memories

Mork from Ork

mork

This photo came to me in a box of my father’s stuff. My stepmom had collected a bunch of my father’s belongings into a cardboard box after his death, which she then gave to me. It was filled with some of the random and wonderful things he had collected in his later years, including autographed baseball paraphernalia, antique stock and bond notes, random old movie posters, strange prints and artwork, and some wonderful photos of him and me together. Most of these photos were framed and were pictures I had given him for his birthday or Christmas or father’s day. This one was a card I must have made him for Christmas, which explains the ribbons and frame made out of wrapping paper. I’m sure the inside read something witty, such as… like father, like son. You see in the picture we both have casts on, him on his ankle and me on my arm. Hilarious irony.

This particular photo sits on my desk, and seeing it everyday has somewhat diminished the memories it dregs up. So many memories I don’t really want to talk about. I don’t want to talk about my dad’s amazing red pants and matching turtle neck, or the crazy blonde mop of 80’s hair perched on my head like a wig, or my patriotic tube socks. I don’t want to talk about the thumb cast that I got after badly dislocating my thumb while trying to roller skate down the paved cliff in front of my house with ski poles. I don’t want to justify what I was thinking at the time, having witnessed my cooler than cool neighbor place skateboard trucks on an old Rossignol ski and go plummeting down that steep hill numerous times, and my own sad attempt to replicate the feat with cheap roller skates and ski poles, which ended tragically for both my thumb and one of the ski poles.

I don’t want to talk about the Mork from Ork shirt that I’m wearing, or the rainbow suspenders (thankfully not pictured in this photo) that I just had to have to show my affinity for the crazy alien from Ork. I’m guessing this photo was probably taken around 1980, and I don’t want to talk about how my father would have been roughly the same age as me now. Mork and Mindy was one of my favorite shows, not only because Robin Williams played this amazing and hilarious alien that made funny sounds and flew to Earth in a giant egg, but also because my younger sister’s name was Mindy. Hilarious irony once again. I would pretend I was Mork and then we would became our own sad little version of the show, even though my sister never wanted to play along. I would say things like nannu nannu, shazbot, fly be free while she played with her Barbie dolls. When Barbie landed on her head at least she didn’t break open like an egg. I don’t want to talk about my parents’ separation and eventual divorce, about how my father and mother argued so much and with such venom that I was glad when he eventually left. I don’t want to talk about how I saw less and less of him as time went on. I don’t.

I don’t want to talk about how much I miss my father , and definitely don’t want to talk about the bicycle accident in 1994 that left him a quadriplegic, leaving him bed ridden and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his days. I don’t want to talk about the grief and depression I felt after the accident as I watched him spiral closer and closer to the proverbial drain. I don’t want to talk about how he had such a profound effect on my outlook and life that went largely unrealized until it was too late. Sometimes we don’t realize how important such influences have been until they pass tragically out of our lives, and a different point of view provides us with perspective that is simultaneously enlightening and heart breaking. After they’re gone all we have left is a box of random stuff which we go through again and again trying to decipher some deep profundity and meaning. I don’t want to talk about that.

I don’t want to talk about how I was looking at this photo when I learned that Robin Williams had killed himself, or about how affected I was by it. I don’t want to admit that, much like my father, Robin Williams had a profound but unrealized affect on my perspective in life. Judging from the tributes and stories being shared across the interwebs I sense I was not alone in this connection. I don’t want to talk about how depression is an unrelenting bitchslap, or how someone that could have brought so much joy to so many millions of people could be so dark and troubled inside.  I don’t want to talk about how this makes me realize that our time in this life is limited and a thing to never take for given. I don’t want to talk about how the world can suddenly seem so much smaller when someone with such profound unrealized impact is suddenly gone, and all we are left with is a box of Mork and Mindy, Dead Poets Society, and Fisher King to sift through and try to remember and forget at the same time.

And above all, I don’t want to talk about how these two tragedies will now somehow be linked in my mind because of this picture.

I just want look at this photo and appreciate that moment, without all the other stuff it brings up.

Shazbat!

RIP Ralph Hager (1939 – 2006)

RIP Robin Williams (1951 – 2014)

 

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The Impermanence of Memory

“Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.”

― Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore (via goodreads)

 

Back before the Fall

Back before the Fall

On a recent trip to the doctor my mom and sister were driving home and were stopped at a red light. Plastered on the bumper of the car in front of them was a bumper sticker declaring, Joy Comes From Within.

What do you think about that, Mom? Joy comes from within.”

I can almost hear the annoyed sigh my mom must have made. “Joy come from within, huh? Well, let me know when it comes out.”

This has become an inside joke amongst us as we battle for meaning in the face of my mom’s Alzheimer’s. We will remind ourselves that joy comes from within as we laugh in the face of the depression we feel. These are the memories I will hold on to. I don’t want to remember the tears, the confusion, the sad pleas for help. I want to remember the joy that comes from within.

I have accepted the fact that my mother is dying slowly, not unlike my father. Her path will be different, but the destination will be the same. In my father’s case his body went before the brain, while my mother’s descent will proceed in the opposite order, her mental state deteriorating until the body fails. I often wonder as I watch the Deer Hill Dinner Theatre which is preferable, to lose control of one’s mind or one’s body. When I struggled through those years watching my father battle his own body after his accident, many of his favorite things in life taken from him as a C-4 quadriplegic, I could imagine no greater tragedy than being confined to a wheelchair. But having seen my mother’s sad dive into dementia, I realize that there are so many important parts of life that stay unappreciated. How many people give thanks for the ability to walk, the ability to feed themselves, the ability to remember yesterday? How many people truly understand the significance such simple actions?

Seeing the people you love suffer is not easy, but the shock is somehow eased through the process of acceptance. In the case of Alzheimer’s, what is perhaps saddest is that my mother herself will never be able to reach this final plateau of the grief hierarchy, that she will never be able to embrace her condition and comprehend the trajectory. Not only is she unaware that she has a disease which will eventually destroy the part of her brain that controls the autonomic function of her internal organs, but she has no idea that she is even sick. Another cruel trick of fate. She still calls the disease old-timers, and considers her memory only slightly hindered. Sometimes she has a moment of lucidity and realizes that something is wrong with her, but cannot understand the implication of the reasons before the moment fades away. My father was well aware of the fate that eventually awaited him, and I’d like to think he was able to accept it and move on. I often wonder if that gave him closure.

Closure is another ambiguous term that gets thrown about when people discuss grief and loss. Is it coincidence that the fifth and final step of the standard lesson format most teachers learn in their training programs is called closure? Closure provides summary and context. Closure deepens understanding through scaffolding and connections with preexisting knowledge. Closure creates a bridge between what happened today and what will happen tomorrow. Closure is supposed to be the part where the other portions of the lesson introduced earlier come into focus, leading to deeper meaning and understanding. Closure is when everything gets wrapped up in a neat little package that students can take with them. It is considered the most important part of the lesson, and is also the hardest part to get right. Unfortunately not all lessons can be so easily wrapped up with a bow. Some lessons are open ended and ambiguous. Some lessons remain ongoing and aren’t ready to be closed. I felt that if I transcribed all these memories and saw them on paper, that meaningful closure would come to me. I am still searching for it. I know it must be here somewhere.

From all this I am reminded above all that I have lots to be thankful for, but in the tumult of daily life it is easy lose sight of this fact. It usually takes tragedy to remind us of these things we should be thankful for, which ironically is a tragedy in itself. Must we really have something taken away from us before we can appreciate it? Is it that absence makes the heart grow fonder, or can we never truly see that which is right in front of us? Are we destined to lament and covet what is missing rather than exalt and celebrate the amazing abilities and relationships we still possess?

These memories of my father and mother are the memories that have shaped me, and I hold on to these memories tight, afraid to let them go. Some even argue that our memories make us, that without our memories we would not be the same person. I’m not ready to tackle this debate, in truth. But in order to prevent forgetting I will continue to write them all down, everything that makes sense and especially everything that doesn’t. I will read it over and over and try to reach an understanding of what it means. Hopefully the act of writing it all down will prevent me from forgetting. Somewhere in this act I will find closure.

Understanding now that the persistence of memory is never guaranteed, I don’t want to lose these memories, no matter how painful, because if we don’t have our memories, what is left?


 

Written for the DP Weekly Writing Challenge: Memoir Madness

I had been working on this piece to publish this Wednesday, but decided to publish a little early for the Weekly Writing Challenge.

