There is a story in my family about how, when I was three or so, I tried to glue the cat to the dryer. Everyone could tell you about it, because, in my family at least, that is part of our history. The story of How Ralph Tried to Glue The Cat to the Dryer is a classic. But I don't remember that happening, not in any real way. I have no idea whether it was Elmer's glue or rubber cement, I don't know if the cat was Siamese or tabby, I don't know if I was even slightly successful in my attempt or if we just ended up with a pissed-off sticky cat. I do not remember anything at all. I suspect, however, if I were to take a polygraph, and I was unprepared for the question, I would be able to say with certainly that yes, I did attempt to glue the cat to the dryer, sir, yes, that happened. And this is the thing: it doesn't matter really if I did or didn't. It is just a thing that everyone in my family knows to be true whether it happened as anyone remembers it or not.
We are made of stories, our decisions are based on these stories, our goddamn lives are framed around these stories. Our memories are stories, barely better than lies, that we tell ourselves.
I write sometimes about child abuse and domestic violence, about addiction and self harm. I write about abusive husbands and cheaters and selfish, distant addicts. Our stories are what we know, what we are afraid of.
While there is a element of experience that I have with all of these things in my memory, I write them because I can control things. In my writing, I can make the right decisions. In my stories, my characters can walk away with some scars, but also some resolution, maybe some insight.
I received neither of those gifts from my own experiences, just madness and confusion.
Recently, my father and I got to talking about regret. He told me he (like all parents ever, I suspect) wished that he could have done things differently, that he had a lifetime of things that he wished he could change. I asked him if he didn't like who I was. I asked him if he would change me, change the man I have become. He loves me, he said, of course not. I told him, sorry, you can't have it both ways; either you like who I became with the decisions that you made, or you can wish that I was different.
I'm glad for all the things that happened, the terrible and wondrous, the terrifying adults, the hugs, the cold, the fighting, the fear, the warmth, and the cake and the smiles and the singing, and the joy.
Should I be recording these things? I do not know. I do not know if any of this is true. All I have is me, and my fallible memory to tell myself stories that help explain why I am so scared all the time.
I just wrote a letter in which I remembered my brother making me oatmeal before we went to school. He had to catch a bus, I did not. I was in first or second grade, maybe six or seven years old. I remember him making me two packets, which was all we had, and keeping none for himself. I remember thinking that he would go hungry, until lunch at least; we got free lunch at school. I sometimes hang on to this as an example of what we do for family, we give and give and keep nothing for ourselves. I do not know if this really happened or if it is something I made up.
These are some of the stories I tell myself:
I had a difficult childhood. We were poor, and people weren't always available for guidance.
I had a girlfriend once. I loved her, and she broke my heart into a million tiny pieces. Maybe I did the same to her.
I should have left with my brother when he came to tell me he was driving to California. I didn't go with him
because I was, and still am, a coward.
I still am, in many ways, self destructive. I do not think I deserve all that I have been blessed with, my wife and family, this beautiful useless talent, this warmth, and sometimes wonder if I am just going to destroy everything because I don't think myself worth all this love.
I am scared that I am a monster hidden behind an affable mask.
I am terrified that I will ruin everything.
I don't know if any of this means anything. I don't know if any of this is worthwhile, but it is all I have.
Stories are all any of us have. We drape our lives around this frame of memories, we hurt each other, we love each other and all the tears and joy that we have pour forth from the stories we tell each other, the stories we tell ourselves.
Truth has very little to do with who we have become.