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Everybody has their first childhood memory, like that one fourth of July so long ago when you watched your father break down the bathroom door and drag out your dead great-aunt with her pantyhose around her ankles. Remember? It was the hottest day of the summer, and everybody knew she’d been in there too long.
I’m not saying that was my own first memory. It probably wasn’t yours either. In truth, that was my oldest sister’s eighth memory, but I’ve heard the story so many times it’s almost like I’d been there, though I hadn’t even been born yet.
Fortunate or not, our entire family excels at recollection, except for my father, who has blocked out many of these episodes in the name of Christ.
My own first real memory occurred when I was five. I’m not talking about a little memory, a short snippet of things happening like throwing up on somebody’s kitchen floor or sitting on a horse somewhere. I’m talking about full-fledged, action-oriented memory with sounds, color, and other people. My first memory is connected with a young woman who showed up on our front doorstep one afternoon, dripping blood from her skinless arm.
I remember the doorbell ringing, and I remember walking to the front door with my mother. We were alone in the house, as my four older siblings were at school, and I had already returned from my half-day of kindergarten. I remember walking towards the front door, which was open into the hallway, and seeing through the screen door that there was a girl standing on our front porch. She had light-colored disheveled hair, and no skin on her left forearm. Because she had no skin on her arm, she was dripping blood all over our front porch, which was made of cement that my mother had painted red. Our house was green, our porch was red, and this girl was standing on our front porch dripping red blood all over the red steps.
The girl never said anything to my mother—she simply emitted a low howl of pain—but my mother expressed verbal concern (while I do not remember her words, I remember the tone of her voice), at which point a man drove up in a car, leapt out, and ran to our door. He asked my mother for a towel, and she told me to go get him one. I ran through the house to the bathroom, pulled a bath towel off the rack, and ran back to the front part of the house, where my mother, the girl, and the man were still standing—my mother inside, the two others outside on the porch. My mother opened the screen door slightly, passed the towel to the man, and then closed the screen door. I remember the man wrapping the towel around the girl’s bloody arm, and then they left.
And that’s it: my first memory. I don’t remember what my mother and I talked about afterward, and I don’t recall sharing the incident with anybody else in the family. I did find out, years later, that the girl had been mentally impaired, and that a group of delinquent boys had been teasing her outside of the local Big Boy restaurant, and that they had ended up pushing her through the glass door of the restaurant. The man who met her at our house remains unidentified, and how she chose our house remains unclear.
I have not been haunted by this memory. I harbor no real sympathy for the girl, and no ill will towards the boys who pushed her through the door. I was only five, and since I was unable to understand the complexity, the sad irregularity, of the situation at the time, it has only left me with a vivid impression of one isolated event. Why mention it at all? I’ll tell you: Because I believe that shortly after that event, I started paying far better attention. My mother’s unwillingness to open the door and step outside into the mess of that girl pushed me in the opposite direction, and I have been a willing participant in the complications of life ever since. I don’t mean to blame my mother for not investing more of herself into the girl’s unfortunate circumstance: I’m sure she was frightened and stunned, and feeling protective of me. In fact, if I hadn’t been there, my mother might very well have thrown open the screen door and taken the girl inside, tended to her arm, called the police. But I was there, and it made all the difference.
I do pay very close attention to people and circumstances now. I can’t help it; it’s the way I turned out. However, paying attention can take extra time, extra patience, extra heartache—even extra money—and there’s no guarantee that funneling all this energy into the outside world will ever really matter. In fact, a good case could be made in favor of tuning most everything and everyone out. Case in point: I have a friend who takes antidepressants regularly, because without them she sinks into the abyss of meaninglessness. While the antidepressants save her from the deepest despair, they also deprive her of the true highs of happiness, so she occasionally stops taking them. The last time she took herself off her meds, I found her standing alone one day in the restroom at work, crying. I asked her what was wrong, and—her breath catching—she said, “You know that screen that lets you watch the news at night without breaking down?” I nodded; I know that screen. “I lost mine,” she said, and I knew how terrible that was.
Perhaps when I was five and my mother withheld her physical person from the bleeding girl on our doorstep, I sensed the presence of her own screen for the first time: she was filtering out the worst part, the tangible cruelties and resulting pain. I know that ever since then—when I started getting older and noticing more details, making connections, sensing the nuances of situations that had escaped me before—I have possessed a screen of my own.
Sometimes I carry it directly in front of me, feeling safe and smart. Sometimes I allow it to slip, wanting to be more involved. And sometimes it falls away on its own.
I try to make sense of reality, so far as it’s happened to me, and so far as I can determine its truth. Today I dedicate the flawed and tawdry and perfect work of my life to my mother, who—purposely or not—encouraged me to carry my screen at all times, for my own safety and mental health. I do the best I can. Thank you, mi madre...and my apologies as well.