What do you think? Any feedback, advice, or constructive criticism is always welcome.

How Did I Get Here?

(aka My Illustrious Writing Habit)

When I tell people that I started writing stories in second grade many find this hard to believe. In truth I may have started earlier, but since the first physical artifact of my early writing still in my possession dates from the second grade, I’ll go with it. The second grade was also when I published my first collection of short stories under the tutelage of Mrs. Olson, my 2nd Grade teacher. Most of my memories of Mrs. Olson revolve around my surprise at how freaking old she was, by far the oldest looking teacher I have ever had. I remember her librarian glasses and how the skin hung off her arms when she was writing on the chalk board, swinging back and forth like a wrinkled hammock in the breeze. It is quite possible that she wasn’t really that old, but the mere act of teaching snot-nosed little brats everyday had caused her physical body to age at an accelerated pace, something I know about all to well having somehow becoming a teacher myself. But I digress.

Chapter 1 – Simple Pleasures

SONY DSC

nogmania

I actually found my book of stories while cleaning out a closet at my mom’s house when we were getting ready to sell it. Its somber title was January Stories by Jeff Hager. One thing I had when I was younger was imagination, though not necessarily reflected in this title. I practically lived in an imaginary world, but  since I was such a lone wolf I had no imaginary friends in there with me. It was me and my words and my pictures. Here’s a transcript of one story, Nogmania.

My nogs live in people’s hair. If you don’t comb it they will eat you up. If you take one out they will give you a disease.They are like little savage monsters. They are smaller than a termite. One day everybody was combing his hair and all the nogs died, except one was lucky and didn’t die. He moved into Bottle City!

Despite the fact that the POV changes and there is a character named everybody, it is better than a lot of my first drafts. As you can see I also illustrated each of the stories, and I was quite the young artist if I do say so myself. I was using similes at age 8, and unlike a lot of the stories I wrote in high school, something actually happens in this one. But I also see why my teachers and mother were so concerned. I rarely ever spoke, in class or at home, but when I sat down to write somehow words and ideas poured onto the page. Soon after the triumph of January Stories I completed another illustrated book called Lost Land. It involved a young boy going back in time and meeting a bunch of dinosaurs. Some were nice and some tried to eat him. I think it was loosely based on the original Land of the Lost television show, which was a favorite of mine. This book proved very predictable in its storyline, but the illustrations were pretty kick ass, mainly because my father had given me a book on how to draw dinosaurs. I probably drew a dinosaur on at least 75% of my papers in elementary school, usually when I was supposed to be working on math problems or something else that didn’t interest me. Dinosaurs were cool. That was all that mattered. These early writing successes planted the writing seed somewhere deep in my brain, but unfortunately the successes were short lived. My youthful enthusiasm would soon be placed ruthlessly into a chokehold by the iron grip of editing, criticism, and rejection.

Chapter 2 – The Doubt Creeps In

3rd grade was difficult. ADD wasn’t widely understood. I wasn’t hyper, but definitely had difficulty concentrating and staying seated in class. My third grade teacher had called for a conference with my Mom about my distractibility in class, and her suggestion was I may have ringworm that was causing my restlessness. She swore she had seen it before, so my mother took me to the doctor to have me tested for parasites. I wish I was making this up, but unfortunately my imagination is not that macabre. Needless to say there were no parasites. I continued to struggle in school, except when I was writing.

By fourth grade my teacher noticed my writing immediately. She thought it was good, so good that she accused my parents of writing my homework assignments. Of course they didn’t. They proofread maybe, but I was very incensed that someone didn’t believe I had written the words that I wrote. My parents were contacted and of course denied the accusation. Being a teacher myself I know that parents always do, whether they wrote it or not.

My fifth grade teacher went even further and accused me of plagiarizing my state report. There were four grades and I got an A+ on three. On the writing grade I got a D because my teacher assumed I could not have written such descriptive and interesting passages. This was about twenty years BG (before google) and the internet was still a glimmer in some nerdy engineer’s glasses. I had written every word myself, and put a lot of work into it. I’m still not sure what is more disheartening for a writer, being told your writing is not good enough, or being told your writing was so good you couldn’t possibly have written it.

