The Gift of a Memory
Until I was in grade two we lived in an old salt box house on the side of Haggett’s Hill (pronounced Hackett locally) on Cull’s Island, or Leading Tickles North – the island portion of Leading Tickles. The house hadn’t always stood there, but had been floated across the harbour from some resettled community and dragged up the hill. It was perched looking back across the tickle from whence it had been removed like a melancholy child longing to go back home. It was a two-story house with no indoor plumbing and a half-finished extension on the side where I would play dinkies with my friends.
I loved that house. I loved it mostly because the upstairs was all mine. I was an only child and that meant that the two rooms upstairs were my domain. My parents’ bedroom, along with the bathroom, kitchen, and living room, was downstairs. One of the slanted-ceilinged rooms upstairs was my bedroom. The other was my moderately toy-filled playroom. My bedroom faced the road that meandered its way through my little town, as well as the tickle of water, a sliver of the burnt over Alcock’s Island and the remains of East Tickle where my father had grown up. My playroom faced towards the sloping Haggett’s Hill. It is in this house that I have my earliest memory of my father, Alphonsus Cooke, lovingly known as Fonce to all who knew him personally.
Now as I said, the upstairs was all mine. Adding to this solitude was the fact that from early childhood my mother’s mobility had been severely limited by rheumatoid arthritis. The stairs made it just too hard for her to climb up there to tidy the room or interfere with the imaginary world in which I played in my room. I remember taking a little bucket of soapy water, wash cloth, broom and dustpan up the stairs to clean what my mother couldn’t get to. Dad hardly ever came up there because he was either working at the fish plant or off doing dad things. I was glad enough for him to saunter up the stairs when I would call out to him to come after I had a bad dream or been freaked out by the old house noises that seemed to persist. Yes, I loved the house, but it could be creepy at night.
I spent a lot of time up there playing all by myself and I liked it that way. Yes, I had friends that I played with, especially Jerome Haggett, who lived at the top of the hill, and Eddie Alcock, who lived at the bottom of the hill. But any time there was a falling out, which ultimately climaxed in the throwing of rocks, I would retreat to the solitude of my own personal second story saltbox fortress. This desire to occasionally be alone has stayed with me right up into the present. Even though I have become more of an extrovert in my adult years, I still have stints when I just want to be alone away from people and the world they inhabit.
But I digress…I’m getting a little off topic. It is in these upstairs rooms that I have my earliest memory of my dad, perhaps my earliest memory period. This memory came to me, or came back to me, about six months before my father died. It was such a clear and vivid memory that at first I thought it was a dream, but I am positive that it was real. I asked both my parents about it one day after I started remembering it. My mother couldn’t remember anything about it. My father, on the other hand, could remember it, but wasn’t sure on the details.
It was a sunny day, probably before noon. I think it was summer because the windows were open. My grandmother, Aunt Lucy as she was known in the community, was at the house. For some reason Dad was home that day even though summer usually meant long days at the fish plant. I was upstairs. The adults were downstairs – Mom and Nan in the living room, Dad probably under the house where he often knit lobster trap heads and skinned rabbits he had snared. I was in my bedroom when I heard something in the other room across the landing at the top of the stairs. I got up and walked slowly to the other room. As I said earlier, strange noises were nothing new in this old house, but that was typically in the night. This was broad daylight. Nervously I shuffled across the floor, fearful anticipation churning in my little stomach. As I peeked around the corner I immediately saw what was making the noise. A little Junco had flown in through the open window and became entangled in the long flowing doily-looking curtains that hung in the window. The little bird was struggling to get free and clearly distressed. At first I stood frozen with fear, but then slowly my fear gave way to pity for the little bird. The fear didn’t completely dissipate because I was still too afraid to help the bird get free. I did what any child would do in such a situation and ran downstairs to get the adults.
Upon descending the stairs I breathlessly declared to Mom and Nan that there was a bird trapped in the upstairs room. Grandmother stopped and said “A bird! In the house! Someone’s going to die!” Not exactly comforting words to a little child who had never heard of the folk belief that a bird flying into a home was a sign that someone, probably from that home, would soon die. I started to cry.
Nan called to Dad under the house through the furnace grate in in the floor, a grate on which I had split my lip open when I capsized my walker as an infant. “Fonce!! There’s a bird in the house.” The next thing I remember I was standing at the upstairs window with my dad. It’s here that everything vividly slows down.
I remember the sunlight shining through the window, illuminating the tiny dust particles that floated around the room like some far flung galaxy. I remember the panicked chirp, chirp of the little bird who had no idea what was going on, who just wanted to be free from this entanglement, this horror. I remember how my father’s tongue jutted from the corner of his mouth as he concentrated his efforts to release the bird. I remember his hands gently reaching for the bird as it sought to escape from its potential liberator. I remember the sense of relief as Dad cradled the bird in his hands and softly thrust him through the open window. I remember it all so clearly.
I just can’t tell you why I remembered it. Why after all these years had this memory come back to me in such a visceral way? I talked about it with my wife, but could make no sense of it. It didn’t seem to register with my parents. My spiritual director and I talked about it and what it could be saying about me or my relationship with God. Nothing seemed to make sense. For months I struggled with this memory until it started to drift away again.
It all come flooding back to me in the days after my father’s death by suicide. Being back home, driving by that house while trying to make sense of this terrible loss, the memory came back. This time it made sense. Somehow I had been given the gift of this memory. It was as if it was preparing me for what was to come. The memory wasn’t to show me something about me, but about my father.
As a child my relationship with my father was complicated and our family dysfunctional…not in a debilitating way but just in a way that most families are. It’s only in my adult years that I felt close to my father. It was only as I grew into my role as a father that I began to decipher him as not just my dad, but as a human being. It was only as I clumsily perceived what it means for me to be a man, that I see his twisting and winding journey to that same manhood. Only in hindsight can I see the anxiety and depression that haunted him his entire life. It is only now in the light of my own middle-aged, greying insight that I can see the cause and effect of his life that lead to his death. I see now that in my memory that just might be a dream, my father was the bird…trapped, entangled, scared, desperately in need of release. I pray now that he has found that release and that he flies freely, unencumbered.
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