I watch him, tattered stonewash jeans, white threadbare tanktop. His mop of white hair the same since the day I was born. He is so tan, my mom calls him a Native American. I believed her for a season. One step, two step, slowly, purposefully, meditatively across the yard, under the walnut tree, branches sagging with the gifts the squirrels had not yet pilfered. He’s pushing a wheelbarrow. I stand up, from a squat, leaving the arrangement of sticks to organize themselves. Dust off my pants, the cement powder swirling up in my wake and I head straight for him, my Pop. It was summer, that I am sure of. The angle of the sun, the shadows stretching so far they fold back into themselves, that feeling of nostalgia in the pit of my stomach, below my rib cage, the smell of bar soap snapping the world into focus, tightening my throat.
He was laying brick. And I was his assistant.
The cool, substantial feel of the bricks. Their sharp yet crumbly edges. Their earthen red. The smell of mortar, a bitter and salty and elemental taste. The coarse texture of crust on the wooden paddle we use to mix it.
It was like a jigsaw puzzle. Something that was so tangible, a start and a finish. Each piece coming together to make a cohesive whole. Scrape, spread, lift, squash. One by one, they stack, mortar dripping onto the ground next to the dried out worms. The wall we built that week was partly to protect the garden. Sometimes I think it was just to keep busy together. It was an entire thing. A whole memory.
We didn’t talk much. But there was a lot of whistling – he taught me how – and singing songs he heard working in the steel mills, big bands from the 40s, from the War, from the corners of his mind when life was easier, a whole world of possibilities stretching out in front of him. No thorns, only roses. I always wished I could crawl into his mind, curl up with his memories.
I have been thinking of this lately, how often I laid brick when I was little. It came to me when I realize that this memory of me as a 5-year-old is much more vivid, more alive, then things that happened yesterday, last year, 5 years ago. You see, I am having trouble laying down new memories.
What is it?
They say the fog of cancer treatment can last years. They say being in menopause at a young age can put me at risk for early-onset Alzheimer’s. They say that the ongoing trauma, the loss, the pain can interfere with the synapses, the well-worn grooves of the amygdala and the millions of neurons that connect up in some universal yet incredibly individual grey matter to create the picture in my mind’s eye. They say that constant adrenaline keeps a person focused on the here and now, survival, safety, shelter, sustenance. A myopia takes over.
What am I losing, when I feel like the memories I want to create, brick by brick, are gone, may be never were there? If I’m not my mind, what am I? Who am I?