Chapter 3 – Accusations and Lies

It wasn’t until middle school that I finally found the recognition I thought I deserved. But it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. It was middle school after all.

During these middle school years my writing actually started gaining a little momentum, and garnered some praise and recognition from my teachers. In seventh grade I got first place in our school limerick contest, though I have no idea how, as poetry has never been my strong suit. The teacher that judged the contest had a peculiar disdain for me, and assumed I must have plagiarized the content from somewhere. I was called down to the principal’s office to answer to these accusations. She didn’t know where I had plagiarized it from and had absolutely no proof, but was nonetheless positive I could not have written the poem myself. But lacking any concrete evidence, I denied the charges and was eventually allowed the first place prize, and awarded a tacky little certificate most likely run off the school ditto machine. I have no further proof of any of this happening beyond my faulty and questionable memories of these incidents.

It was finally in the eighth grade that a teacher directly praised my writing abilities and presumably my intelligence. In English we often had to answer in class essay questions in response to the literature we read, and my English teacher would always start reading my paper the moment I handed it to her. I remember one time that she gasped out loud after I had turned in an essay response, while most of the class was reading silently. “Jeff, your response is perfect,” she said, “just perfect.” I felt suddenly embarrassed by this, and I’m sure that my classmates were looking at me like I was some kind of do-goody brown-noser, though I can’t be certain due to my prominent position in the front row (did I mention my ADD?). This one teacher had praised my writing privately many times, reassuring me that I had a certain lucky proficiency with words that was above the average.  Since she actually witnessed me sit down and compose the words in front of her, she must have realized that I had in fact written it myself. She was the first person I remember telling me to keep writing, which later became a theme among teachers that recognized some kernel of talent in me, and even as I write this now I try to keep telling myself this. Just keep writing.

Posted for the DP Weekly Writing Challenge: Writerly Reflections

Stay tuned for more chapters…(upcoming episodes)

Chapter 4 – Acceptance

Chapter 5 – College (what I can remember of it)

Chapter 6 – Life Experience

Chapter 7 – Self Actualization

 

Memories

All I remember is spinning donuts in the Carl’s Junior parking lot and barfing out the window at 90 miles an hour. All that’s left now is the sour taste of Jack Daniels and bile and a Carl’s Classic. My shoes and socks are missing in action. It feels like my brain is trying to jail break my head with explosives.

I wake up in the drunk tank with a guy named Hank, an addict with needle marks and tattoos on his neck. He keeps looking at me like I might be made of smack. The metal bench and concrete floor feel refrigerated.

Distant boots echo against every hard surface.

Drive so fast (by Just a Prairie Boy)

Memories of Mom’s Memories

Weekly Photo Challenge – Family (a photo with words)


image

Is she still my mom if she doesn’t remember I’m her son?

My mom stepped on a crack and broke her own back. This is not a silly nursery rhyme or outdated superstition, but rather a sad and true accident. Between her osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis, taking her little dog for a walk can prove challenging. And the fact that she was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s hasn’t simplified matters. She is a creature of habit and very stubborn, and she doesn’t even believe us when we tell her she has Alzheimer’s. She believes the doctors when we take her for an appointment, but she forgets all about the appointment soon after, and then when we try to explain again that her memory is faulty because she has a disease, she laughs like its a joke. A horrible, horrible joke. She can’t even remember that her memory is shot. It’s like denial, except it you can’t really deny something you have no recollection of. It’s more like plausible deniability, like she is withholding information from herself to protect herself from the consequences of knowing the truth.

When we took her to the neurology department for cognitive testing, the doctor explained that memory is like a table where you keep your stuff. People with really excellent memories have large tables, maybe even entire storage units with shelves and cubbies and labeled tiers. As we grow older the size of our memory tables shrink, and we are able to remember less and less. This is an unfortunate and entirely natural side-effect of aging, and even the most cognitively gifted can expect their memories to fade somewhat over time. For people with dementia (defined as a significant cognitive deficit that impedes one’s ability to perform simple daily tasks) the table has almost disappeared. When you don’t have a table to put your memories on they fade into the ether, gone forever into the dark, cluttered recesses of the brain. Sometimes they resurface at unexpected moments, but most simply evaporate, disintegrate, get lost to the inevitable entropy of space.

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