Sunday, December 2, 2007

what some people remember, others don't


(The following is a transcription of a phone conversation I had in early 2002 with my dad.)

“Hey Lyse, did you hear there was another Amtrak crash? That’s twice in two weeks.”
[sidenote: strangely enough, there was just an Amtrak crash right outside of Chicago yesterday.]
“That’s terrific Dad,” I say this sarcastically as I’m supposed to be taking a 20-hour train ride from Penn Station to Union Station—school to home—next week.
It’s Thursday night and I’m completing the role of a good daughter making my weekly call to Hoffman Estates, Illinois to inform my parents and younger sister of what’s been going on in my second semester at New York University.
“Well, Lyse, you know I wouldn’t be worried about it if I were you. This was just a fluke. Trains only crash every twenty years or so.”
“Yeah except we almost got killed by one last year.”
He sounds astonished—“Huh? What are you talking about?”
“Don’t you remember after the Elton John and Billy Joel concert when we came within inches of being smashed by an oncoming train?” I ask in disbelief that he could possibly have forgotten this near-death experience.
“Oh no that never really happened—I imagined the train.”
“Um…what? No you didn’t”
“Yeah I did.”
“No you didn’t.”
“Yeah I did.”
“Are you kidding me with this? Dad, how could I have just made that up?”
“Well what do you remember happening?”
I relayed my memory to him, careful to include as many details that I could see vividly as I watched the event replay in my head. It was a school night a few days before my senior prom. The concert was great, but I was exhausted, so when we got to the van afterwards I immediately laid across the back row of seats. My last conscious thought was that Mom always told me not to lay like that in case we got in an accident because “it’s a dangerous position to be in” and “the seat belt is working improperly.” But at the time I also made a conscious decision for the first time to ignore her warnings since sleeping was my ultimate priority. The next things I remember are really bright lights and a loud horn-like noise. I’m always disoriented when I first arrive back at an awake state of mind. Maybe it was the bright lights or what I thought was possibly a siren, but when my eyelashes first opened I thought an ambulance was driving perpendicular to the road. But then the train plowed past us, just as the van had crossed the tracks--tracks that we didn’t even know were there.
"It was like a scene out of Ghost, Dad! I swear it looked like that train literally passed through the back end of the van!"
I wanted to scream but I felt paralyzed and, not to sound dramatic, prepared to die. But there was no impact—no compressed vehicle, no flying body parts, nothing.
"You pulled over to the side of the road for a few minutes because you had a temporary emotional breakdown, choking on your words, saying 'I ALMOST JUST KILLED MY WHOLE FAMILY OH MY GOD!' And I think you kept saying how sorry you were, sorry that you almost killed us (even though it wasn’t your fault) because there were no barricades and no railroad crossing signs."
And then we all rode in silence the rest of the way home.
“Hmm.” He tries to take it all in. “Are you sure about this?”
“Yes.”
“Well I remember seeing the train after we crossed in front of it but I felt ok once I looked in the rearview mirror and realized that train was stopped there.”
“It was not stopped! If it was stopped, why’d they have the light on and why would someone lay on the horn? And most of all—why would you have freaked out about ‘almost killing your whole family?’”
“I don’t remember saying that.”
“Well you did. Why don’t you ask the other two because at least one of us is wrong.”
“As a matter of fact the little one just walked in the door.”
“Where was she?”
“Ballet! Where else would she be on a Thursday night from 8:30-9:30?”

For a few minutes I listen to the conversation between my dad and sister. I picture her in her dance attire, her hair messily rubber-banded to the top of her head, gracing my dad with the look of utter bewilderment and defensiveness she always uses whenever he greets her with a question before she even gets a chance to kick off her shoes, before she can even drop her armload onto the foyer doormat, before she’s instructed, ‘Hey! Shut the door! What’d you grow up in a barn?’ My dad stands shirtless with thirty-year-old gym shorts on, sweating, drinking a tall glass of previously refrigerated water. He has just finished his bi-weekly, twenty-four minute hardcore Lifecycle exercise. He holds the kitchen phone between his left ear and his shoulder so he has one hand free to gesture with. The phone cord is almost pulled straight, stretched to its maximum distance. The plastic coating silently rips somewhere and a few wires show their colors.

