Memory is tricky. It plays with us, constantly changing its form and intention, filtering our experiences for us.
Case in point; a few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be reunited for a weekend with my closest high school girlfriends at a beautiful lakefront house in the Kawartha Lakes. We all grew up there and have been friends since grade nine. Of the five of us there (we were missing a few ladies, sadly), three of us actually went to the same university (totally just by coincidence; we certainly didn’t decide consciously to go to school together – we weren’t those friends). Anyway, as we were talking and reminiscing over the course of the weekend, we talked a LOT about things we all experienced together, naturally, and it became abundantly clear that while some things were universally remembered in the same way with the same detail, more often than not, we all had different memories about the same thing. Which seems logical, since we’re all individual people with our own brains and experiences, but it’s also so interesting when you really dig deep. It says so much about who we were and, I think, even more about who we are now, that our brains have decided to hold onto particular parts of memories to which we’ve attached emotion and significance. It’s that emotion and significance that is so telling about our unique journeys.
Somehow we got on the topic of my particular experience of house-hopping and numerous roommates and homes during the course of my university years. I was recalling a particular time of strife about which I have always felt that Lisa really “saved” me. It was the second term of our third year of university. I, for some unknown reason (really, to this day, I have NO idea what prompted me to make this decision) was taking six courses (a full course load is five) and was working about 40-50 hours a week. I lived far away from campus and walked about 45 minutes to and from school and/or work every day. I also lived with terrible people who bullied and harassed me. They would rifle through my room when I wasn’t there, leave my bedroom window wide open in the middle of winter so I came home to an icebox, they would empty my shampoo and conditioner bottles to “surprise” me when I was mid-shower, they would write me nasty notes and draw offensive pictures directed to me on our shared whiteboard in the kitchen. Oh, they hated me. It’s a long story, but suffice it to say, I hated being there when they were home, and it was probably a good thing that I was so busy so that I could avoid them as much as possible.
Anyway, one night I came home from work and was confronted by one of my roommates’ boyfriend (who I had no love for at all), and what ensued was a really scary, threatening, almost violent exchange. I was really uncomfortable and didn’t want to be there. But it was also nearing the end of the term, and it was right before finals when all the big term papers are due. I had a LOT of work to do and very little time to do it in, because, you know, the whole working full-time thing.
So, I called Lisa and asked if I could come over to her place and use her computer (I didn’t have one of my own – I’m aging myself here, but that was back in the day when you really didn’t need a personal computer and I had managed just fine using the computers at school all the time). Of course she said yes, because she’s a great person.
For the next three days or so, I came and went from Lisa’s house (her roommates were great and didn’t mind that I was there and they even gave me an extra house key to use). I would write and study and read in between working my shifts at the restaurant, and come and go at all hours. Oh, and during this time, I didn’t sleep. At all. I went for something like 67 hours without sleeping in order to get all my work done.
Anyway, the point of the story is that I was going through this really difficult thing, and needed help. I was struggling emotionally (the whole abusive roommates thing), physically (the whole not sleeping for 67 hours while working shifts and writing papers in between), and was at this really big crossroads in my young adult life. Even though that time was sort of foggy (that’s what happens when you don’t sleep. I remember that I looked it up, because I was worried that I might actually die, and apparently, if you go for more than 72 consecutive hours without sleep, you can legally be declared insane), I remember it so vividly. I remember sitting at Lisa’s computer in the middle of the night, reading Shakespeare plays and various novels (or parts of novels), poetry and articles, so I could write papers on them, while she slept not more than 20 feet away from me. She let me use her shower, I think I even borrowed some clothes; she fed me and checked in on me while totally letting me do my thing. And I did it! At the end of those days, I had churned out something like 12 papers (I think?), not missed a shift of work, and even managed to study a little bit for my upcoming exams. Eventually I went back home and crashed HARD and very shortly after that, moved out and into a much better living situation.
As a result of that episode, and after a long and frank conversation with my favourite professor, Dr. Boire, I decided that I couldn’t go on like that anymore, and on the brink of dropping out of school completely or “pausing” my university education (but, let’s be honest, very few people who “take a break” from school ever return), Dr. Boire said the most magical words to me I’d ever heard. He asked me why I was pushing myself so hard and taking on so much and I responded that I had to work, as I was financing myself through school; I had to pay my rent and bills and tuition and books and all of the things on my own, but I also had to graduate next year. And he simply said “Why? Who says you have to graduate next year?” I was dumbfounded. It had never occurred to me that I could change the rules! I could do what I needed to do to make my life better! I could do things on my own terms and it would all be OK! This was the biggest epiphany of my young life and instantly changed everything. So, that’s what I did. The next year, my fourth and would-be final year, I enrolled in only three classes per semester, making me a part-time student so I could continue to work full time and not kill myself in the process, and I took a fifth year to complete my degree. I went from flailing in all aspects of life, making not-so-great grades, and in some cases, near failing grades, basically just hanging on by a thread, to graduating with Honours. It was, and still is, the accomplishment I am most proud of in my life.
And I feel, and have always felt that it wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for Lisa’s hospitality, her support and general acceptance of my crazy. It was a pivotal moment in my life, one that changed my personal and educational trajectory, and were it not for my friend Lisa offering me her home, her computer and her trust to come and go as I needed, I think things would have turned out quite differently for me.
So, cut to a few weeks ago with my high schools girlfriends and this conversation we were having. Like I said, this story came up, and surprisingly, my friends didn’t seem to know about this particular chapter in my life, although I feel like I’d told the story before, but it doesn’t matter (see? Memory is a tricky bastard!). I turned to Lisa and told her, quite frankly, that she saved my life back then. And do you know what? Lisa didn’t really remember anything! She didn’t remember me crashing with her for a few days, the fact that I didn’t sleep for 67 hours, the fact that I basically squatted in her room for the better part of a week. Can you believe it?!?!
It makes me laugh, to be honest. And I’m not offended in the slightest, it just proves my point that memory is complicated. It’s relative and personal and specific, but also fleeting and proportional. I remember that episode in my life as life-altering (because it was), but Lisa barely remembers it at all because it doesn’t carry the same emotional heft with her. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, just that it’s a memory she doesn’t necessarily share with me. (I should also note here, as an epilogue of sorts, that in my fifth year of university, Lisa and I got an apartment together and, to this day, living with her was the calmest, most serene and pleasant roommate experience I’ve ever had).
So, even though you don’t remember my crashing with you for about three days at the end of third year, Lisa, thank you. I really don’t know what I would have done without you during that time of need. I suspect that I would be in a very different place right now if you hadn’t been there to be a soft place for me to land. And it doesn’t matter to me that you don’t really remember it. I do, and that’s what counts.