What do you do with a memory?

My day got off to a rough start. A young man in one of gymnastics classes broke his arm this morning, in my first class of the day after two weeks out of the gym. It might have been preventable if young kids on warm Saturday mornings were comprised of less intrinsic entropy, but everyone involved confirmed it was just one of those accidents that happen from time to time. Even so, the sound of his little voice and the sight of his little arm that was bent in all the wrong places feels like it is forever seared in my brain. I didn’t see him fall, as I was spotting at another station on the circuit when he went barreling over the vaulting table and tripped over his own feet and caught himself with his hands on the padded concrete corner of the pit (better, I suppose, than his face?) instead of landing feet first among the foam blocks. I didn’t see it live, but I had to watch the video footage with the office manager, twice, in slow motion, when I turned in the incident report. So now I’ll never forget how it looked, either. 10:07 AM, April 13, 2019. One of those memories.

I have so many of those memories. With the exception of maybe the wedding itself, I don’t think — thank God — that any of them are actually recorded on video. I’ve never had to sit down and watch the footage frame-by-frame. But those memories are seared into my brain nonetheless. What does one do with those memories? How is one supposed to extract the joy (was it really joy?) — from the lies and the manipulation and the abuse? What is one supposed to do with the photos — the hundreds and hundreds of photos — of classmates and teammates and cousins and grandparents that are mixed in with the vows and the first kiss and the first dance? And how does one even begin to compartmentalize, to peel apart, to unravel the stories of one’s precious children’s conception and birth and life when woven right into the fabric of their being is the person who has hurt you — and them — more than you can fathom it was possible to be hurt? When he’s just *gone* and you’re still here and they’re still here and you love them more than you love anything in the world but you are Just. So. Angry. that he could do to you and do to them what he’s done. But they *are* him. And they carry his name, and so do you, because it’s the name you’ve had since 12 days after graduating from the Air Force Academy with a funny last name that made for funny memories all their own…So it’s yours, and you’ve embraced it but every time you meet yet another married couple in your progressive hometown where each spouse kept his or her own name from the beginning, you just cry a little more inside. When your own name is a memory that you can’t erase? What do you do with those memories?

Some of them it’s easy to know what to do with. The bags of postcards and memorabilia from your first trip to the country where your ex spent ten years as a missionary kid? That belated “first anniversary” trip where you wound up locked in an old fashioned hotel room by yourself until something like three-o-clock in the morning while he was out drinking with his old buddies…and you didn’t have a phone or the internet or even a phone number to reach him…and even if you did have a phone number or some sort of technology, you didn’t speak the language so you were piecing together the vocabulary words that you’d learned with your Pimsleur CDs — “alone” being the only one you still remember today in both languages — trying to come up with what you would say to the housekeeper in the morning if it turned out he never came back? The trip where “divorce” and “annulment” came up for the first time — the only time, really, until it was all over thirteen years later — because it was so obvious to you, even then, that he was miserable…but divorce “wasn’t an option” and so you carried on as best you could, trying to make sense of the discrepancies between what he told the world and wrote in all of the cards for all of the special occasions and what he did and said day in and day out? That trip? Yeah, those bags of postcards and memorabilia went straight in the trash.

Same with the similarly saved bags from the trip you took together when you were pregnant enough with your son to have the flight attendants give you special pillows on the plane, but not so pregnant that you weren’t allowed to fly. The trip that you’ve heard others refer to as a “babymoon” — and maybe you pictured it being something like that…but it was the trip when he was so busy with the digital camera (the one you “shared”) taking photos of every sign and door and window and who knows what else (“quirky” things to use to make his foreign language classes everyone’s favorite class) that there was never a moment to pause long enough to get a photo of the two of you together. Not one on the whole trip. You remember asking about it from time to time — probably indirectly, you wish maybe that you’d been able to be more direct (but your recent experience has shown you that asking directly for things that you wanted or needed wasn’t safe, and you’ve since learned more about narcissism than you ever wanted to, and gaslighting too, and your brain just…can’t…when it comes to trying to process it all) — but you know for certain that by the time the trip was over, there were three memory cards of images of everyone and everything else, and even a couple of pictures of you by yourself (one particularly memorable one of you and your cute preggo belly in a red maternity top triumphantly climbing narrow cathedral steps — so many steps! — but you don’t have it now because none of those digital images ever got shared) but none of the two of you together. That trip? Those bags? Right in the trash. (Except for the artsy stamps you bought at one of your favorite cathedrals. You saved those. But now what do you do with them? How do you reclaim them as yours?)

There are so many other memories that are so much more challenging. The photo of you and your dad during your daddy-daughter dance that captured so much joy — that was real joy, and you know it? That one is prominently displayed on the shelves in the family room. So is the one of your late grandparents blowing bubbles — they were blowing them at you and your ex as you left the church and walked to the limousine…but you aren’t in the photo. It’s just the two of them, and you can see their joy. That’s on the shelf right next to the photo of your bridesmaids, in a semi-candid shot where they’re literally piled on top of one another and they’re laughing and you love them and it’s a photo of all of them and their joy so you could never get rid of it. Or the photo of you and your mom and your sister that you adore — one of those photos where everybody in the photo thinks they look fabulous — so you have that one, too, on the same shelf, even though you’re in your wedding dress and…well? Why not? It’s a great photo.

But the rest of the albums and engraved picture frames and mushy anniversary cards and personalized Christmas ornaments and So. So. SO. Many. BEAUTIFUL FAMILY PHOTOS? The ones about which you wrote a testimonial to the photographer that, at least for a time, was on her website, about how they are your most cherished possessions, and you meant it then and somehow you still mean it now — except you don’t really mean it because they’re wrapped up and packed away in a couple of mismatched storage tubs sitting on the floor of your office? What do you do with those memories?

You have no idea, except you know that it’s taken almost a year to work through the piles in your office, and you know that there’s no one else who can do it for you, or even with you, because you have to work out what do I do with this memory for Every. Single. Memory. One at a time. And you cry a little — or sometimes a lot. And you just wonder, over and over, how to make sense of your entire adult life, and all you can really figure out how to do is either box it up or throw it away, and that is just too overwhelming, so you stop. And you leave the piles and piles and piles for another day. Or month. Or never. And you wonder again: What do I DO with this memory? And then it’s bedtime for the kiddos, and the fact that you’ve been crying stresses out your kids, and everything spirals downward for awhile but before either one of them falls asleep you tell them “I love you” and you mean it, and they say “I love you, too” and they mean it. And that’s enough.


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