I was three, sitting on the edge of a motel bed. The blanket was coarse and printed with gaudy vintage flowers in shades of crimson and green. A refrigerator sat in the far corner, a white blip against pink popcorn walls, and a desk flanked the other side of the room. My dad wheeled over to me with a carton of strawberry ice cream. As he cracked open the lid and handed me a spoon, he smiled and said, “Our secret.”
When I play this image in my mind now, it’s devoid of sound. The words my father once spoke to me are replaced by an overbearing static, and it’s taken me seventeen years to realize that I will never know what his voice actually sounds like. As I get older, the small details become clearer, while those that seem most important warp with every retelling. And the harder I concentrate on preserving the memories I do have with him, the more it seems that they contort into something unrecognizable from those that once seemed so vivid. I have begun to question how fruitful it is to desire a relationship with someone who has become more of an image than a tangible reality.
Memory is elusive and unreliable. The concept of “fade-to-gist” has become a broader understanding of how humans process memories over time. It suggests that we constantly lose details of our experiences, instead focusing on the broad idea or feeling that the memory provides. If this holds true, then much of what I associate with my father could be entirely false. I feel that I am forced to choose between knowing him at the face value of my own decaying memory and my ideas of what having a father could have been like.
Death does not scare me for its anonymity — rather, that it allows you to be molded by those who outlive you. In life, we pride ourselves on knowing those around us with specific intimacy. We take the time to learn the coffee orders of our partners, invest in listening to music beloved by our friends and listen to our parents’ repetitive stories with patience. Yet despite the dedication we have to them when they’re within reach, we utterly fail to preserve the sheer humanity that was written in the details of their life.
Not a single person in my family can tell me who my dad’s favorite band was. I don’t blame them, and there’s not many of them to ask in the first place. It reminds me that no matter how much I might learn about him through the stories of others, I can only know a small portion of who he was. In knowing him as others remember him, I will never understand what made him him.
Yet, if I could have an "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" moment and be inundated with old memories in their complete and accurate state, I don’t know if I would do it. Even though we may crave the closure that could provide, should we risk the potential fallout? Our minds and bodies are hardwired to protect us from any perceived threat. If a memory has been erased, perhaps there is a reason for it. My memories with my father are brief and often tinged with the constant overhead of illness and death, but in all of them, I am reminded of how much he truly loved me. Where my brain has blurred the images of his suffering, it renders his actions of humor and kindness with clarity.
I think of the way he would set me in his lap and wheel down the hospital hallway at full speed, regardless of the pain he was in. Every time my mom had to work overtime, we would eat strawberry ice cream for dinner and sit in the velvet blue recliner pock-marked with cigarette holes. I remember the way a smell like Stetson was constantly streaming out of the air vents in his truck. And even if I can’t remember the last words he said to me, I will never forget the way he held me against his chest on sleepless nights in Maryland.
If there’s anything that living without my dad has taught me, it’s how deeply lucky I am to have the mom that I do. The older I get, the more time with her becomes sacred, and I’m often riddled with guilt for not appreciating that sooner. I can only hope to know her well enough in life that I never fail to preserve my memories with her for my children.