By William Kitcher-
And then I saw myself in the future. I looked ninety or a hundred or eighty, who can tell? Once you’re past a certain age, you’re old, and that never changes.
One son visited me every Father’s Day, and the occasional Christmas or birthday. I haven’t seen my other son for forty years, I think.
My elder daughter lives in the town of my retirement home and visits me regularly. Maybe she feels obligated, I don’t know. It’s not as if we actually talk about things. We touch on my dead wife, family stuff, if I need anything. Occasionally, she asks me about our mutual past. Sometimes it seems like she’s patronizing me. I could be wrong, I don’t know, to quote Supertramp.
I think my younger daughter is the only one I actually like. She lives a long way away, I’m not sure where. She tells me she visits me as often as she can. I believe her.
Every once in a while, some young people visit me and I enjoy that. I’m not sure who they are. Maybe they’re my great-grandchildren or maybe they’re kids from the nearby high school, doing their community service obligations. It doesn’t matter. I don’t care. It’s all good. It’s great to talk to teenagers. Despite the fact their brains aren’t fully developed according to current neurobiological data, they’re fun to talk to. They’re interested, they’re smart, they’re curious, they’re funny, they’re intriguingly enigmatic. Fifteen-year-olds are amazing, but I’ve never understood them, especially when I was fifteen.
I don’t want to ask any of them if they’re my descendants. I don’t want them to think I don’t know who they are. I like to think they’re all my great-grandchildren.
My younger daughter, who I think I mentioned is my only child who I think I like, came to visit. She came with a man I assumed was her partner. I didn’t recognize him. Maybe he was her original husband, maybe he was a new guy. I didn’t want to ask because it didn’t seem important.
They had two children with them, little kids, five or six years old. My daughter (what’s her name?) is fifty or sixty, I don’t know; the little ones must have been my great-grandchildren, unless they were just kids my daughter found in the lobby. Ah, that’s just a joke.
My daughter told me it was Father’s Day (really?), and I was stuck for a response because, as I say, one of my sons usually visits me every Father’s Day. Was the man with her my son? I don’t think it’s important because I don’t think it matters in the long run who people are, and because the little ones were so, what’s the word, enchanting.
The boy had dark brown hair which looked like a mop on the top of his head. The girl had long light brown hair that caught the sun. They were both nice-looking kids. Up to a certain age, which was the age of these kids, all children are cute, possibly because their eyes are huge relative to the size of their heads, and they still have round baby-fat faces. After that age, kids develop their own individual facial characteristics, which make most of them not cute anymore. I was a really good-looking kid up until about the age of seven, and then I turned into this gnome that I still am today. I have photographic proof of this.
The kids bounced around my room, they looked at everything: the photos on my bookshelf of family and friends and places, the reproductions of paintings on the walls, Monet, Rembrandt (especially his “An Old Man in an Armchair”, who kind of looked like me), and the one painting I’d completed – a man, woman, and cat, surrounded by children.
They sometimes asked me questions. The best one, which made me realize the questioner was my great-granddaughter, was, “Great-Grandpa Bill, what did you do in the war?”
That made me laugh. And I said, “How old do you think I am?”
And this beautiful little girl, who reminded me so much of my wife and the daughter in front of me, said, “Three hundred years old.”
What a sweetheart. “You’re very close,” I said. “I’ve never been in a war. My dad was.”
“Your great-great-grandfather,” said my daughter to the little girl. That confirmed something, but I didn’t know what.
“I’ve forgotten your name,” I said. I hoped that wasn’t a bad thing to say.
“Emily,” said the little girl.
“Emily. That’s right,” I said. I hoped I’d redeemed myself.
Emily said, “I love you,” and then sat on my lap.
“I love you too, Emma,” I said.
“Emily,” she said.
“I know,” I said, “that’s my special name for you.”
“Emma. I like that,” she said.
“I’m very happy to see you, Emma, Emily, Emmaline, Em, Emmy, Emerson. I have a story to tell you. Many years ago, I was able to sneer only on the left side of my lip. Do you know what a ‘sneer’ is?”
The little girl nodded.
“Well,” I continued, “after years of things to sneer at, my face became permanently stuck like that. But then I had a stroke on the left side of my face, and my face drooped, so everything is back to normal.”
