All the Things We Don’t Remember

Linda tensed and steadied herself in the doorframe as the barrage of voices shouted, “Happy Birthday!” Then she raised a shaking hand to her mouth as her eyes brimmed with tears, blurring the faces of the children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews and friends who had burst into song. The tears came even faster as her greatest fear swept over her: that nagging worry that by this time next year the old familiar tune they were all singing might not be so familiar, and those same faces would be blurred even more than they were at this moment.

Gentle hands on either side pulled her into the crowd and guided her toward a big poster board in the center of the room. It was covered with copies of photos from her life, pasted artistically, yet somewhat unevenly, in a style that surely indicated the handiwork of her granddaughters.

She gaped at the images, struck by the photos that marked the minutes and hours and days after her own birth, that supposedly great moment that they were now commemorating–and all the details of that moment that she couldn’t remember and would never remember. There were so many little details that were lost from her own early moments on this earth, all the things she would never remember, simply because our own memories fail us from the very beginning. Our tiny brains cannot even comprehend this bright, cold world that we have been thrust into, and so we scream and sleep–and forget. We worry so much about our memories failing us at the end of our lives that we forget how much they fail us at the beginning, like perfectly matched broken bookends surrounding a life of, at best, uneven performance.

Linda would never remember that her father drove her mother through the darkened streets on the morning of her birth, his memory awakening to scenes of his long-ago college days when he drove back to campus from the bars on the edge of town in the hour before sunrise, semi-drunk (or more). He smelled the mix of cheap beer and piss in the gutters—which was impossible to tell, but the warm, humid night air of late summer just before a rainstorm magnified them both.

Linda didn’t remember how strange he felt at those remembrances of his stupid and reckless youth, and how much those memories contrasted with his current, fatherly views of how hostile darkened streets could look. Linda would also never know how surprised he was to realize it had been years since he was out and about in dark hours, how surprised he was as he realized that he had transitioned from young man to old man without even realizing it.

Linda would never remember that her mother wept as they walked into the emergency room at five o’clock on the morning of her birth to check in. Her mother cried not because of labor pains, but because the “code blue” called over the loudspeakers reminded her of the risks that lay before her, that one life was on the verge of ending just as her daughter’s impending emergence would, for the rest of her life, mark the moment of the beginning of her life on the outside.

Linda would never remember the bright hallways of the labor and delivery wing that smelled of blood and excrement and freshly mopped floors, all quiet in those early hours with solitary suffering or weary joy behind each door. She couldn’t remember her mother’s screams or her father’s pacing. She couldn’t remember her mother later that night in a cold, sterile hospital room, lying in the bed, wracked by pain, after all the family and friends and well-wishers had come and gone in a seemingly endless parade of congratulatory laughter and back-slapping and back-handed compliments.

Linda didn’t remember her mother’s despair that her baby wouldn’t latch on properly and her father’s worry that this meant the dreaded diagnosis of failure to thrive, or if that was even what they called it anymore. She also didn’t remember her father’s chain-smoking impatience that a process that was supposedly selected for by survival rates over time wouldn’t be more instinctive. How could a baby that needed its mother’s milk to survive not automatically understand how to do that? Or was this nature’s way of telling him that, underneath all the bluster, he actually was an inferior specimen whose genes would not move forward to sully the pool? She didn’t remember that her mother just sat and felt like a helpless failure who couldn’t even deliver on her most basic of motherly duties.

The one thing Linda did remember from that day, the day of her birth, was not even a real memory: it was the memory of a memory, pasted to the poster board in front of her. She touched the grainy photocopy of a faded Polaroid of her mother and father with her in the hospital, letting her fingers dance along its edges. Her mother, sitting up in the bed in a pink blouse, cradling her in her arms. Her mother’s hair—a perfect beehive—contrasted with the dark circles under her eyes.

But it was her father, standing on the left, one hand resting on the headboard, that her eyes lingered on. It was the image that she stared at, even after the singing was long over, trying to memorize all the details in the vain but intense hope that she would never forget it. Or, at the very least, that it would be the last of her memories to go. Because of his smile: the smile that was always so elusive in her life, the smile that she longed for, that so rarely appeared. There it was, thrown out there for all the world to see and to be caught on film, beaming with what she hoped was pride. But, of all the things she didn’t remember, she remembered it there in that photo, and she remembered that it was there because of her.

David Nolen

David Nolen

David Nolen

David Nolen is a writer who grew up in Alabama but currently lives in Mississippi. His fiction has appeared in CC&D and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.

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