she's now nearly 20) It had a butterfly and Mom in fabric paint. I think she was really happy that I actually use it! The paint is peeling off in places and it's stained from 15 years of use. She said, "I still draw butterflies the same way." That made me smile.

  3. I always had my four babes with me. I can't imagine what it must be like to live apart from your child. I know many men do it, and I'm sure like you, many men suffer for it. But we rarely hear of it because of their stoic "man-ness" that precludes us from ever knowing how deeply they're affected but for clipped phrases like, "It's hard," and a shrug. It's unfair. Reading this breaks my heart. I hope you get to see Wee Lass far more. I think you need that.

  4. Other half goes through this with his girls. They are 18 and 19. There are still popsicle stick frames around the house with photos from montessori school... and barbies in the cellar.

    Hang in there, Gumby


"Let your laws come undone
Don't suffer your crimes
Let the love in your heart take control..."

-'The Hair Song', by Black Mountain

Tell me what is in your heart...