Note: This is not a subject I discuss often (read: at all), and when you read it, you’ll quickly see why. However, I hope that you, my dear reader, will read it in the spirit in which it was written – that is, to provide a brief and I hope enlightening glimpse into my normally very private world. Also note that what I’m about to share was (and still is) very traumatic. Please read with care.
“What’s your earliest memory?” An innocent enough query one would think. One of those curious head-scratchers, designed to start conversations about childhood memories, often revealing more about ourselves than we even realize at the time.
I’ve been asked this question on several occasions, and each time I dip deep into the mental WayBack Machine to find a suitable response. My usual answer is actually my first memory of reading: A poem called “The Walrus and the Carpenter” by Lewis Carroll. It’s found in his 1871 book Through the Looking-Glass, where it’s recited to the character of Alice by Tweedledum and Tweedledee.* It’s a powerful memory from my early childhood, one that would eventually lead me to my current career.
It’s also a lie.
Well… not exactly a lie. It IS an early memory of mine, but it’s not my earliest. The reason for my prevarication is simple enough: my earliest memory is a nightmare.
It’s early September, 1977. My sixth birthday is just a couple of weeks away, and my parents and I were travelling from St. John’s, Newfoundland to my grandmother’s home in the town of Shoal Harbour, roughly two hours away along the highway.
As we drove toward Shoal Harbour, another gentleman was traveling in the opposite direction, heading to St. John’s for work as I understand. Unfortunately, this man suffered a heart attack while driving and died instantly. His vehicle swerved across the road and struck our car.
All of this I learned after the fact, because I was asleep in the back seat. My memory begins in the aftermath of the accident…
I woke up in the arms of a paramedic, being carried from the wreck of our car toward an ambulance. I can remember screaming that I was cold, and the bright, vivid blue of the car, or what was left of it, on the side of the road. There was a strong smell of smoke, and something else I couldn’t identify.
Amidst the chaos, I could feel no pain, and as it turned out my only injuries were a small cut above my eye and the loss of my two front teeth. I was hurried along to the ambulance and placed on my side, facing the opposite wall. Lying there was a man whose head was turned toward me, and whose eyes were wide open. His face and shirt were covered in… “red” and his unblinking stare was terrifying. It was my father.
An instant later, I was rolled over to face the wall. Presumably someone realized what I was looking at and acted as best they could to shield my eyes from such a sight.
Now I do not, for an instant, claim to have had any profound moment of wisdom, certainly not at that young age. However, I do genuinely believe that in that moment, I knew I was alone. I would not have been able to put it into words – hell, I can’t even now – but I FELT it. A door had closed. A chapter had ended.
As I was later to learn, my father had gone through the windshield (seatbelt laws were not enacted in Newfoundland until 1982) and was in shock when I saw him. He died the following day from his injuries. My mother struck her head on the dashboard and severed her optic nerve with a piece of bone, rendering her totally blind.
There was no one to help back then. My mother was going to the school for the blind, relearning the skills she’d need to function in society – something she did remarkably well for many years – and my grandparents (my father’s parents) were loving but unsure how to help a boy who had just had his dad stolen from him. This angry, but oddly quiet, little boy.
I discovered the world of books and reading, and it gave me an escape. Not fiction books you understand, though that had a place. My love was for the words themselves. I took my gift for reading (something I had developed at an extremely early age), and focused into books. I would disappear each day to some quiet place, read as much as I could and then come home for supper, quiet but seemingly contented. I know people worried about me, but I was handling it.
On that day in 1977, I experienced a powerful lesson: I am alone. I can be in loving relationships, have profound and deep friendships and even fall in love, but there will always be that part of me that’s all alone. Even the love of my life, a woman I would gladly trade my remaining years for five minutes with her, understood. I know it broke her heart, but she also knew everything you’ve just read, and more besides. As she said, I was her, “lonely satellite,” always there, but always at a distance. And yet, she loved me anyway. If anyone ever needed proof of miracles…
I know that well meaning people often become frustrated with me when i don’t share my struggles, or ask for help, or even talk about what’s happening. It’s not some misplaced sense of “machoness,” it’s simply that I just always default to my own solitary nature.
That habit of mine did change once, for one very special person, but when she was taken from us, it simply reinforced what I already knew to be true. There’s no anger or cynicism in that, just resignation.
My dear and long suffering reader, I don’t share all of this to elicit sympathy, and I’m certainly not trying to impress anyone. I simply wanted to share with you a tiny insight into my life, in the hopes that you will be inspired to give others more patience as they work through their own lives, and maybe even give yourself some as well.
As a good friend once said, in the end, we’re all just doing the best we can.