I was what — two years old. It was a nightmare. I was running. Somehow I was near a giant hole. And I fell. It was a death dream. My earliest memory. But was it actually a death dream and did I actually know what death was at that age. And do I now.
In those days there were answering machines. Video games were primitive and people could still smoke on airplanes.
My first close friend was a kid named Arthur Sperling. There was a tree line behind his house, a stand, about ten feet deep, of maple trees, birch trees, and oaks. To us, back then, it was a forest. We would play “guns” in there. We would play “Star Wars” in there. Most of the games we played involved imaginary weaponry and extraterrestrial death threats.
And in our first grade classroom there were actual air raid drills and Mrs. Moeller, the teacher, walked on crutches, a victim of polio in her youth. The instructions were to get under your desk and cover your head with your hands because this was what you would do in the event of a nuclear war.
Or the time that I choked on an ice cube while watching 3-2-1 Contact. And how my mother was in another room—the bathroom, possibly, or was it the bedroom—and how I moved through the house, almost running, in a silent panic, looking for her, until finally, in the dining room, hands-on-knees, the ice cube dislodged from my throat and I coughed it up whole onto the carpet.
And how for months, maybe even years afterwards, I refused to have ice cubes in my drinks, afraid that they might kill me.
And then one Sunday I fainted in church, falling backwards into the pew, and to this day it’s the only time I’ve ever fainted.
And how my mother worried aloud about a brain tumor.
And how I wondered afterwards if dying was the equivalent of fainting forever.
You just faint.
And the birthmark on Mikhail Gorbachev’s forehead.
And the Communists.
Or the boy in town who drowned in the river, who was out with his family for a summer picnic and got caught in a current and slipped away beneath the surface, gone before anyone could save him, a great and terrible tragedy that when you think of it makes you feel sick.
It seems awful that I can’t remember his name.
At some point not too long ago, I can recall telling someone, half-drunkenly, that the first “big death” of my life was the assassination of John Lennon. But this, I’m almost certain, isn’t true. For one thing I have no specific memory of the news—none that I can recall, anyway–nor do I remember being a fan of The Beatles prior to adolescence, when my love of the band, and Lennon in particular, found its roots.
It seems both strange and a little pathetic that I would tell someone this, that I would use the senseless killing of John Lennon as a kind of autobiographical shortcut, in an attempt, I suppose, to explain myself and build my own mythology. A kind of necrophilia.
I was four on the day that he died.
December 8, 1980.
Who am I?
And a few weeks later, March of ’81, I was at a mall up near Grand Forks with my mother when the news came over the wires that Ronald Reagan, Lennon’s cultural opposite, had been shot by a madman in Washington.
We were sitting in a restaurant, I remember it vividly, the two of us—or maybe my little brother was there. He would have been an infant then. We were visiting my grandparents. Maybe they were there, too. The restaurant was dimly lit with a television over the bar. And then the room went suddenly quiet and I could feel the big shift in its mood, a look of great sickness falling over my mother’s face. Probably I asked her what had happened; probably she told me that the president had been shot; or maybe she didn’t tell me but I heard it myself on the television; or maybe someone at an adjacent table relayed the news and this was how I learned. What stays with me most is the look on my mother’s face. It’s possible that I don’t remember this as well as I think I do.
And in the summer of—was it also ’81?—I stood in the yard at Arthur Sperling’s house watching as the ambulance came screaming by with its siren going and its lights flashing red, speeding down Braman Avenue and around the bend to N. 17th, where it came to a stop in front of my house.
And we ran.
There was a bike on its side, lying in the road—I want to say the wheel was still spinning, but this can’t be true—and our garage door was open and people were inside. My dad was there. Paramedics were there. My dad had been mowing the lawn when he heard the scream, loud and terrible enough to cut through the whine of the motor.
A young boy—I didn’t know him—had been riding his bike and had reached down to fix the chain while in motion, and one of his fingers had gotten caught between the pedal and the chain ring. The finger was severed completely. The paramedics retrieved it from the road and put it in a plastic bag filled with ice. This is what I remember, but I’m not really sure if it’s true. I don’t think I ever actually saw the severed finger but I’m pretty sure Sperling and I told everyone that we did.
“We saw the kid’s finger. They put it in a plastic bag filled with ice.”
The boy, who was older than us by a few years, was lying on the concrete floor of my garage under a heavy woolen blanket, in shock. The blanket was army green. There was a terrible look of fear and sickness on my dad’s face, not unlike the look that my mom had given me on learning that the president had been shot.
I seem to remember that doctors were able to save the boy’s finger, surgically reattaching it to his hand.
But is this true?
And when Greta died I was in second grade and this was almost certainly the first death that really hit me, full-bore. She was older by a couple of years and went to my elementary school. Spinal meningitis claimed her. The news was heavy and spread through the town. Teachers talked in hushed tones and parents were heartsick and terrified for their own.
A girl had died. Greta. She wasn’t much older than I was. She went to my school but somehow I couldn’t remember ever seeing her there. I’d never interacted with her and now I never would. I’d never met her but I missed her. And her parents. How awful. Her younger brother, Sam, whom I had seen in the hallways before and had spoken with here and there. It all seemed impossible and made me feel very afraid.
I remember looking at Greta’s picture in the yearbook and thinking to myself: She’s dead. In her photo she looked pale and, I decided, a little sickly. A ghost.
And eighteen months later, in the cruelest of twists, Greta’s mother died in childbirth. She was trying to have another child. The baby survived.
I was older now and had gotten to know Sam a little better. He was only what—seven?— and had already endured the loss of his big sister. And now this. I can still see his face. He was small for his age and so massively wounded, walking the halls of our school as if his insides were on fire. And how there always seemed to be tears in his eyes, no matter what was happening.
For two weeks after his mother died he was absent from school, and one afternoon during this period Arthur and I decided to make a card for him, a giant card that everyone could sign. We didn’t know what else to do. We spread a white bed sheet on the floor of my garage and painted a message on it, and the next day we took the bed sheet to school and everyone signed it with permanent markers, dozens of signatures from kids in every grade. And then we gave it to Sam on his first day back. His father was there with him, looking shell-shocked, exhausted, so heartbroken. There was a miniature ceremony before class got started, and when Sam stepped up to receive his card, everyone cheered for him, and he wept.
In big block letters on the bed sheet Arthur and I had painted WE’RE ALL BEHIND YOU SAM, a bit of a clumsy phrase but one, with the benefit of hindsight, that seems to carry an accidental double meaning.
You first, Sam. Then us.