By Chris Dolinski

I have quite a difficult time with memory. Depression and anxiety have clouded the bits of my past that I haven’t already expended barrels of energy upon trying to repress. I am certain a lot of that derives from shame or guilt, either real or imaginary, but that is neither here nor there.

Like a good percentage of folks, my parents had been or are now married to other people. From those relationships, I have four siblings, two of them older than me, two of them younger, but only one of them shares the same set of parents as me. We were the only two siblings that lived with our parents in the time and events surrounding their divorce, and although we are six years apart, we were each old enough to understand the shifting dynamics, and impending devastation. For me the divorce was a relief; my parents had been so unhappy with one another for so long, I hoped this would make everyone’s life easier. Eventually though, belongings were split in half, my father moved away, and one half of their two children went with him. Coming of age, as it were, was traumatic, and I don’t care to remember most of it. Yet there are things that only one other person in the entire world can understand in the same way that I comprehend them. This person can occasionally stir these memories to the surface with our strange Shared Language. That’s the other half, my little sister, Holly.

Out of the blue, she texted a song to me, “And If Venice is Sinking” by Spirit of the West, and I knew instantly what it was, how it sounds, and how we’ve each heard it. I hadn’t listened to it in ages, it had all but been erased from the corridors of my mind, and I texted her as such, but I was absolutely delighted to hear it again. I played it repeatedly over the next few days, reminiscing fondly over the chorus. There is something about receiving a long-lost song, a deep cut if you will, that disrupts the fog in my memories, that speaks to me in such a concise way, that it brings all the good or bittersweet flooding back.

At some point, Holly and I had each become custodians of our father’s musical preferences. We know and understand a dizzying array of songs that have no other relation to one another aside from being played loudly from the stereo system in the living room, or a bit more quietly from the speakers in the car door. [Read more continues…] It’s also likely we know some history of the artist(s), or the album, or some other tidbit that our father at some point shared to us while rifling through his stacks of CDs. The songs, the moments held in tandem with those songs, they speak to me clearly, and with only pleasant recollections of days gone by. Through these secret songs, Holly and I can relate a nostalgia, a yearning to reach for someone else who understands the strange upbringing we have been through. It’s a little bit of “hey, I’m still here too” mixed with “I’m not alone, right?” continually rolling over one another, asking for and giving reassurance. These coded ways of communication were somehow born out of a household where nothing was ever said directly, where feelings were somehow simultaneously unimportant but also carefully cradled so that no one ever knew that they were hurt, or hurting.

With audible spoken words, my sister and I hold a smattering of phrases as inside jokes. The easiest and most innocuous being a very hearty, and very Americanized, “bonjour!” My first overseas adventure was with Holly; we spent a few summer days in Paris, and she used the extent of her French to enthusiastically greet every flock of pigeons we passed. Either of us can say, “hey, it’s that dog,” utilizing the unemotional and deadpan delivery that Agent Leon used in the video game Resident Evil 4, and laugh. That is something we speak verbatim of each other: laughter. We share the same loud, weird, obnoxious, gasping, honking laugh. Laughter that sounds as if all the air is fighting to leave the lungs, and must be recovered with stuttering inhales, laughter that the longer it continues, the quieter it becomes, until the only sight of it is a wide-open mouth, tears welling up in the eyes, a body bent fully over. But “hey, it’s that dog,” isn’t just something of our own; our impression is partly divined from our father. He repeated the line for months and months after he watched Holly play Resident Evil 4, and always did his best to sound as direct and unaffected as Agent Leon. He did his best to spend a lot of time with us at that point, after moving to his new house. He was always trying, but there was always something a bit lost in translation. He spoke to us through media: the games we played, the things he would ask us to watch with him, the music that he played for us on the stereo. Every single phone call with my father, no matter what the initial intent of it was, will eventually morph into him asking me if I have watched [show] and if I have, asking me about my thoughts on [show], and emphatically telling me his. And if I haven’t, he will still tell me all about what he thinks of [show], and its production, and how things could be changed. And he will tell me about all the other shows he’s watched that I should also watch. There is such a want to connect, to find closeness in something that isn’t our family history. All of us need something to speak about with one another that is somehow distanced from our own selves, something to house the communication and affection we hope to have that doesn’t have to exist in shared memories. Our father would remark, “hey, it’s that dog,” as if to offer up “hey, I was there too, remember?” along with “I don’t want you to feel alone.” Because somehow it was too hard to say that. It was too hard to tell us he didn’t want to be alone, and that he didn’t want us to feel lonely. I know it was hard because anytime that he might, when the words would start to come out, I could feel my eyes get hot and my throat tighten. His voice would get mumbley and serious, and his face would be so full of worry. I couldn’t handle the actual words. The reality of even believing that I might be alone was nothing that I could hear.

I sent Holly a song, “5 and a ½ Minute Hallway” by Poe. “Hey, I’m still here too. I’m not alone, right?” I had rediscovered the album the song belonged to recently, and with it, all the facts about it I knew from my father. I awaited a response from my sister, hoping I could speak with her further on the song, to make sure that she knew it too, because maybe she didn’t. I wanted to share with her the entire album, although I wouldn’t dream of burdening her if she for some reason had not already been indoctrinated by our father. We live on opposite ends of the country now, she’s on the Gulf in Florida, and I have settled into the Pacific Northwest. There is something lost in distance, regular words don’t work right. Speaking on the phone is strange. Texts are sent but never responded to. Instead a completely different subject is sent back days later. I couldn’t just write her a line saying “I miss you, I feel alone.” I had to try to reach out in the language we knew. The reality applied to the feelings behind any of my own words would be absolutely unacceptable. My words would be too much, too invasive. Instead, I reach out with:

I live at the end

Of a five and a half minute hallway

But as far as I can see

You are still miles from me

In your doorway

Poe’s voice sings out with words she’s written with her own intent and meaning, and yet for myself, my sister, and our father, they communicate a whole separate set of thoughts and memories. I cannot use my own voice to say the things I desperately need to alleviate myself from. That’s not the way I learned how to speak. There are so many moments that I needed to let go of, and I didn’t want the words to describe them. However, with those pieces I pushed away, there were also pleasant memories lost. For those things that I can’t remember, the words I need to recollect them sit inside someone else, and hopefully soon, Holly will send them to me.