A Story About A Story

In Laurie Anderson's film Heart of a Dog, she recounts an episode from her childhood she'd told people about a number of times.  While retelling it one day, unsettling details she'd forgotten came rushing back.  In concluding the piece, she says:

...and that's what I think is the creepiest thing about stories.  You try to get to the point you're making, usually about yourself or something you learned, and you get your story and you hold on to it and every time you tell it, you forget it...more.

When I first started writing, it was an exercise in trying to find a way to describe the time when I was 5 years old that my parents gave me away for a year (Strangers With Chips).

Those events cast an occasionally overwhelming shadow over me but I managed to stay ahead of it.  When I did talk and later wrote about it, my shorthand became effective to the point where I edited a fair bit of detail and emotion from the story.  By the time my father passed away in August this year, it was no longer foremost in my thoughts.    

At the reception following the funeral, I managed a few perfunctory chats and sandwiches before trading the hubbub of the church basement for the less populated parking lot.  One and then another of my brothers joined me and we chatted a while before I decided I should go back inside.  

Before I could leave the lot, an aunt appeared.  She had a woman with her who I didn't recognize.  My aunt told me Linda had been looking for me.  I gave Linda the least confused smile I could as I struggled to place her.  She looked small, unwell, and definitely on the verge of something.  

As my brain went to work trying to figure out who this was, she choked out that she hoped I could forgive her for all the pain she'd caused me.  Please forgive me.  I'm sorry.  I'm so so sorry.

Linda.  Linda. Lin-da.  And then it hit me.  This shadow was one of the people my parents had given me to, only now, she was standing in mine.  

What's the etiquette for responding to a request for forgiveness that's 45 years in the making?  From someone who's tracked mud through your brain and left without cleaning up?  As she stood there swaying, fighting back tears, I told her it was fine, everything was fine, it couldn't have been too bad since I was still here.  She continued to whisper "I'm sorry".  

I'm not sure which of us stepped closer first but somehow our exchange led to a hug and for me, an exit strategy.  I gave her what I think was a reassuring smile and continued to nod and smile as I turned and walked away.    

It probably shouldn't have been such a revelation to me that this story wasn't mine alone but the whole encounter surprised me.  I hope she found in it the peace she was looking for.

Now I'm left to wonder - am I going to have to run into her ex-husband at some point and go through a version of this with him?  While that may never happen, if it does, it will likely be just after I've forgotten...more.


X. Dell said...

I remembered the post, but I re-read it nevertheless. In my comments I seemed to think that your entire family was in distress--perhaps you more than the others because you were still young enough to need your family close by, but old enough to realize what you had disconnected from.

From this encounter, it would seem that others--people you've forgotten--have had misgivings about the entire affair. But I wouldn't worry. I don't see the ex-husband as much of a hugger.

I'm sorry to hear that your dad passed away this year. My deepest condolences.

Dale said...

Thanks X. - it's been quite a year but one that's had lots to be thankful for at the same time. I hadn't seen Linda since I was 6 or 7 years old and it surprised me how a figure who once loomed so large could end up so small and frail. My Dad was a well liked fellow and I've been enjoying going through his journals and scrapbooks figuring out a little more about him. I hope you're well and thanks for the comments.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Wow. I don't remember reading the post about your annus horribilis, but then my memory is not what it never used to be.
You handled that encounter with grace and dignity. A butterscotch candy for you, my friend!
My deepest sympathy on the loss of your father, though.

Dale said...

Butterscotch is comforting Barbara, thank you. It was a stunning and unexpected moment. Thanks for your condolences too!