Perception is everything.
For example, several years ago my sister and I planned to gather up some childhood memories and present them to our dad for a milestone birthday.
After a few days of mental gathering, we conferred.
I’d come up with a boatload of happy dad stories.
Meanwhile, Jean’s Titanic collection of moments had left her with a strange, sinking feeling.
“I remember one time I was sitting on Dad’s shoulders and he was singing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle,’ to me and I couldn’t stop crying,” my sister recalled.
“Why were you crying?” I asked.
“I was sad,” said Jean in a tone that implied I just wasn’t getting her.
“Why was it sad?” I pressed.
“I don’t really know. But every memory I came up with was depressing,” my sister said. “I’m no good at this.”
How could this be? We breathed the exact same evergreen Glade-freshened air, ate the exact same sugar-frosted breakfast cereals and shared the very same wonderful dad.
But her memories were evidently skewed by her own unique internal sentimental, little-girl perception of things.
Perhaps “Twinkle, Twinkle” evoked in her little preschool brain a twinge of man’s constant puzzling over the enigmatic nature of space and supernovas.
Or perhaps she likened herself to a twinkling star, high above the world from atop her father’s shoulders, and feared that no one would ever really understand her.
Because the point here is that my sister’s inability to think happy thoughts about our dad made me wonder what my own little kids were storing in their memory banks about their good old mom.
I decided to take a survey:
Me: Billy, what will you remember about me when you grow up?
Billy: How should I know? I’m just a little kid.
Me: I know that. But what will you tell your children about me someday?
Billy: Will you be dead?
Me: Not necessarily. I just mean how will you explain what kind of mother I was, you know; what kind of memories will you have?
Billy: (swallowing hard) Do you think you are gonna die before Dad? What will happen to me if you die before Dad? I don’t want you to die.
I smiled to myself and hugged my sentimental son, assuring him that I was going to live forever. Just then, Julianna came over, wondering what all the commotion was about.
Julianna: Why’s Billy crying?
Me: I asked him what will he remember about me when he’s all grown up.
Julianna: So why’s he crying?
Me: Because it made him think about me getting old and dead.
Julianna: Why don’t you ask me? I won’t cry about it.
Me: OK. What will you remember about me?
Julianna: Well, I’ll remember when you weren’t an old gramma and when you didn’t have gray hair and wrinkles and I’ll remember that you were funny and nice and soft, and how you always looked at me with love in your eyes. But will I have to push you around in a wheelchair?
Me: Only if you want to.
The moment was oddly reassuring.
You see, my kids have been breathing the same air, eating the same breakfast cereal and loving the same scatter-brained mom for their whole lives.
Despite their different reactions I know they will end up on the same page, just like my sister and me.
Because, concrete memories aside, when Jean and I look at our dad we see a tall, dark-haired, dependable, funny man, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound; a man of much integrity and few words.
We see a man who can sing “Twinkle, Twinkle” with enough feeling to make a little girl cry.
And even though that little girl may not know it at the time, eventually she’ll figure out that what made her so sad was the accompanying thought, that one day she might grow up to be too big to sit on his strong shoulders, or to simply get lost in the sweet sound of her daddy’s song.