I keep my life in little boxes inside my head. This box contains my multiplication tables, which I learned in elementary school, standing beside my desk and clapping out a rhythm. Five times six is thirty. Five times seven is thirty-five. Five times eight is forty. Five times nine is forty-five. That box contains advertising jingles. Another box contains old locker combinations and computer passwords. It’s a little dusty, and sometimes hard to find. A small opalescent box contains barely conceived fragments of dreams, which I’m not quite ready to give voice to.
Sometimes, a trigger I wasn’t expecting causes me to trip over a box, and long-forgotten feelings and memories come spilling out. Like yesterday, when I heard Garth Brooks singing The Dance.
In 2001 my only cousin died. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that he was murdered. He had just turned 21, and his life had taken several wrong turns, until he found himself in a place he couldn’t get out of. He was shot, and after spending a few days in the ICU he passed away.
At his funeral my uncle stood and shared some memories of his only child’s early years. Lying on the grass, looking at clouds, asking questions. Playing together. Full of life and full of promise. And then my uncle played The Dance, which is of course the perfect choice in so many ways.
I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end
The way it all would go
Are better left to chance
I could have missed the pain
But I’d have had to miss the dance
When the song came on, I was standing in my kitchen washing dishes. As the box that contained all my memories of that June day 12 years ago opened up, I started to cry. I thought about my cousin, four years younger than me, and what he’d been like as a child. I recalled sleepovers at my grandmother’s house when we were kids, and I pulled him and my sister along in a wagon. I thought of how happy he was then. And then I thought about my own children. Can I save them from the same fate? Can I keep my own happy little boy from taking too many wrong turns?
Life is funny, though, and people are resilient. I’m resilient, too. I know how to bend and not break. So I shed my tears, and remembered the people who I loved and who aren’t here anymore. The people who helped me become who I am. The people who got lost, and the people who just couldn’t bend anymore. The people who lived good, full lives, and then moved on. And then I wiped my eyes on the sleeve of my hoodie, and rinsed the pot I was scrubbing, while the memories disappeared back inside their box, and the box receded back into its place in a small corner of my mind.
So many boxes, so many pieces of me. Big pieces and small pieces. Happy pieces and sad pieces. Old pieces and new pieces. All of them just waiting for a cue to open, and remind me of what this particular piece means to me. How it contributes to making me the person I am, full of life and full of memories.