By Rebecca Braun
My four-year-old son came home from childcare and said, “I have a secret. I get to tell you?”
I nodded vigorously.
He leaned close and stage-whispered, “Odin wore red pants today!”
I breathed in to combat the laugh sneaking out. My son’s complete lack of secrets struck me as the purest form of innocence, the embodiment of childhood beauty.
It happened that I had been thinking about secrets. In a moment of courage I had agreed to participate in an amateur storytelling event, after which I learned that the topic of the evening was secrets.
Since my husband’s sudden death 18 months earlier I’d felt exposed and naked. I didn’t intend to spill any secrets I might have left. I simmered with resentment. That is, until the Secret of the Red Pants incident.
Secrets mean something different to all of us. I’ve always considered myself a good secret keeper. I’m extroverted and talky and I try to give genuine answers to genuine questions, but I’m fundamentally private.
As I think about the story I’m supposed to tell, I make a melodramatic vow to myself: I’ll take my secrets to the grave.
And that’s when it hit me. My secrets have already gone to the grave, I think in a moment of inner black humor. Or to ashes, I correct myself.
I’m not really the support group type, but when you’re 39 and your husband dies in a freak accident, you kind of get a hankering to feel like one of the crowd. So I joined a Hospice group for young widows. The first evening, the facilitator, a platinum-blond with a luscious Boston accent, comforted one of my weepy peers: “I know, honey, you’ve lost your future.” [pronounced, yoh fewcha]
Lost my future? I rolled the words around on my tongue. It didn’t ring true. I don’t feel that, I thought. If anything, I gained a future. Where my future was once known, now it’s big and undelineated, needing to be re-imagined. It’s scary, it’s exciting, it’s open. I think about the future more than I used to.
I haven’t lost my future, I’ve lost my past. I’ve never been great at taking pictures. Most of the journals and diaries I’ve written are lost. I left one behind a rock where I was writing in Joshua Tree Desert, one in a hotel night table on the island of Fiji, one at an airport gate. I just can’t hold onto my memories.
One of the beauties of marriage is the creation of shared memories. There are certain stories you can only tell together, even when you tell contradictory versions. The story of my daughter’s birth is one. I don’t remember the moment when the nurse snapped at my husband, who had been trying to encourage me, “It’s like pushing a Mack truck out your butt, you have no idea what you’re talking about.” Or something like that. I don’t remember the moment I pushed Rosie out. That was John’s job.
And I don’t remember what happened on our honeymoon, when we took a spontaneous detour to China and then further into China and found ourselves in a bar in Lijiang where we befriended the owner. There was something magical and genius that occurred there, but it was filed in John’s memory.
And when we did that mini trek through the Tiger Leaping Gorge, did we rescue a goat from a well, or is that a fabrication of my imagination? What route did we take when we canoed the Boundary Waters during my first pregnancy? Did we catch a fish, or was that someone else’s story?
I outsourced my memory and didn’t realize there was no back-up. So much happened only between us, was known only by us–benign, mundane details of our lives. That intimacy is the fabric of love and marriage. But when one’s co-keeper of memory disappears unexpectedly, those details vanish too. So here I am, ace secret-keeper, and I’ve forgotten my own secrets.
It’s like I saved my money in a currency that no longer exists, or wrote my memoir in invisible ink. It happened, but I can’t access it.
A grief counselor once told the story of a four-year-old trying to figure out what to do for her dead father’s birthday. The girl hit on the idea of making a cake and putting M&M’s all over the top, because, she said, he loved M&M’s.
It turns out, according to the mother, her husband didn’t have any special attachment to M&M’s. But the girl loved the cake and now makes him this M&M birthday cake every year. So what if it’s a fabricated memory, argued the grief counselor; it brings the little girl joy.
I toyed with this idea, how we create our own legends, mythologize those we’ve lost. It’s happening already with my dead husband. Do I correct my children’s inaccurate memories? Does truth matter in personal memory?
When the police officer told me, “John died,” I knew with instant clarity that this was the defining moment of my kids’ lives. I think I keeled over, and from my prone position on the floor outside our hotel room, I was third-person omniscient. I saw my daughter Rosie as an adult, saying matter-of-factly, “My dad died when I was eight.” It was a new and stunning and permanent truth.
I tried out my son’s life story. “My dad died when I was two.”
I knew Rosie would have memories, and I knew I needed to help fix them. I knew Alder would need his memories planted and cultivated. I set to talking about John as often as I could, telling little stories whenever they would come into my head, pointing to the line on the wall marking John’s height, reminding Alder:
“Your dad used to juggle apples and eat them as he juggled.”
“Your daddy used to make egg sandwiches like this.”
“Remember when you and Daddy would put coffee beans on the floor and tell Rosie and me it was goat poop?”
About 18 months after John’s death, we walked by a bin of peanuts in the shell while grocery shopping. Alder said, “I want those.” I’ve never bought peanuts in the shell, but I suddenly remembered that very occasionally, John did.
So I said, “Okay,” and bought some, unsure whether Alder really knew what they were. When we got home he started cracking them and he said, “When John was alive I ate these with him.”
I never fed him that memory. We have no pictures of John shelling peanuts. Somewhere within Alder his own secret memory emerged from the darkness. It was such a small thing, Alder remembering John shelling peanuts, and it made me almost ecstatically happy.
Some months later, Alder started talking about Daddy. A journalist by profession and habit, I recorded his words:
I have like ten reasons why I didn’t want Daddy to die.
Daddy was the best thrower.
And he loved to play trains with me.
I just didn’t want him to become dead.
And he did lots of stuff with me, he just played and played and played.
I was at my Grandma’s house when I was a baby; he did the guitar.
And I like that red chair also, that was right there.
And I liked that little table near where the lamp was.
John, Daddy John.
And he loved to play and play and play and play and play and play and play and play.
That’s the end.
My son’s words may sound sad to others, but they brought me relief. His bursts of memory affirmed for me that beams of light will illuminate our past. Memory ebbs and flows. When the only other living witness to a moment is gone, that moment itself isn’t gone. It happened, and we the living are the sum total of all that happened to us, whether or not we remember it.
I never know what will leak from the vault of personal experience within each of my children, or when it will happen. I can only hope these storehouses will give them strength and wisdom when my own words and memories fail.
Rebecca Braun lives and writes in Alaska with her two children, Rosie and Alder.