Bouncing on his knee. She was walk-under-the-kitchen-table small then and his proportions seemed so gargantuan it was if she had to scale a mountain for his attention. Once, twice, and on the third time he'd grab her under the arms and hoist her over his head while making airplane noises. Sky was thin there, full of giggles, and each flight brought the novel discovery of the tops of things, an incredible new frontier, possibilities of a world seen from above, not just the craned neck and pants tugging drudgery of the carpet below. Sweetness seemed to infuse the thrill of life then. Instant vintage captured impeccably through the filter of #recollection.
All of it might never have happened, of course. The memories of small children are almost always fabrications of some sort, abridged interpretations that smooth over the rough patches of incomprehensible reality that surrounds them, filling its plot holes instead with simple fantasies that achieve remarkable verisimilitude. Worlds of heroes and monsters. Big people astride the vastness of life as if they could move its very foundations. Infinite choice. The giddy terror of your world inverted. The belief that there will always be hands to ground you again.
It came on a sunny Saturday. Weather never cooperates. It rains on weddings, blows rough at the beach, hums vibrantly with saffron hues at a funeral, is cold on the first day of spring. Death comes smiling on a holiday, revels with innocent gaiety, harvests the kingly grains of last season to leave room for the next year's seedlings. Dresses sharply. Whistles popular tunes. Nods and blows kisses and keeps that promise to call you again sometime later. It's June and the weather is pleasant and it gives you a little reminder of What Comes After.
Somber and staid were the tones of the packaging. Completely incongruous with an all-you-can-drink-mimosa afternoon. It stood on her kitchen table for a good week and a half, drawing gloom around itself so tight that it had wrapped the city in a tree shattering electric forked downpour before she could open it. It was like that. A portent of something, a symbol so full of meaning that it began to twist reality in its own right like some animate thing, willful if not autonomous, domineering. An echo from the world after, though it was really a thing from the before.
AfterWord is elegant in its simplicity. Smooth slate casing, flowing white script, sanserif, casual: initials to initials, a date of recording. It's just a thumb drive. Digital preservation of our analog lives. Flash memory modern and immortal, replicable nearly infinite times across infinite devices, starkly superior to three days of formaldehyde vanity before family roses seal the casket, near permanence, defiant contrast to the messy entropy that grinds memory into dust.
When the storm's recrimination subsided and the power came back it was sunny and clear eyed on a Thursday afternoon. She stuck it in the computer quickly, before thoughts of study or sitcoms or house cleaning could take hold. It did not load in iTunes. After an hour of trying to figure out what a codec was it just turned on and there he was.
By the light of day he looked thin. His room at hospice was small but brightly lit, open, as if he'd already let everything else go. Except for a ficus plant attended to by the staff, the only fixture was a golf magazine. Something he'd picked up on the way, no doubt, but never opened. Like so many things he'd promised before, it was there as a reminder of what he always intended to do but never found the time for.
“Hi, Stephanie,” he began, coughed, and paused while he cleared his throat for several seconds. “It sounds worse than it is,” he assured, “They keep me good and doped up. Food's ok. I--” he broke, choked again, and it was as if he was going to cut the session off right there, as he had done so many times before, but he caught himself, barely, and continued.
“You know kiddo, there are just times when... you have some things to say and... you're not sure you're going to say them. And these things, you know, things, they, uh, get in the way of... other things, and you tell yourself that next time will be different. That you're gonna be different, that things... ah, crap. If I was good at saying this, I would have, you know--”
And she doesn't. Memory is pastiche. At a certain age, it's nothing more than the narrative that one writes for their own benefit. Victories, betrayals, justification. It is not for record. Record is anathema to memory. Record is embarrassing photos, plays that aren't attended, birthdays forgotten. Memory, on the other hand, is the honey like recollection which can preserve a day forever but never does service to a lifetime.
He stood large in her life when she was known only as 'knee-high' and 'tyke.' How many imaginary schoolyard battles had he won for her in proxy? So many that she started to fight his for him, against the unbearable harpy that fed and clothed her, put her through school, threw her out of the house and then cried herself silly at her graduation. How bitter the rejoinders then, how she lorded his absence over her adolescent tenant, Cinderella defaming the Prince in a losing battle for the ugly stepdaughter.
Memory is a battle for definition. Politicians and generals wage war over who will be forgotten in the history texts while common folk fight ever more bitterly for the attention of those who will listen, long after the war has been lost. Like a baleful charioteer he rode again through those fateful fields littered with the dismembered fragments of what once was, trying to explain away his retreat, the abortive sallies forward, the circuitous path of his campaign, without ever acknowledging his fear of the Red Sea.
There were many words but not the ones that mattered, not then and not now. The word 'princess' could never be uttered enough to obscure that, no amount of ice cream sandwiches could assuage its lack. Not when she was sixteen and angry. Not when she was twenty two and rich on dreams and broke in everything else. Not when she was twenty eight and on her own and he found the horizon of his day was shorter than he had hoped. Not after his day had set.
“Remember,” he said, choking on the words again. Not because they were hard to say but because they were hard to have in the face of death when they hadn't been worn in life, a new habit without enough time to begin, a game of golf without handicap, lost before the first tee.
He looked into the camera gaunt faced, his cheeks spread thin over his salt and pepper flecked jaws. His eyes were waxy. Emotive on cue, as if that was greater than the sentiment behind them. The afternoon sun was as strong there and then as it was here and now, the great shadows cast where the tee shirt draped off his bones was bleeding over on to the linoleum. His clothes were giant still, but in her eyes now she saw something smaller beneath.
She turned off the video then, capturing the fragment of him in that amber light. Prostrate before the post mortem audience like a penitent in prayer. In memory she'd always have pieces of him, like this, and that would always be part of her story.