Emmy looked at me and laughed. “No, that didn’t happen to you. You’re funny.”
“You’re right. You caught me. I made that one up. But I’ll tell you this. There was one time on Father’s Day, I went to a pub for lunch, and the whole family was supposed to be there, and no one showed up. I had a couple of beers, and no one showed up. And then I left.”
“That’s terrible,” said Emerson.
“That didn’t happen to you,” said my daughter (what the hell is your name?). “That happened to Grandpa.”
Grandpa? My father? I did that to my dad? “What do you mean?” I said.
“Dad, you did that. You told me that story a long time ago. But it doesn’t matter. It was a long time ago.”
I know that memories can be distorted; studies have shown that memory is distorted all the time, frequently, disturbingly. They can be manipulated, false memories can be implanted, memories can change over time, seemingly by themselves. They can’t be trusted; you really can’t trust what people remember about anything. My own situation of memory loss or dementia or Alzheimer’s, whatever it is, doesn’t really mean anything when fully comprehending people have the same distortions of memory.
Frankly, I don’t know the difference between dementia and old people who are just stupid.
So if our memories can’t be trusted, then what makes us who we are? I watched a documentary and it said the brain changes throughout a life, even into old age. The brain continues to make new connections due to its plasticity. Little kids’ brains make astonishing numerous connections for a while, and then their brains discard the ones they don’t need. And massive changes happen again when they’re young teenagers. It may not be caused by puberty; the two things may be just concurrent. Their feelings of invincibility are due to their brains not having completely worked out the concept of risk. That goes away by the late teens generally. But the brain can keep changing, learning new skills throughout a life.
So if our brains change, and memories aren’t reliable, what is “me”? My signature? That’s changed. Perhaps our names, but those are arbitrary. It’s not my passport photo; my face is wrinkled, a lot of my hair is gone, my muscles have deteriorated. When I can remember parts of my past, I often wonder what I was thinking at the time, especially the stupid things I did. I wouldn’t do them now. Is this because I’m a different person? Am I even remotely the same person anymore?
Maybe others aren’t the same people anymore either. The more I see people I know, even if I don’t remember their names, the less I think they’re the same people I used to know. Sometimes they’ve changed beyond recognition. Maybe my brain with dementia is actually working perfectly. It’s able to figure out that the person in front of me is not the same person he was thirty years ago, and maybe people without dementia can’t figure this out, their own form of dementia. Maybe my present state of mind is how it’s supposed to be.
I looked at my daughter. I remembered her name, I think. “Laura, did I do that? Did I forget to show up on Father’s Day for my dad?”
“It doesn’t matter, Dad.” I may have had her name right; she hadn’t corrected me. But maybe she was being kind.
“You’re a good daughter,” I said.
“No,” said Emma, “I’m a good daughter.”
“Yes, you are,” I said.
Emily put her little arms around my neck, kissed my cheek, hugged me, and then just hung there. I wondered where my grandchildren were. Or if any of them were still alive.
“Stephanie said she’d come by tomorrow to see you. She’s working today,” said Laura.
I wondered who Stephanie was. Another changed memory?
And then I saw myself again in the present, twenty-seven years old, stoned and drunk, coming out of a semi-reverie. There was my wife, pregnant with our first child, smiling at me, and I thought, what the what, Emily, will I have to go through all that suffering and confusion just to meet you and have you in my life? I want that.
William’s stories, plays, and comedy sketches have been published and/or produced in Australia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Czech Republic, England, Guernsey, Holland, India, Ireland, Nigeria, Singapore, South Africa, and the U.S. His stories have appeared in Fiery Scribe Review, The Metaworker, New Contrast, The Prague Review, Helix Literary Magazine, Eunoia Review, Once Upon A Crocodile, Ariel Chart, Spank The Carp, Little Old Lady Comedy, Yellow Mama, Black Petals, Slippage Lit, and many other journals. He has stories forthcoming in Evening Street Review, Academy of the Heart and Mind, and Truffle. His novel, “Farewell And Goodbye, My Maltese Sleep”, will be published in 2023 by Close To The Bone Publishing.