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Remembering

It’s a funny thing, memory. Well, my memory is. I remember that I was at places, knew people, did things. Except I remember them like they were something that someone told me. Not like I was the person who was there. Most of those memories are gone now, anyway. A year or two years or three, and there’s just vague fragments, like a half-remembered story or a distant dream – yet somehow, I still remember pretty much everything I ever learned.

There’s stuff there though that I do remember. Little glittering shards of memory, paradoxically clear for no good reason. Much of it mundane, and a lot of it sad. Some of that involves my father.

My father was poor – my family’s always been poor – but we got by. My father worked hard, and I helped out where I could. He was always a reader, though. He made reading seem like the most natural thing in the world, and for me it was.

I was slow to learn to talk. I was mostly a silent child until not long after I turned two. No attempted words or sounds. Then suddenly I managed a short, imperfect sentence, and was communicating in short sentences very quickly after that. A few months later, I discovered my father’s sheet music. He’d played the bagpipes in his youth, and had some records and the music to go with them.

I immediately grasped the relationship between the records and the written music, and I’d sit for hours, leafing through sheets of music and listen to it play in my head.

Written English wasn’t any harder. The spoken word and the written word were just… connected. When I was three, I picked up one of my father’s books – Andre Norton’s The Zero Stone – and haltingly began to read through it, pestering my dad with questions about words and generally pronouncing them badly – learning from context when he was at work (I still have some degenerate pronunciations). In the evening, we’d read over dinner (a practice my mother hated) and in a month, I’d finished the book.

For my second book, Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. For my fourth birthday, my father bought me Frank Herbert’s Dune. Shortly after that, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings for Christmas (I didn’t read The Hobbit until quite some years later). My father kept me well-supplied with books, but I wasn’t in school yet, and had more time to read than he did. When I was five, and not yet started school, he took me to the local public library and got me a card. He spoke with the librarian and she spoke with me, and then she smilingly issued me with an adult’s library card, signed and stamped by her on the back, so that I could borrow any book without question.

Looking back, I don’t know how he managed that, but the entire library was open to me. Every second day, we had to go back so that I could return the books and borrow more. The sleep disorder phase of my autism had kicked in, and I barely slept. I read books, mostly.

Some months later, I started first grade at school. Golly, now there was some excitement. Everyone’s learning A, B, C and I’m sitting there thinking about marine biology and mesons, or reading Hamlet. You know how kids hate it when they first start school? I did too – but not for the same reasons.

Dad was very proud of me, and pointed out that I had access to the school library as well. That easily doubled my reading workload (though I’d finished them all by the end of the second grade).

He comforted me when they started keeping me most days in the ‘special school’ attached to the main one. It was called the remedial school, and it was for kids who just couldn’t manage all sorts of intricacies, like reading, or talking, who couldn’t hear or speak – and apparently me.

Why? Well, I guess it was probably because I never did any work. None at all. I never paid any attention either, really. Not for the first few years. There was nothing new to be had.

I passed all my exams though, always well and didn’t get held back a year like some. I didn’t like the remedial school very much, though. My dad could see there was something wrong, and I avoided it for a while. Finally I told him that I spent most of my time sitting with kids whose highest academic achievements involved  fingerpainting and trying to make pictures with glue and cloth scraps. Kids who had trouble figuring out which way up their lunchboxes were supposed to be.

My father was very angry, and very quiet. The following day, he went to the school principal and was angry and quiet at him too. Quite pointedly. That was the last day I spent in the remedial classes – well, almost.

Most of the rest of school didn’t go so well anyway. One day, after school, I simply walked away and kept walking. My father found me – quite some miles away rather later. I don’t remember what he said, but he made it alright again for a while.

Stumped for what to do with me, I spent much of my sixth and seventh years teaching in the more advanced remedial classes. I suppose it kept me from being a bother to the other students. I don’t know how it happened, exactly, but the teacher who arranged it had a long discussion with my father beforehand. It seems the sort of thing he would have had a hand in.

High School was worse. I’d just been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and I was expected to live only a few more years. On the social ladder, I was on the rung just above the albino blind girl. I was beaten regularly by other students. Enough for it to seem like it was every day. After two and a half years of trying to pretend that school wasn’t happening to me, I passed all my exams with the highest scores in the school’s history, got my results, and walked away before the second semester, never to return.

By that stage, I was already working part time, and I was pretty sure I could make that a full-time job.

I got home, and I spoke to my father about it, and he nodded and he told me, “Don’t let anyone make your decisions for you. Not the important ones. Not me. Not your mother. You’ve got a brain, and you’re smart, and you can do anything you set out to do if only you stick at it.”

And I did. I chose to work, and I worked hard. I expected the next few years to be my last (and they very nearly were), and I wanted to be productive before I died. As it is, I survived that phase of the illness – though it is still with me.

My father gave me music, language, and a serious case of the stubborns. He supported me when I needed it, and spanked me when I needed that too (and by golly, I certainly did sometimes).

He helped me to learn to think, to learn to respect people, to listen and to be my own damn person. Even when he didn’t approve of my choices.

“Life is a test,” he told me, “Everything is a lesson. You stop learning when you die. Maybe not even then.”

On Sunday morning, my father died after 17 months of pancreatic cancer. Maybe he’s stopped learning. Maybe he hasn’t.

But I remember him. I remember his lessons, and the environment he provided for me. The example he set for me. A reader, a writer, a poet, a philosopher, a teacher, a parent and for many years, my only unfailing friend. There was more. So much more to him, that it could fill a book – more than one. There’s not enough that can be said to do the man justice – although, perhaps that’s true of any person.

I may never be his equal – but I know that if I never stop trying, that might just be good enough.




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