Memory is a powerful editor.
Faster than a speeding bullet, it leaps over people, events, emotions and facts in a single bound. What it discards, it discards without mercy. What it keeps, it keeps in its own special way.
I remember reading about a scientific study that found people tend to remember things that confirm their perspective on the past, forgetting things that contradict their point of view. I can confirm that theory.
When I got the news that my friend, Ray Goss, was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer, memories rushed to mind: a tall, fit, vibrant man jogging up the hill I couldn’t walk up; running in the yard with a dog the size of a goat; carrying pieces of furniture to the moving van as if they were tinker toys; painting houses in the heat of Virginia summer. Possessing a ravenous appetite for literature, Ray taught English as well as karate. He directed the best high school production ever of “Taming of the Shrew.” He performed in community theater productions. Most memorably, he played Santa Claus at my daughter’s nursery school.
Because we have told the Santa Claus story many times in my family, it is now as vividly familiar as those holiday movies we watch every year. In our favorite scene, my daughter the preschooler sits on Santa’s knee and tells him the presents she’s hoping for. Santa says he’ll see what he can do. Then he asks after her father by name.
“You know my father?” the amazed preschooler asks.
“Of course. He’s the history professor. Say hello to him for me.”
I have no idea what words were actually said. Telling the story over and over, the story has become the memory.
A new memory now joins the old one. Lying in a hospital bed in his den as the dog stretches out on the couch with paws over its head to show what it thinks of adult small talk, Ray expresses gratitude for people who have been kind to him through several long difficult months.
“Of course they’re nice to you,” I tell him. “You’re Santa Claus!”
Ray looks up, confused. He’s forgotten his most memorable performance. Seeing that he has no family saga on the subject, I offer him ours.
Have there been, over forty years of friendship, disagreements? Disappointments? I don’t remember any. My memory, aided and abetted by repeated acts of storytelling, has transformed whatever really happened into something more personal but also more universal, less about two old friends and more about the many gifts one man has given his many friends, whether he remembers or not.