Certain footnotes have been included to give a voice to memories that differ from mine. The notes concerning two stories—Luke’s burn and Shawn’s fall from the pallet—are significant and require additional commentary.
In both events, the discrepancies between accounts are many and varied. Take Luke’s burn. Everyone who was there that day either saw someone who wasn’t there, or failed to see someone who was. Dad saw Luke, and Luke saw Dad. Luke saw me, but I did not see Dad and Dad did not see me. I saw Richard and Richard saw me, but Richard did not see Dad, and neither Dad nor Luke saw Richard. What is one to make of such a carousel of contradiction? After all the turning around and round, when the music finally stops, the only person everyone can agree was actually present that day is Luke.
Shawn’s fall from the pallet is even more bewildering. I was not there. I heard my account from others, but was confident it was true because I’d heard it told that way for years, by many people, and because Tyler had heard the same story. He remembered it the way I did, fifteen years later. So I put it in writing. Then this other story appeared. There was no waiting, it insists. The chopper was called right away.
I’d be lying if I said these details are unimportant, that the “big picture” is the same no matter which version you believe. These details matter. Either my father sent Luke down the mountain alone, or he did not; either he left Shawn in the sun with a serious head injury, or he did not. A different father, a different man, is born from those details.
I don’t know which account of Shawn’s fall to believe. More remarkably, I don’t know which account of Luke’s burn to believe, and I was there. I can return to that moment. Luke is on the grass. I look around me. There is no one else, no shadow of my father, not even the idea of him pushing in on the periphery of my memory. He is not there. But in Luke’s memory he is there, laying him gently in the bathtub, administering a homeopathic for shock.
What I take from this is a correction, not to my memory but to my understanding. We are all of us more complicated than the roles we are assigned in the stories other people tell. This is especially true in families. When one of my brothers first read my account of Shawn’s fall, he wrote to me: “I can’t imagine Dad calling 911. Shawn would have died first.” But maybe not. Maybe, after hearing his son’s skull crack, the desolate thud of bone and brain on concrete, our father was not the man we thought he would be, and assumed he had been for years after. I have always known that my father loves his children and powerfully; I have always believed that his hatred of doctors was more powerful. But maybe not. Maybe, in that moment, a moment of real crisis, his love subdued his fear and hatred both.
Maybe the real tragedy is that he could live in our minds this way, in my brother’s and mine, because his response in other moments—thousands of smaller dramas and lesser crises—had led us to see him in that role. To believe that should we fall, he would not intervene. We would die first.
We are all more complicated than the roles we are assigned in stories. Nothing has revealed that truth to me more than writing this memoir—trying to pin down the people I love on paper, to capture the whole meaning of them in a few words, which is of course impossible. This is the best I can do: to tell that other story next to the one I remember. Of a summer day, a fire, the smell of charred flesh, and a father helping his son down the mountain.