“A man’s work is nothing but the slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened “(Albert Camus).
I’m now well, but for years I wasn’t. I lay in bed day and night in an upstairs room in a silent house alone but for my son’s cat Monty beside me to my left and my dog Jack to my right: my beloved companions. I watched no TV, listened to no radio, read no newspapers, and heard no music.
From that bed I could see out the bedroom windows the crowns of a grove of tall, flourishing trees. I watched on the trees the seasons change, the leaves brilliant, blinding green in spring, crimson and gold in autumn, brittle and curled when they came to rest on my window sill. Some winters there was more snow there on the branches of those trees than other winters.
Unable to write anymore or to read the books I loved or live a physical life. I decided I would not waste time wondering why what had happened to me had happened. I would have to stay alert and live a life of the mind, and I set a project for myself. I would reconstruct my life to date through my memory. From that bed I would flee into solitude and journey backwards in time.
We set the dead aside as though we have no need of them. But I wanted to pluck out of the long ago the people who had populated my world when I was growing up. I had lived among them and knew their gestures. I had heard them speak so many times, and wondered greatly about them. But I didn’t know who they really were, didn’t know what their days and nights had been like. I realized that if I wanted to be with them, though most had died, I would have to discover them in myself where they all still lived.
I was growing older. My children were gone now—my daughters Stephanie and Alice and my sons Evan and Eli. Their laughter no longer brightened the house. I didn’t know what would become of me. But I wanted to see things as they were before forgetfulness mounted and memories faded and were lost or my life ended and the memories I had assembled ended with me.
I longed to walk through the house where I had grown up and to look out on the street and see the wealth of familiar things that were before me every day in my youth, no sights as dear to me as what I saw from the kingdom of my porch. I wanted to hold my father’s hand again and look into his kind eyes. I wanted to revel in everything–the hum of voices, the smells of night air, those early-evening hawks floating above my house and tucking their wings in to their bodies and diving like falling kites, the taste of my mother’s dinner in my mouth, the sight of her trying on a new hat, and of my younger sister Sharon—my pal–who died so young as a little girl coming up the stairs in her favorite beige coat with a fur collar as I remembered her.
I decided I would try to remember accurately and when I was able to write again, if ever, I wouldn’t lie about what I had discovered because in writing or painting—or acting–one should never lie. Russian Anton Chekhov said, “Art has this great specification: it simply does not tolerate falsehood.”
And so hour after hour, again and again in my search for truth I burrowed back into myself and evoked the days and nights of my childhood. I remembered as well as I could what I had experienced myself and what had been told to me. When there in that room I came upon something that didn’t make sense to me, and I couldn’t explain, or didn’t remember clearly, or couldn’t possibly know, I relied on my imagination.
My father’s brother died tragically and violently, and my great uncle was a war hero under enemy fire–a rescuer of wounded men–and too, died tragically. I thought about them so many times—of the stories of them I’d been told–and decided that what I’d been told must be incomplete. So I inferred what their real stories were that I hadn’t been told. I concluded that my uncle, that troubled and most charming man we all loved, must have let himself be murdered.
Loneliness, solitude, and isolation are at the core of a creator’s life as they are of a sick person’s life. I learned to adjust to them because I had no choice. I became an expert on despair and pain during that period—despair that is beyond despair, pain beyond pain.
At first my remembering was over in a few minutes and was very general and unclear. Memories were there in my mind and then slipped away. I might be distracted by a sound: a storm wind blowing wildly through my trees, or a siren. But then I slowed down and focused intently and remembered in finer and finer detail. At first I might remember being six and feeling again that tingle of anticipation—of joy– I always felt in my boy’s strong body–my arms, my legs, my fingers–and climbing flights of thickly carpeted stairs with my family—my father in front of me, my brother John behind–and entering an apartment. Then I would remember a hallway; then in a glass case that was taller than a man my Aunt Sarah’s menagerie of little colored glass animals, a rearing white unicorn, a red deer. Then the smell of turkey. It was a holiday. We were all happy.
Detail is the secret of remembering, I discovered–details and details of details, a multiplicity of details, as it is the secret of all the arts when they are done beautifully, a preciseness of vision. That was an important revelation. “Thus the greatest poets are those with memories so great that they extend beyond their strongest experiences to their minutest observations of people and things” (English poet Stephen Spender).
My life, like yours, has been carried away by passing days. But time doesn’t disappear absolutely, gone forever, but remains inside—every image and impression once experienced is waiting patiently to be retrieved—“those thousands of things which all of us have seen for just a flash…which seem to be of no consequence…which live in our minds and hearts forever” (American novelist Thomas Wolfe).
Over and over, hour after hour, day after day I was moving in closer, backing up and rethinking until I was satisfied and could say, “Yes, yes, that is how it was when I was a boy. I’ve gotten it right.” I did that carefully. I had all the time in the world because I didn’t know if I’d ever be well and wasn’t in a hurry. I didn’t know if I’d have what it takes to transform memories into meaningful images and words, into art. But I was growing more confident now that one day I would.
Night would be falling before I heard footsteps on the stairs and a door opened and I could answer the question I’d waited so eagerly for all day: “Hello, dear, what did you remember today?”
Time passed and I was well again. Then I left that room.
© 2016 David J. Rogers
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