Slip inside the eye of your mind
Don’t you know you might find
A better place to play.
You said that you’ve never been
But all the things that you’ve seen
Will slowly fade away
(Oasis – Don’t look back in anger)
In our lives we grow among an understory of tall trees. Slowly, though age, disease, or disaster the canopy of our elders thins. As towering presences fall one by one, we either grow toward the light above or languish in the shade, unable to find our own place among the heights above.
When I was a boy I had a dream. My brother and I are trapped in the basement of my grandfather’s house. I see my brother up against the wall, light streaming in from the window above, my grandfather throwing darts at him. I yell for him to stop. On the floor above I hear a loud rumble. I climb the stairs and open the door. In the hallway a herd of elephants strides past. I remember being outside, crying franticly, surrounded by family members asking what had happened. My mother yells out she knew they shouldn’t have left us alone with him. I remember thinking of those elephants and of the adage that elephants never forget…
A few years before my grandfather’s death I found myself alone with him in his kitchen. He had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and was going through a process of what I think was a coming to terms with his past. The disease works to undue memory in layers similar to peeling an onion. First, and most painfully the outer skin of the persona is removed and the boundary between the outer and the inner life falls away. At this point it begins to get difficult to talk normally of everyday affairs, of what’s new. The emergence of memories submerged deep within comes forth, and events of the past take on a new found meaning and themselves become objects of reflection and conversation. As the relentless erasure continues memories of the past are resurrected, like ghosts amidst the light of day. Wistfully and with a sense of confession he told me of his childhood…
After the death of his mother in childbirth his widowered father could no longer care for his five children and they became wards of the state. The majority of the children were sent to a farm in western Massachusetts run by a french couple. He told of the horrors he and his siblings were subject to: labor from before dawn to after dusk, what can hardly be called food barely fit for animals, and sexual abuse perpetrated in unspeakable ways. My grandfather, the sometimes draconian tyrant, the sometimes witty and charming comedian, the sometimes extraordinarily sweet and caring man; my grandfather, with pieces of his inner life falling away into emptiness and tears rolling down his face told me he was sorry. He said he regretted so much of his past and the things he had done.
I sit here this autumn, overlooking the sun setting on a blazing array of red, orange, and yellow trees and I think of him and how the now empty spot in my life’s canopy of elders has thinned again, and how his presence in my life has shaped me. I think of my son and I see the opportunity to provide him with the room to grow which was so harshly and viciously denied my grandfather. The lack of his presence now highlights to each of us who grew up under both the protective shade of his person and the dark shadow of his personality, how each of our lives is rooted in our own pasts, yet how it is in our power to forgive and to strive toward those better angles of our nature.