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The time between memory and reality

Faith Maddox and her father

Faith Maddox's father holds and feeds her in her infancy.

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.

Person 1: This song slaps.

Person 2: Your mom slaps.

Person 1: Thank you, my mom is a kind and wonderful lady.

 Person 1: I’m so sick of alcohol.

Person 2: I don’t know, I’m getting stronger every day. I love it.

Person 1: Do you do the vegan wrap here?

Person 2: We can do the chicken wrap with no cheese?

Person 1: I’ll take the Beyond Burger please. 

Person 1: Oh my God! I feel like I know you somehow…

Person 2: Yeah, we went to high school together. 

Person 1: Oh! *walks off*

Guy 1: Is the black market even real? Has anyone ever been on it?

Guy 2: I tried once but I couldn’t figure out how to get on.

Guy 1: I stayed up until 2 am watching Disney plus

Guy 2: I told my girlfriend I fell asleep but I was actually watching the Mandalorian.

Girl 1: How long have you guys been dating?

Girl 2: Since the summer, well actually for like two years but it’s a long story.

Girl 1: Who are you looking for?

Girl 2: This guy, wait I found him. Fanny pack boy. He flipped off my professor after a test and ran out of the classroom.

Girl 1: How did you choose KU? 

Girl 2: Honestly, I flipped a coin. 

Boy 1: Did I tell you? I think I had a threesome this weekend.

Boy 2: Woah, hold up. You think?

Boy 1: I was born a Phi Delt.

Boy 2: Please don’t ever say that again.

Girl 1: How do you get your boobs to look like that?

Girl 2: I don’t ever wear a bra? I don’t know. 

Girl 1: I just really want a guy to bend me over you know?

Girl 2: How do you know? You’re a virgin!

Guy: Sometimes I wish I could just be a dog and sleep all day. 

Girl: You wake up at like three every day. 

Guy: I know.

Girl: So…

Guy: So does that make me a dog or something?

Girl 1: I wish I was a little bit taller.

Girl 2: I wish I was balder.

Girl 1: I wish I had a...wait, wait, wait balder?

Guy 1: Let’s slap dicks

Guy 2: You ever pee and it feels like throwing up?

Woman 1: *holding baby* He would have been safer at the Hawk

Woman 2: Oh absolutely.

Girl 1: I would never date that guy.

Girl 2: Well, it depends how much money he has.

Girl 1: I’m going to the doctor to see if I have bronchitis before I hook up with him again.

Girl 2: Yeah that’s smart so you don’t give it to anyone else. 

Girl 1: No I mean I want to make sure I infect him.

Guy 1: I'm cutting some of my unnecessary costs, starting with Juuling.

Guy 2: Ight man, good luck.

Guy 1: Actually I might just start chewing

Guy 1: How was work?

Guy 2: My manager was chastising me for not dressing up in a Halloween costume, she doesn’t understand I’m strictly here to get paid.

Guy 1: I am so tired of this week, man

Guy 2: Dude it’s Monday

Guy 1: I know

Person#1: I want to be on the first ship to mars

Person#2: Not me, I doubt they have Wi-Fi

Perons#1: Yeah but at least they’re evolving up there. We’re all just devolving.

Girl 1: Um, I don’t eat pig.

Girl 2: You eat bacon all the time, bitch.

Guy 1: You better get going. 

Guy 2: Yeah, see ya. I’m off to get some Adderall.

Girl 1: Are you home right now?

Girl 2: Yeah, why?

Girl 1: I bought a cat

Girl 1: I just don't understand what fishing is for.

Girl 2: I don't know. Food, maybe?

Guy: I’m just gonna have to like carry an entire box of spiders up the hill tomorrow.

Girl: What?

Guy: Yeah, just like a hundred spiders in a box.

Guy 1: Sometimes ya just gotta give yourself a haircut.

Guy 2: Dude, you shaved half your head. That’s not a haircut, that’s a mess.

Girl 1: Can you eat fruit raw?

Girl 2: How else are you supposed to eat it?

Girl: That class is killing us. ​But they say rest is for the dead.

Guy: Well, at least we'll be rested.

Girl: She's not in class this semester

Guy: Maybe she's dead

Girl: Or studying abroad