The Stories We Tell Ourselves…
A young friend recently died. How he passed and when he passed and why he passed doesn’t really matter. Those are details that are meant for his family and friends. It is a story we selectively tell.
Joe and I attended a memorial service for him, a circle reminiscent of the Island of Misfit Toys, all people with really big hearts and maybe broken souls. Or maybe we looked more like a reunion of the supporting cast of Kids: 90’s NYC teens who were now grown, kids of our own, complaining about mortgages and backaches…all under the backdrop of upper Manhattan and speedy cabs. The last time I was at Grant’s Tomb was when I was in graduate school. Back then, I wondered how my future would unfold. Being back there, I wondered how my past had unfolded.
People took turns sharing their stories about our friend…stories that made us laugh and cry and nod our heads. I held onto my own story, only to whisper it to Joe when he sat next to me on the ground behind a park bench. People shared and shared and I wondered: Did that really happen?
In the days leading up to the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I read a number of articles of memories and stories and descriptions of that day. In one article in the NYT, I read about Michael Regan, former FDNY. Michael Regan shared about his own guilt of feeling like a coward during 9/11 and not showing up to work on that day, only to find out that he had helped recover bodies. His brain proactively blocked the memory from his mind, maybe to protect his heart from the truth. To protect him.
This piece kept replaying in my mind during the memorial service. I wondered about my own story that I whispered to Joe. Or the story I posted on social media, in which I described my friend as almost mute on the last day I saw him. Joe was there that day and remembered hearing a full update on life from our friend. How could we remember such different things? Why was I so sure about our last interaction? Could I be so very wrong?
Not too long ago, I stopped speaking to a friend because we had endured a complicated situation in which we just could not resolve. On the train back to Baltimore from the memorial service, she popped in my mind, so I looked her up. Her Twitter profile appeared and I saw that she recounted the same situation in a thread. Her description unraveled just as I had experienced it, except for a minor detail. An important detail. The one detail that caused us to not speak again. I wanted to reach out to her and exclaim, “That’s not what happened!” But…for what end? Could each of our memories be right and be wrong, at the same time?
As the memorial service stories kept going, I thought a lot about what was protecting each person’s heart. Did it really matter if these stories were untrue? If our friend really said those things or did those things or lived in the world as these people saw him? Did it matter if the details were wrong or wrong to one and not to the other? Could untrue stories be ok because they are what we need to process and heal from really tragic events?
In the end, what matters about these stories were that they were filled with themes of our friend having a big heart, a brilliant mind, and a bright inner being. We would all be so lucky to be described in these ways.
There are stories we tell ourselves every single day, about every single person in our lives. Stories that feel grounded in truth and make us feel better about processing our place and space in this world. Our brain tells a story to protect our heart, our heart tells a story to protect our soul, our soul tells a story to protect the self. We do this and we hope that someone will one day tell a story about us. My son tells me that his friends call me the cool mom and I wonder what stories he is sharing about me. I wonder if my husband tells stories about me at his weekly poker night. If my daughter whispers a story about me, seated next to her best friend behind a park bench on the playground.
In my huge family, I am known as the storyteller. My stories are always filled with truths and half-truths and untruths. I tell these stories because my heart grows when I see people laugh and I yearn to keep memories alive. There is always a story to tell.
I hope that our friend feels that we honored him in the stories we shared. I hope he knows that we loved him, in the stories we tell ourselves.