The Way I Remember It

Jacqueline Doyle

Our son was two and a half when I got sober. I remember that fact specifically, because our son was born on May 26 and I got sober on December 1. Getting sober was the culmination of a lot of things. It was about rediscovering myself, but it was partly about wanting to be present for my husband and child. We celebrated our twenty-sixth anniversary and my twenty-third AA birthday together last year. Though I haven't gone to AA in years, it still seems important to stay vigilant, and to celebrate my continuing sobriety.

There were a lot of buzzwords in AA, a lot of slogans that alienated me at first, sensitive to language and precision as I am, and wanting to believe that we all have individual histories. That was part of the point. You're not as different as you think. You share a problem with all of these other people and you can help each other to stay sober. One day at a time. KISS: keep it simple stupid. And, how did that saying go? Da Nile is not a river in Egypt. Something dumb that's stuck with me. Addicts and alcoholics are particularly prone to denial, they say. And what else could it be, my wholesale transformation in memory of that warm summer night in Fresno when my son almost, that is, actually fell out of his stroller onto the gravel-strewn macadam street?

Am I too appalled at what could have happened to my son to retain the truth of that night? The experience sank into the murky depths of memory, that vast repository of past events that jostle each other, rise and fall, sometimes ascending to the surface of consciousness where they bob and float, waiting for me to notice them. What other memories have sunk out of sight, perhaps never to be retrieved? Or floated to the surface, waterlogged and misshapen, distorted beyond recognition?

We constitute ourselves through memory. It is only through our remembered histories that we achieve shape and being. But maybe forgetting is as important as remembering, as we decide who we are and how to live with ourselves.

When I was in junior high, the older brother of a girl in my class was killed in an accident. They lived on the Boulevard, the busiest street in our little town, almost a small highway. The houses on the Boulevard were large, mansions really, with very long driveways. Her mother was backing out of the driveway. I picture one of those classic station wagons, a Pontiac maybe, or a Buick, so popular in the sixties with affluent suburban housewives. Her brother was in the back seat when she backed into traffic, another car smashed into the station wagon, and he was instantly killed.

I don't remember whether the girl was in the car, too. (Was she sitting in the front? Was she somewhere else? Was she supposed to be with them?) I wonder how she remembers her brother's death, almost fifty years past. And how does her mother remember? I heard that she was at fault, backing into traffic. I never heard rumors of substance abuse, though there were many mothers popping Valium in that generation of wealthy suburbanites, many secret drinkers, too. But I visited the girl once when I was much younger. We played in her basement rec room. The house was spacious and airy and well ordered, her mother was gracious and hospitable—everything my own dysfunctional household and mother were not. I never reciprocated invitations or had friends over to visit, at least the way I remember it.

I picture a simple moment of inattention. Maybe she was thinking about what to buy at the grocery store, or her son distracted her with a question, or something on the radio made her lose focus. The other car seemed to come out of nowhere, appearing in the passenger-side mirror for a millisecond as everything happened at once: the screech of brakes, the loud bang and sounds of wrenching metal and shattering glass, the moment of profound silence before the screams.

Does she recall putting her foot on the brake and looking both ways? Does she imagine a car veering out of traffic across her lawn and into the driveway? An accident where someone else was to blame? Does she sometimes think it never happened at all, that her son is grown and living far away?

She must be in her eighties now, his mother. She's still alive, as far as I know. Is she trapped in that memory, or does she remember farther back, remember the sweet boy she read to at night before she gave him a kiss and tucked him into bed? He was warm and smelled like milk. He wore soft flannel pajamas, blue with rocket ships on them. Winnie the Pooh was his favorite story. "'Oh, help!' said Pooh, as he dropped ten feet on the branch below him. 'If only I hadn't—' he said, as he bounced twenty feet on to the next branch. 'You see, what I meant to do,' he explained." Even though she'd read the words aloud many times before, they laughed and laughed. "It all comes of liking honey so much," Pooh explains. "Oh, help!"

I've veered away from the summer night in Fresno, the two glasses of the wine I liked so much (or was it three?), the small accident I once saw through a glass darkly, but now see face to face. St. Paul's vision of Judgment Day rises unbidden from the recesses of my lapsed Catholicism. I needed help. I got help. Still, I closed my eyes and forgot what I found hard to live with. It has come back to me now that I am finally ready to reread that chapter in my life. Maybe memory, like God, can be merciful.


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