The memories seem all black-and-white eight-millimeter movies now, a grainy montage of scenes from his earlier life. They comfort him in ways the doctors cannot see, as if the struggling mind by some instinct knows there’s fortitude in the familiar and the old.
There are the neighborhood children gathered around the old backyard picnic table, waving and laughing. His mother and two or three other moms serve cake and supervise, wearing dresses that would seem too formal today for a children’s birthday party. His birthday gift is a bicycle. His first wobbly effort at learning to ride quickly turns to mastery as he races off down the street, his father shouting encouragement from nearby.
There’s the first day of first grade, waiting on the corner for the school bus. His mother holds his hand while soothing his fears with words about the exciting day to come. Look! Now he’s climbing the street pole that stands next to the driveway of their southern California home. The intersecting street signs at the top of the pole form a kind of cross capable of supporting a young boy. He perches there in the late afternoon sun like some miniature Buddha waiting for his father’s return from work. When he finally pulls in the driveway, the old man honks the car horn and laughs. Excitedly, the boy scurries down the pole and runs to greet him. Daddy is home!
There are family trips to nearby Disneyland, journeys full of wild, wondrous anticipation as they near the park and the model Matterhorn comes into view. If the hippos that suddenly emerge from the river of the jungle boat ride are not real, the boy’s emotions are as he reacts with startled joy at each new sighting. An autograph from Zorro TV star Guy Williams is not a Hollywood actor’s signature, but the mark of Don Diego de la Vega himself.
With the arrival of the Christmas season, the family drives through a residential neighborhood known for its elaborate holiday decorations. He has only seen snow in photographs, but knows the magic of houses lit by hundreds of lights, the marvel of Santa’s sled and reindeer stretching from one rooftop to the next. A trip to the Los Angeles Coliseum makes him an instant Dodgers fan, with dreams of getting Duke Snider’s autograph. On another trip he expects a child’s version of some unanticipated miracle as they travel to the grand opening of a new outdoor shopping mall. Incredibly, he is not disappointed. While searchlights and balloons welcome the new shoppers, as part of the festivities the boy finds himself sitting on top of an elephant.
His emotions run in vivid hues through these experiences. It is as if every new adventure is the equivalent of seeing a Technicolor movie for the first time. At Halloween he reacts with delight when his own mother appears not to recognize the trick-or-treater in the ghost mask ringing the doorbell. As he whips off his mask to reveal his deception, it doesn’t occur to him that she is only pretending not to know him.
He is eight years old the summer they move from southern California to a suburb of St. Louis. His memories of that time involve endless summer days of softball in a nearby field, makeshift diamonds and raggedy out-of-bound lines, the heat (oh, the heat!) and smell of the dust and grass in the air. One Saturday morning someone else’s father chastises him loudly for some error he makes on the field. His father hears the man’s sarcastic remark from their nearby backyard. In a flash he throws down his gardening tools to march over and heatedly confront the fellow. “Why are you talking to a child like that?” he demands. “What’s the matter with you?” That’s the old man. It is good to have him on your side.
When he is ten years old, he decides there is money to be made selling soda to the workmen and carpenters scattered across the blocks of nearby new home construction. The father beams at the son’s entrepreneurial initiative, buying him a lightweight, durable Styrofoam cooler that attaches by a rope to the back of his bicycle. The boy rides the bike over to the grocery store, stocking up on ice and Canfield’s grape, orange, and cola soda. He pays 10 cents a can and sells them for 25 cents. He keeps a change machine on his belt and rides through the neighborhood, ringing the bell on the handlebars while calling out, “Sodas! Cokes! 25 cents!” He never has any trouble moving the merchandise.
There is the 12th birthday, sitting in the kitchen of their Missouri home, proudly holding up his copy of Sports Illustrated (his parents give him a subscription as a present) and a new baseball glove. He is a Little League third baseman with dreams of someday playing in the big leagues. Within a few short years, his dreams will turn to other things, like cars, girls, and leaving home.
Turning 18, he sees himself walking in the suburban forest preserve with his new girlfriend. Running now along the wooded path, hand in hand, she in her pretty blue and white, flared cotton dress, laughing as they dodge the puddles from yesterday’s spring rains. Abruptly, he stops running and turns to pick her up in his arms. Her arms are around his neck as he carries her over to a nearby bench. They kiss. More laughter. They sit then in silence, enjoying the quiet of the woods. The future is in the air and it is all possibility and romance. He will be leaving home for college in a few months. How promising everything seems.
At the cusp of adulthood, the story takes another turn. His last memory of his father is on the Monday morning following Thanksgiving, coming up the stairs to hand him a cup of coffee. It is 5:30 in the morning and he is returning to the university he attends. He has a train to catch. He is 19 years old. The old man will die in a car accident a few weeks later.
For years he saves an old photo from the 1950s of the two of them together. His father is a young man then, barely in his 20s. In the photo, a toddler takes his tentative first steps. The father crouches low, an encouraging presence full of hope and expectation for the steps they are about to embark upon as father and son. How large his shadow looms next to a small boy on a sunny California day of long ago!
The river of time eventually carries him far from the life he once knew as a child. After his father’s death, he moves to Asheville, North Carolina to finish his college education. He never leaves, finding a local teaching job upon graduation. After two years as a widow, his mother remarries. The new husband is quite well off [construction business]. At their first introduction over dinner at his mother’s home, the man asks what he sees in the “education business” [“Hey, pal, can’t be much money in that!”]. Without giving it much thought, he finds himself calling less. His last visit is more than two-and-a-half years ago.
Years pass. When he moves into a new townhouse, shortly before the accident, the old photo has disappeared. He looks for it but only half-heartedly, searching through a few boxes with other photos and books. He tells himself he doesn’t really care. He is 37 years old now, for Christ’s sake! He is newly engaged! How long does he need to hold onto the past? His fiancée works at Emerson Middle School with him, she as school counselor and he as teacher of social studies. He has already been on the Emerson faculty for close to 15 years, his first and only job after graduating with an elementary education degree. He is the assistant cross country coach. His life is once again alive with promise.
Six months later a car strikes him while he crosses a downtown boulevard in the late evening. It is a Friday in late July and he has just left a sports bar with two friends from his weekend biking group. He has been drinking, but it’s not his fault. He is legally in the crosswalk when an SUV driven by another club-goer roars through the intersection, sending him flying 20 feet into the hard pavement. His bloodied head takes the brunt of the collision, hitting the pavement at an excruciating angle. He suffers broken ribs and a cerebral hemorrhage and looses consciousness on the way to the hospital.
Coma. Day Two. The nurse enters the hospital room, checks his vitals and fusses with the blanket that lies across his stomach. She pulls it up slightly, tucking it in under his sides. The gesture might register with him at some subliminal level, she believes. She always shows a demonstrative tenderness to the coma patients. Before leaving, the nurse pauses for a moment to look at him. He is still a young man. She heard he has a fiancée, although she hasn’t met her on the night shift. The nurse notices the slight flicker of movement beneath the closed eyelids. It can be an uphill battle with these patients, she knows. But for this one there is hope. Always hope.
His hair has fallen over his forehead, and she notices this and casually brushes it back with her hand before turning to leave the room.