How to Remember

Devon Trevarrow Flaherty Tries to See Past the Past

This piece was first published in The Urban Hiker, a now defunct Durham periodical, circa 2002.

I am older now, but I cannot tell the story any better than before. I have had all those years to learn it, but the only memories I have of it are the ones I wrote down after it happened, when I was seven years old. Everything I remember is words on a page. Perhaps even the details I have filled in around those words are false. To know that, you’d have to ask someone else who was there. Ask someone who didn’t write down a thing.

Sometimes I created him from photos and family stories, too. The stories and the photos are his life to me and his-life-where-it-touched-mine.

There is a photo of Jason and me, in about 1983. We are in thin, footed pajamas with cartoon characters on the tummies. His pajamas are mint-colored. The cartoon characters are a lion and a tiger, in shades of brownish-red. His PJs are the kind that snap together at the waist and are pulled tight over his round belly. I am lying on the living room floor of a small house where we lived in Detroit as a young family. He, too, is lying on the floor with his head on my stomach. We both look at the camera and he smiles and shoves his bottle over his shoulder toward my face. There is milk clinging to the rubber nipple, which I can still smell from childhood: rubber and milk.

So, one of my fondest memories of Jason is the time he lay his head on my belly and tried to feed me his bottle. Perhaps he only did it once. Perhaps many times. I remember it because I have the photo.

By all accounts, Jason was a good kid and smart. He was the peacemaker–as a middle child–between Lindsay and me. The stories say he like Garfield, the color blue, and loaning out money at interest (a nickel here, a quarter there). He kept a junk drawer, which only Mom could enter, but which I remember seeing into, and not through any photo. What I can place inside it: a Garfield bike-wheel reflector, handful of Muscle Men, his “bag of bones” filled with who-knows-what. Beyond that: only colors in my memory (oranges and blues and greens and blacks and purples) and feelings in my fingers (cardboard cards and soft plastic and marbles). His junk drawer was the top right drawer of his little, yellow dresser, by the window of his blue Superman room.

Jason played soccer. He and I enjoyed long afternoons of riding our Big Wheels around the neighborhood. Mine was Cabbage Patch, his was a black racer. Once, I convinced him to play the part of Otis Lee in a Cabbage Patch musical that I put on, casting our neighborhood friends. He was the only boy in the production, so he was stuck with the big role. He spent the majority of his debut running around the cement pole in our basement. (He was coming to save me from Lavender McDade.) This is an image I retain. Perhaps on my own? It is a family story.

Another family story: the time my mother tires of Jason and me playing indoors. In order to make sure we got some fresh air, she sent us to the front yard and locked the screen door. We showed up on the porch minutes later, our hands on our hips, singing, “We’re not gonna’ take it! No! We ain’t gonna’ take it! We’re not gonna’ take it anymore!”

We were obedient children. One day, Mom left us to the care of my Great Aunt ‘Nette. Dad had landscaped and had kept an enormous pile of rocks on the sidewalk at the side of the house. He also put down fertilizer and told us to Stay off the grass! so our shoes weren’t eaten away by chemicals. Somehow, Jason and I ended up on the other side of the pile of rocks. Being too young to venture into the street, we puzzled over how to get back home. Jason and I walked our short legs all the way around the block (our parents having neglected to detail for us that we were not allowed to do this) and ended up safely at the front of the house. The marvel was how we knew the sidewalk would accomplish this for us.

As for the story I wrote when I was seven, it detailed the blue money safe where Jason kept both real and fake money. What the book doesn’t say is that we three siblings thought the safe was so cool because you could really turn the combination knob and it wouldn’t open, not until you knew the real code. What I also remember (all on my own?) is the bright bright color of royal blue, the grain of the plastic under my fingers, and the red knob with white numbers and lines painted on it, circled with silver. Of course, the safe does make an appearance in a later video, when an older Lindsay cracks the code, opens the door, and yells, “Money!”

I have been told Jason could make an extraordinary weed-whack noise, which he followed Dad around the backyard making when Dad did the weed-whacking. Apparently it was quite good. I have no recollection of this sound or of any other sound he made.

Even when I was eight years old, and remembering things, I admitted that I had not once heard Jason’s voice in my head after his death. I also admitted that I could no longer see his entire face on my own. Back then, I would see pieces of his face at a time. Now, the only face of Jason I can see in my mind’s eye is that which is preserved in photo after photo around my parents’ houses and around mine. It is a preserved face, with a plastered smile. He always wears blue overall shorts with trains and trucks on them, and a yellow T-shirt.

What really disturbs me as I write this story is that I have absolutely no original memories of Jason left. True, and heartbreaking. I have lived twice as long without him as with him. I pace the floor, my hands on my head, scrunching my forehead into lines. There is nothing there. I can not remember ever touching him, or hearing him say anything, or having him react to me. I can not even recall one moment that we shared together, which the camera, or pen, or another person did not record for us. I want my own memory.

I’m wiser now, but my mind eludes me like the fraying of fabric in a hard wind.

Jason died in July 1987. It was a horrible, freak accident. He died after a routine tonsillectomy. He was at home and in bed for the night when he started to lose blood through his mouth. I discovered the blood on the floor and in the bathroom, after I woke to screaming. He was already gone when I got to the kitchen. Uncle Lloyd was there. Mom and Dad had decided to rush Jason to the hospital in the Ford Escort. An ambulance would take too long to arrive. According to my mom (now an emergency nurse), Jason died in her arms, on the way to the hospital. But we spent another two days in a hospital waiting room, while Jason remained in a coma, on “life”-sustaining machines.

It is amazing to me that I can cry while I write this. It is impossible that I cry because of my memories. They are sterilized with so much wear. I have the same few memories, and they have turned around and around in my head and over my tongue for sixteen years. There is nothing bitter there anymore. But somewhere in me, there is something that stings like nettle in my heart, even still.

I’m harder now, but there is still a fuzz inside my chest.

I do remember being in Jason’s hospital room right before they turned off the machines. It is the first that I had been with his body, since they whisked him away two nights before. He was a mess of pale skin and black-crusted tongue. He was all tubes and machines and metal and white fabric. He was brain-dead. I recorded this memory in the book I wrote when I was seven. So perhaps I am just borrowing it, as well.

I also recorded a memory in which I touched his face during the viewing. I spent most of the calling hours up in the funeral parlor’s kitchen drinking hot chocolate with mini-marshmallows with Lindsay and our cousins. I still think I can feel the cold-hardness of his face on my right pointer finger. It was that much of a shock to me. I had felt his face many times before in my brief life. I didn’t know that was what a dead person felt like. And why? I wondered.

I’m smarter now, but I can not answer my own questions.

I was hoping to end with an original memory. Something sweet and youthful that I came up with while thinking so hard during the writing of this story. But, I am saddened (even grieved) to admit, I have none. I could not find the littlest thing. So, here is the little that I can remember of my dear Jason. He died when he was five. I was seven. Lindsay was four. And we were happy children together.

Unless we tell our stories, no one will remember. Not even us.