Moments of Impact

After Hiroshima dead bodies were found of people who had been wearing printed kimonos when they were killed. The bomb had melted the cloth on their bodies, but the design on the kimonos remained imprinted in the flesh. It seems to me in later years the deep nerveless passivity of that time together had become the design burned into my skin while the cloth of my own experience melted away.

Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments

Some say they remember where they were, what they were doing, when Kennedy was shot. Of course that means they remember where they were and what they were doing when they first heard Kennedy was shot. Some say the same about Lennon. I seem to recall being at Clayton and Maxine’s house, friends of my parents, staying over because my parents were out of town, when Elvis died. I can’t be sure it was Elvis, but I’m pretty sure it was. And I don’t think I remember that moment because I was any particular kind of Elvis fan, but instead because I didn’t understand why this was a big deal. To me, Elvis was only the Elvis of the sparkly white jumpsuits and ridiculous dark glasses; I didn’t understand Elvis as a cultural phenomenon. I didn’t understand that Elvis had changed everything for an entire generation. But my parents’ friends were struck, and I thought I should be too. It was the dissonance of the experience that makes me remember that moment.

I remember being in the band room of my high school when I first heard about the Challenger blowing up in the sky. Perhaps I only remember it because Sally Ride was another Sally, but I think that I remember it because I felt staggered by the realization that the brave were sometimes the least safe.

When OJ took his white SUV on the run, we crowded around a small television set usually reserved for important sports events at the insurance brokerage firm where I temped. At work, where I made copies of documents and then filed those copies, OJ was water-cooler fodder and a spectacle that brought us together for days, weeks, months, with the denouement so deflating it seemed to diminish just how new and bizarre it was to watch news happen in real time.

I had just walked into the gym the morning of 9/11. Instead of running on treadmills, or stepping on ellipticals, or hefting and dropping weights, the people in the gym that morning were standing still and staring up in silence at the silent televisions broadcasting a tower’s collapse. Rebroadcasting the moments of impact. At first, I thought it was a movie. I thought soon Will Smith or Bruce Willis would appear.

Why I remember those events from the past is anyone’s guess. Some events are so dramatic, the impact clears the every day clutter from your head and stamps itself like a brand on your memory. Other events just joins the messy brigade of thoughts marching and encamping throughout the day, denying those moments the time to take root in the soil of memory. I can’t tell you what I was doing when I first heard that Katrina hit New Orleans, when the earthquake hit Haiti, or a defective reactor poisoned the people of Chernobyl, Japan or Three Mile Island.

Seemingly solid memories bleed and reshape like oil drops in water. Tip your brain one way and the memory will elongate; close your eyes and you can drop yourself down in the moment, but it’s a bit like Marty McFly or Quantum Leap: so little control once you project yourself there. When I picture myself in the band room, in the brokerage firm office, in the gym, I don’t move and I don’t react. I only see. Maybe because if I move, I will affect history like any good sci-fi movies warns of, or I will cause the memory to shift and it will never regain its former shape, or I will peer too hard and the clearly drawn edges of the memory will become amorphous and I’ll begin to doubt everything I once thought I knew.

My mother often told the story of announcing to my father they had been approved for an adoption and would be receiving a baby, my brother, by posting the news on the red brick silo just behind our garage. When I think on this now, I simply cannot believe it. How my mother would have posted a sign that big that high-up defies any kind of logic. She would have needed a lift truck to do the deed, but in my mind, that memory of her memory persists.

I was in Mr. Buck’s 7th grade English class when someone came to the door to pull from class and tell me my mother had died. I remember it being our pastor at the door. I would imagine he had been brought there by our principal but I can’t remember him there in the moment. I think we sat in the principal’s office because somewhere in the school my father waited for me after the telling, but I’m not sure. My mind’s eye can’t see the room, can’t remember the first hug. I do remember sitting on my father’s lap in the front seat of the pastor’s car–nicer than any of ours, I know–as he drove us home, leaving my brother at the high school as he was unwilling, my brother, to let the news impact his regular day.

I can’t remember how I learned that my father had died. Maybe my brother and I were exchanging phone calls? Maybe someone from the hospital called me? How can I not remember that? But I do remember coming home (from the gym? from a tennis match?) and listening to a message on my answering machine (from my aunt? or my uncle? a message from either would have been strange as I hadn’t spoken to either of them in at least a decade) telling me my father had been taken to the hospital via ambulance. I know he lived, in a coma, a few more days. I know I didn’t travel to Minnesota to see him. I don’t remember why not going seemed the best option.

Other news also came on like a slow burn of a ditch fire, carefully watched, but somehow still wild. My son’s disabilities revealed themselves like drips into a bucket that fills surprisingly fast and overflows with a gush. By his first birthday we knew that he was not the child we’d dreamed of having. For the next three years I would fight against that reality, trying futilely to cup the water in my hands and put it back into the full bucket.

My husband’s leukemia took months to diagnose. There was always something else it could be. It was exhaustion; it was cluster headaches; it was a virus. The other possibilities were ludicrous as few suspect cancer in an otherwise healthy, downright robust 48 year old man, despite most of us worrying ourselves over cancer every day. Leukemia. Blood cancer. White blood cells gone rogue.

And maybe because it was just months ago, but I remember the moments with calm clarity. I remember sitting at home, thinking it could be leukemia. I remember telling myself that the most devastating thing is often the least likely. He texted me that they were doing blood dialysis to reduce the number of white blood cells because he had far, far too many. But no, he said, he didn’t know what that meant. It took me a couple of hours to get to the hospital. I knew he was sick, that he had been sick, that he hadn’t been who he usually was for many months. But I didn’t expect to see him stripped and bloated on the table, multiple tubes like computer cables running to a churning machine from a port in his neck, his skin blotched around the injection site with stains of dry brick red blood. Each of the tubes were removing blood from his body, pulling his blood into the machine, separating and hoarding the white while returning the red. I stopped dead at the doorway. He turned to me, knew what I was seeing, and said, “I’m sorry, honey.”

And I think that was the moment we both knew. Even before the technician from the blood center let the word chemotherapy drop from her mouth, before any doctor had warned us of the possibility, or rather, the necessity of treating his cancer immediately, no choice in the matter. The gravity of his words, “I’m sorry,” crushing the hope that anything from this point on would be easy. No, what had already been hard would now become harder. The load would be heavier and the direction of our life together less clear.

The word cancer makes people think of death. So does leukemia, though there are many stories we hear about people who have been cured with much hard work, by the doctors, by the sick. My husband has always been a strong man, a hard worker who has defined himself to himself by putting hand to the proverbial plow. He is two months into what will be the two years of the hardest work he will ever have to do. I choose to believe his body can withstand the impact of the blows. I choose to believe that his will can insure the result. I can only hope my heart’s scars have formed a strong enough infrastructure beneath the minute fractures to keep me from crumbling from each upcoming strike.

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