“Oh Sher,..” He draws out the “er” (pronounced “air”) so it almost sounds like two syllables.
“Oh Da-ad…” Sheri mimics him, a habit she adopted from watching her older sister all those years she lived at home.
In the most casual voice he asks her, “I was wondering…Do you happen to remember anything out of the ordinary that occurred that night of the John/Joel concert last year?”
“You mean when we like almost got hit by a train?”
“See?” I say into the mouthpiece.
“So you remember that too, huh?” he asks her.
“How could I forget that?” she responds. “I remember seeing a bright light and thinking it was God because there could be no possible way I wasn’t dead.”
I start laughing.
“Don’t you remember pulling off the road cause you were too scared to keep driving?” she continues.
“If you say so. That’s what Lysie said too.”
“That’s cause that’s what happened,” she says to his confused face from her place standing on the rug and I say into the phone at the same time. We have a knack for doing that.
“Yo!” Synchronized sentences always cause this exclamation from him. “Well I guess I’ll have to ask Mommy now—here talk to your sister.” I see him stick his fully extended arm out to her in one sudden, strong motion. He sees the open door. The air-conditioning isn’t running yet since it’s almost a month till Memorial Day, but for other unknown reasons this is wrong. “Hey! Shut the door! What’d you grow up in a barn?” Then he’s in the background.
“Oh Bon…” He draws out the “on.”
“Hello?” Sheri says to me in a somewhat ‘this talking long distance thing is an inconvenience’ tone of voice.
“How was dance?” I ask cheerfully just to piss her off cause we both know the answer—it’s the same answer we both give to everything.
She sighs. “Good.”

My dad locates my mom not too far away, probably in the family room on the couch crocheting a baby blanket for a co-worker’s daughter’s new arrival while the ten o’clock news anchor on NBC 5 nightly news looks at the camera straight on, looks straight into our family room and questions if maybe the upcoming month of May will bring an end to the “war on terrorism.”

I don’t say anything else to my sister, as I want to hear our parents go over the sequence a third time.
In the same nonchalant voice, but with an almost unnoticeable twinge of desperation, he asks my mom, “Do you happen to remember anything out of the ordinary that occurred the night of the Elton/Billy concert last year?”
“You mean when we almost got hit by a train?” She recalls the same sequence he’s just heard twice.
“Huh.” My dad surrenders. “Well if all three of you say it happened it must have happened…huh…unbelievable…”
Sheri and I chat for a few minutes (after laughing when our mom said almost the same sentences we said to him), reminiscing about that infamous night, verifying that we didn’t imagine the whole thing.
“I can’t believe he doesn’t remember that,” I say.
“I know,” she says. “It was like the scariest night of my life!”
“He probably has selective memory,” I add. “He doesn’t want to remember ‘almost killing his family’ so his brain has chosen to block the memory of what happened and create a new, safer one.”

I know at least I, at this present moment, am reliving the word, “Danger.” It sends a shiver through my body that I can’t quite compute as a specific feeling—energy, paranoia, adrenaline, horror—some kind of psychotic mix. Living dangerously is quite exhilarating when you can live to tell about it. After all, we escaped death; we took a rain check on God’s light; we weren’t brave, just lucky, just squeezing through the danger zone with power-locked doors and eight eyes staring.

Suddenly there is piano music.

My sister moves closer to the culprit—my dad—sitting on the bench, his back straight as a railroad track beside the window in the living room, facing the player piano. But I can tell by the sound that he is producing the music with his own fingers, not with a machine-propelled scroll. I have instant flashbacks of my grandparents’ old house when they owned the same piano and my eyes were the same height as the keys and I’d watch my grandma dance around to the same song, before gleefully joining in the fun by shrieking and spinning around in my own corner of the room.

“I don’t know what the heck possessed him to play that song all the sudden,” Sheri says to me.
I had forgotten she was there for a few moments.
“Yeah…well it’s 'The Entertainer,' one of the only six or so songs he’s had memorized since age eight.” I pause. “He’s probably just trying to prove to himself that he can still remember something.”

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