Here we are at the end of another academic year, only this year we’re facing an uptick in COVID cases at a time when too many people, pandemic-weary, have forsaken protocol, and we’re grieving in the aftermath of another school shooting, this time in Uvalde, Texas, not to mention the ongoing war in Ukraine. It’s enough to flatten any optimism we may have managed to maintain.
A friend once told me I could find the dark cloud in any silver lining. Guilty as charged. My inclination toward pessimism may come in large part from the story of my family, a story of loss, a story of before and after. If you’re a regular reader of mine, you know my father lost both of his hands in a farming accident when I was barely a year old, an accident to which he contributed by not shutting down the tractor’s power take-off which would have stopped the snapping rollers of his corn picker from turning before he tried to clear the clog in his shucking box. His choice dictated the future of our family, particularly the relationship I had with him once he was damaged and angry. I’ve written about this numerous times, enough times that you’d think I could write it out of me. But here’s what I’ve learned about memoir. The moments we wish we could change—the ones that haunt us and keep us up at night—are necessary. We write from our obsessions. Their shadows fall over the rest of our days. Like the sailor in Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, we can’t stop telling our stories.
I tell my own to remember it because I never want to forget the fire and the hammer that forged me. I tell it to shape the flames and the blows into something coherent. I go back to my family’s story time and time again with the hope that I can change it, but of course, I never can. The facts are the facts. I can, however, adjust my angle of vision. I can recall, for instance, my father’s kindness to strangers, his generosity, his love of a good joke. Here on a Sunday afternoon on the eve of Memorial Day, I can recall the sound of a St. Louis Cardinals game on the radio, Harry Caray and Jack Buck at the microphone, and my father’s gentle breathing as he napped on his one day of rest. I can remember how sometimes when I was sad about something, he’d call me honey and pet my head with the curve of his hook. Here at an age near the one he reached a few months before he died, I can see how hard he fought, in the aftermath of his accident, to find joy in his life.
None of us escape loss. The older I get, the more painfully clear that becomes to me. I feel the clock ticking, and because I do, I try to pay more attention to small blessings—the scent of peonies from our garden, the bright red and white of the radishes Cathy and I grew, the feel of our orange tabby’s fur when I pet her, the faith in the love and care of a good woman. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I can still find the dark lining in any silver cloud, but I try my best to keep my eye on everything that redeems our imperfect lives. I give myself to the current of time, doing everything I can to keep myself from looking at the horizon, that place where the land seems to drop away to leave us with only the blue expanse of sky.