According to my mother, I have always spoken like an adult. Or at least, from the first moment I learned to string together words into phrases, big questions emerged from my little pouty lips.
“Why do we have to do things that we don’t like?”
“Why is being alone so sad?”
“Why is it easier to do bad things?”
My family attributes this to several solid years spent in the children’s ward at the state university teaching hospital in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Envision the standard sad “child with cancer” story: bald head, big eyes, and sudden frightening fevers. My doctor warned my mother that two outcomes were possible (assuming that I survived): either the illness would cause intense developmental delays or the constant attention and stimulation would turn me into a supergenius. Both possibilities were frightening.
I emerged with an intense dislike of carrot and raisin salad (a common snack on in the ward playroom) and the verbal skills of an earnest freshman philosophy student.
So my mother did not bat an eyelash when she heard the following question travel from the backseat of her cream-colored Beetle:
“Why do memories and dreams seem the same?:
Imagine my four-year old lisp.
My mother responded, “Because both are fuzzy around the edges.”
This satisfied me and I settled back into the leather upholstery to take inventory.
The hospital had planted all sorts of memories in my mind. Watching my mother’s face disappear behind a closing door has nurses and doctors whisked me away for some sort of terrible procedure. Trick-or-treating around the hospital, while my IV pole was decorated with faux spider webs and orange crepe paper. The social worker Dale and her love of wooden clogs and Frye campus boots. Dry instant mashed potatoes on a plastic hospital tray. Little cups of apple juice with peel-off foil lids. Flannel pajamas with a spaceship print (my favorite). The lightening shock of Ice packs on my forehead.
And since then. In the outside world, I could remember trying to play badminton, much to the amusement of the adults in the yard. Catching lightning bugs in jars. Running through the cornfield next to our house. Rolling down the hill with my blonde cousin Georgie in my grandma’s back yard. Opening my eyes underwater in my grandma’s pool, and seeing all of the grownups’ legs, wavy and white.
But all of these memories crept into my dreams, and soon I was getting an x-ray in a room filled with fireflies. And the hospital fell under the water and we had to swim for safety. Or I swung a racket, ripping IV tubes out of my arms.
I would tell my mom, “Yesterday I was playing in Grandma’s yard and I saw an airplane flying by…and you were in it. I waved at you and you waved back!”
“Stop lying. That never happened.”
And then I would remember that it was a dream.
My bed grew wings, and I flew away to see the Statue of Liberty.
I ate spaghetti right after a chemo session and I threw up right in front of the Big Boy statue outside the restaurant. My mom was embarrassed.
Dreams and memories all blended together into one hazy cloud.
I think about that now as I’m sitting in my Chicago apartment, smoking cigarette after cigarette. How am I going to remember this time? Ryan and our lives and the fights and the fun?
The worst memories are always drawn in indelible ink. Their clarity never diminishes. So I will remember drug overdoses and puking up gin on the sidewalk. Walking home alone in the middle of the night. Lost house keys and ugly words. Broken glasses and ruined days. Crystal clear and untainted.
But the good times, those that automatically assume the fuzzy quality of dreams, just by the virtue of being so blissful…those will be the first to fade. In some unknown future, where Ryan might be a distant semi-forgotten specter, I will wonder if that first night in the bathtub was simply a moment stolen in REM sleep. But I will never doubt the plausibility of tonight, when I screamed in a voice I did recognize as my own. I will not question that I broke a glass on the wall behind my boyfriend’s head. I will clearly recall smoking four cigarettes in rapid succession. Even the crumpled box of Camel Lights and the green glass ashtray will be tangible.
I will still feel ashamed of myself years from now, no matter what happens next.