the anatomy of a memory of my father
By definition, memory refers to both the impression of something that has been retained and also to our capacity for retaining it. A memory is not so much the remembrance of something once experienced, merely the recall of the last time that we remembered it. With each remembrance we are prone to degrading the original resemblance in our mind to the event lived. Memory will continue to diminish each of them, despite our best efforts to preserve them for posterity.
There is a fog that eclipses so many of my lived moments. Like a video tape that has suffered too much wear, they have become distorted, fuzzy and unreliable in playback. I don’t quite trust all that I recall. They are splinters of things, barely with enough flesh and weight to remain permanent. And yet I could turn to the memory of others, to a brother of identical years, months, days and hours in age. Or to an older brother, more than one thousand days my senior. I know their recollections include much more than mine, and that they could backfill so much. But the gaps and the graininess are all part of a sense of self that it’s taken me many years to adjust to and feel comfortable with. The loss of each moment from our past – and there is something new from this bank of old that disappears each day – is a fact to which I have long been resigned. I don’t care to have things ‘restored’ by producing new prints from the negatives held by another. These moments will one day be lost. The slow erosion of memory and memories is inevitable.
So I am left with these few fragments: I wonder if they might become a stop in the developing process. Words borne from pictures to create new pictures.
So, to the reissue of a memory of my father:
I was eleven years old and my father was in the last year of his life, when I followed him to the cold, white bathroom and helped him to wash, in what was the first time I had ever seen him take a bath. He was ill, frail: old. I don’t know if my help was requested or volunteered, but I understood the value of what I was doing. He could not have coped in that room, that bathtub, on his own. I don’t have a beginning-to-end narrative of events, instead, merely the recapture of two distinct images, still sharp in my mind.
The first of those images shows my father huddled into an awkward position, water so scant in the tub around him, seated, with alabaster arms and legs outstretched; skin that had not been exposed to light in a long time. He was unable to straighten his back, and his head would remain dipped throughout most of what we were about to do. The effort for him to lift his head and turn to peer back at me over his shoulder – as he did, just before we began – must have been considerable. That stare I receive now, conveying both sadness and gratitude: it was a look that seemed to permit his son to begin and which also apologised for his wretched naked form in front of me. Such a great loss of time between then and now; it distresses me to think that I might have embellished this particular idea of what passed between us with that glance (and this is the danger of trying to claw onto things which must be released). Perhaps something far more prosaic or meaningless transpired with this look from my father, but I cling to it because it is the look I recall that most forcefully came close to telling his son that he was loved.
And there is a second image: my hand rubbing a flannel against his back; watching the dirt, the dead skin and the sweat clump together into beads and scrapes of detritus. I remember them sticking there when I rinsed his back, resistant to the water like globs of fat congealed to a pan. I applied more soap, then more water, and then more soap, until the now-filthy flannel glided down his spine. The water now running down the white skin of his back with ease. He was able to wash his front without my help. I cleaned the flannel and then ran it over his neck and behind his ears. And that was all that was needed. I remember the fat bobbing on the water, finding its way to the edges of the bath, where it hemmed grey against the white enamel. The water was cold. The room was cold. Dad was shivering.
That’s all there is.
Nothing else to develop. That’s all these negatives show. A quarter-century between collecting and then pinning these two memories down, like butterflies to a board. Now, only a few other butterflies left to capture.