Yeah, yeah, I know; the question of who am I has been asked a trillion times. But, I really don’t know myself anymore. I had this conversation recently with someone who told me he has become a different person many times. What I said was that I have always been able to think of myself as the same person I was from my earliest memories. There was an unbroken chain stretching all the way back. I remember sitting in my grandmother’s house as a child, looking at her copy of the painting The Gleaners. I remember her cuckoo clock chiming. I remember when my brother Pat was born, and I was only 6 years old. I remember many events, of course, as most people do, but I also remember who I was, how I felt, and what I thought. I can remember the curiosity I felt when my mom came home with this new brother. I remember that my brother John and I didn’t want him tagging along with us when he was old enough to walk. He got into our stuff and broke things, after all! 🙂 I remember how stupid my parents sounded when they were fighting. I remember loving them both and going to them when they were fighting, so they’d stop. It embarrassed them when my brother and I would walk right into the middle of them while they were fighting. Sometimes we laughed; sometimes so did they. So many things, people, and events bounce around in my head. My father going to Eisenhower’s inauguration alone – without us! Watching the TV on John Kennedy’s election night, hoping, praying, that he would be elected. I was 10 years old, but my teachers at school were excited about him, and told us how great it would be to have a Catholic in the White House. I was so happy when he won. I remember what I was like in grade school after being out for 6 weeks after my appendix ruptured at the age of eight. I was behind, and worried about it, but my mother drilled me in my lessons every night, and the nun seemed more sympathetic than I thought she would be. I was ecstatic when I caught up to the class. But, outside, I was told I shouldn’t run or do anything strenuous. At that age, the schoolyard was for playing, running, roughhousing. At first I had to stay inside the classroom while everyone else when out for recess. Out of boredom, I raided the round tin of chocolate bars that my teacher kept to sell to us (for a nickel). When they finally let me go outside again, I felt like an alien. I was alone and apart. I didn’t know how to play the new games, and no one would talk to me or hang out with me. They had all known I was in the hospital; they’d been told to pray for me, made to send me a card. I wandered around the schoolyard looking for candy that had been dropped. Loved sweets. My grandmother always had candy in a covered cut-glass bowl. My godfather, the cousin of my mom’s that we called Uncle Fred, always brought candy bars with him when he visited, which was every week.
I remember the time a classmate died, in second or third grade. They said he drowned. I was shocked, appalled that anyone my age could die, but I was also fascinated. They said he drowned, chocked actually, drinking a glass of water or kool-aid, something like that, watching TV. The details are a little sketchy, because for years afterwards I looked for every instance of how one could die in small amounts of water, or even drinking water. I never forgot that death, although I had not known the kid at all. It was humbling to learn early on that death could happen at any time. Shortly after that, I was in the hospital taking penicillin every four hours for the peritonitis that results from a ruptured appendix. I remember hiding in the bathroom when the nurses were coming with my shots. They’d given me pills at first, but I threw them up. They switched me to drinking the penicillin after that. It was a foul-smelling, foul-tasting tall glass of thick liquid that I hated almost more than shots. I remember that there were older patients around. One of them told me to hold my nose while I drank. It didn’t help. I remember how relatives brought me gifts. Someone gave me a rubber band board. With a pile of multi-colored rubber bands, I could stretch them on the white pegs covering the all-white plastic board, and create designs. I enjoyed it. Someone tried to make me give it to them, which upset me, because I knew how angry my parents could get if I broke a toy. I would be in trouble if the board got broken or the rubber bands lost, but a nurse accused me of being selfish. I had no way to make her understand why it was important not to lend things, so I did it anyway. I was easily shamed, cajoled, or influenced by almost any adult figure, and did what I was told. I never forgot that it is important to share, even if it was potential trouble. I began thinking about sharing as a way to have friends. I always shared with my brother John. Later on, I always wanted to give my sisters and parents presents. I enjoyed giving.
I remember moving then at the age of ten, the new school, but the same apartness. New kids never fit in right away, but I didn’t know that. I remember Kathleen in 5th grade; I tired to date her, but her parents said no. Sometimes I rode my bike to her house and watched her skip rope. She must have told me where she lived. I even had her phone number. Not the first time I’d gotten involved with a girl. In second grade I had proposed, but got into a name-calling fight after her mother said no. Got punished by a nun when she found those notes. Of course, in fifth grade, I was older, but not any wiser. I wrote a love-drenched letter to Kathleen, passed it to her, but I had enemies in class, especially another girl I’d once passed a note to also. She sometimes had a friend of hers trip me as I walked up the aisle to my seat. She was the one, that Janet Blickenstaff, who persuaded Kathleen to give the note to the teacher. The fucking nun read it to the whole class, cementing my reputation as a fool. The nun even called my father to come get me, and he took me home for a spanking with the leather strap. I have no idea why. He didn’t say much. He had read the note. I can’t remember much of what I wrote, just the shame of it, and my father’s anger. Maybe I put in that dream I’d had about snuggling naked in bed with her? I don’t recall the specifics. I remember that dream, but I had no idea of anything about sex then. The embarrassment and beating sure got me sworn off of writing notes anymore. Never spoke to Kathleen after that. The next year they put me in an all-boys class. I went to an all-boys high school after that. It never even occurred to me that there wouldn’t be girls in high school, but I was more interested in school work then. Except, except, well, there was my cousin Teresa that I dated, and fell in love with. I remember how that felt. And how it felt when she made out with another guy at a party I took her to. And how it felt when I heard she’d run away to Texas with an older guy. After that I stayed largely to myself, and in myself. I thought about all of these things, obsessed about them, replayed every word and action, especially what I should have said or done.
Always, I was the same person. I learned more, figured out how to talk with other people, even how to kiss, make out and have sex. I got a job right out of high school. It took me awhile, but I managed to get along with new people who weren’t family. I read a lot, went to movies, plays, music festivals. Had more unrequited loves, but real lovers came into my life too. I never considered that I was a different person at any time. Same guy, same issues, same problems. Traveled a lot, met a lot of people. Had a lot of sex. Lived with a lover for a short time. Got married twice. Always I was the same person, the same guy who wanted to please other people, to be liked. I went from a proponent of using nuclear weapons to a ban the bomb, stop war, fight racism, end hatred, fight for justice kind of guy. Marched. Chanted in demonstrations. Visited courtrooms, picketed outside jails, picketed the White House, got arrested, learned about unions, and strikes, and boycotts. Felt I was part of a world-wide movement to change the world. Worked in a physics lab, for a carnival, in a bronze foundry, for an electronics plant, and ended up in medical research. Finally got a University degree. Always, I was the same person. From my earliest memories through every thing I did, wherever I traveled, however I was with. I wasn’t always happy with who I was, but I constantly strove to improve myself – nothing less than perfection would have really satisfied me.
Now, suddenly, I don’t care about anything, or anyone. I’ve been seriously depressed now for at least a year. Lost interest in life itself. I have dreams now, not about having sex, or being in love, or changing the world, but of killing someone. I wouldn’t mind dying. Most of this fit into who I was initially, but one day I realized I was totally different from who I’d always thought I was. Selfish, uncaring, boring – real indifferent to the world. That was never me. This me is not the me that grew up, traveled, worked, fucked, married, helped raise kids, negotiated union contracts, worked for an end to war. This me doesn’t care about any of those things, and I don’t recognize myself anymore. My memories are there, but only as echoes of who I was, what I used to feel, what I used to think. I appear to be a different person altogether, and for the first time ever, that’s OK. I just wish I knew who the fuck I am. I appear to be a selfish, careless, rude asshole, who could do anything, would do anything at all.
Now that’s different.