Thursday, February 28, 2008

Where we go when we disappear

An elderly lady and her daughter come into the shop to browse one afternoon, unaware that by entering these doors the past not only beckons but lies in wait like some slavering predator.

 My mother calls to say that the city of Eastland is collecting information for a new display about Doc Scurlock, our outlaw relative and compadre of William H. Bonney, and just like that sunlight burns the bare skin on my arms, on my neck, bakes the top of my head.

 The lady picks up an old red-bordered enamel pan and tells her daughter she grew up with one just like it, and beside it a hand mixer whose bright finish has dulled to the color of ash catches her eye and she grabs it and holds it up with an awed expression on her face. A slight smile creases her lips and in her eyes the glimmer of another time and place. It’s too embarrassing to watch, the act so private and personal it’s almost holy, so I quickly busy myself with the laptop.

 But I understand her predicament: the past has abducted her.   

 As it did me when my mother called.

 My cousins are there and their daughters and my parents and aunts and uncles and the ashes of my grandparents (and my grandfather and grandmother, though dead, only slightly apart, smiling as if glad to see the family together again) and the grass is green in places and yellow in others and all around us Texas stretches away to a ruler-flat horizon and we’re merely a stone’s throw from a marble headstone beneath which lies the town’s most famous resident. At heart we are time travelers all, and never more so than when memory sweeps us off our feet and washes us out to sea.

 I can’t help but think these are winter memories summoned from the cold and ice and the starless skies and the long breathless anticipation for spring. A sort of cabin fever of the mind. But I also believe this dual-directional vision is age-induced. When we’re younger we’ve no time for looking back, caught in a current of kids, careers, homebuilding. But now that we can actually see the end, or sense its relentless approach, now that our friends are dropping away (taking a part of us with them), the past returns in unexpected patterns and with varying degrees of vivification.

 And not merely the past, but a past that never was, or was and has conjoined into a different era entirely. What’s odd about my Eastland excursion wasn’t that my grandparents were alive and with us but that in an instant my first sensation was of being on horseback, a gun belt strapped to my hips, a weathered, sweat-stained hat pulled low to block the harsh sun. Josiah “Doc” Scurlock, Regulator, range rider, partner with Billy the Kid in the Lincoln County wars, back in the saddle again.

 Is this what I have to look forward to, a constant reappraisal of my past, one foot forever in the now and the other in another time and place? Or will I inhabit the present only on the most tenuous terms, in a kind of borrowed existence where anything, no matter how insignificant, can trigger a reversal and send me cartwheeling back, as if time were just a fabrication or something we’ve created to define the empty spaces of our lives? I sometimes get unnerved by the sudden transformations from mind-numbing evenings where Lori’s in one place and I in another and life seems suspended and dead, to the summer’s warmth of her company and the life we’re making, to the unheralded and truncated snatches of the past that never leave me in one place long enough to satisfy. And I suspect it will only get worse as I get older.

 Not long ago my wife’s grandmother disappeared while camping. Her body remained at the nursing home but her mind roamed a terrain both familiar and loved, and with her were relatives long turned to dust. When Lori touched her on the shoulder she jumped and slowly focused her eyes and said, “What are you doing here?” Disoriented, stranded between then and now, it seemed a shame to bring her back. What’s here for her? Blindness, immobility, a home that is not home, strangers for neighbors, poked and prodded by medical practitioners, utterly at the mercy of others.

 While nobody is ready to call it Alzheimer’s, it nevertheless has some in the family concerned. I take comfort in it, knowing that our history, our experiences and memories, are never completely gone but are contained within us like a vast placid lake, beneath whose waters we can dip and sometimes even drown. There are worse ways to go.

 I think of our granddaughter, how she studied everything, faces, noses, eyes, expressions, the dogs, the ceiling, the couch cushions, hands, fingers, hair, the television, colors, motion, everything new and fresh and recorded within the cells of her brain. Within her memory. And I cannot help but worry about what will consume that virginal space.

 “It’s like a hard drive being formatted,” I said to Michelle, our daughter-in-law.

 And what goes into that hard drive? And what will return in the twilight of her life? Please, God, let not be vapid Hollywood drivel, not reality shows or sitcoms. Let it be butterflies, and mountains, and wildflowered prairies like endless seas. Let it be grandparents, and aunts and uncles, and places that spoke to them in their pasts, places unknown to her but that might someday resonate on levels she will never understand. Let it be people and places and sunlight on moving waters. Let it be enough to carry her. Let it be what matters.



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