Most people have one great story from their lives. A solemn tale about surprise and tragedy and, hopefully, redemption.
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I’ve got a dozen, though it’s still early in the day. At any minute, No. 13 could introduce itself like a half-a-mile of overwound iron spring falling off a semi trailer in L.A.
By the time I was 16:
- A tornado had scraped my childhood home in Oak Lawn, Ill., off the Earth while my pregnant mom, my sister, three of my brothers and I cowered in the basement bathroom
- A boulder had fallen and crushed my sister’s hips on a camping trip
- A judge had taken my sister out of our home for faking a bomb threat to her high school
- My dad, an electrician, had survived being electrocuted and burned over 60% of his body
- My mom had pushed her aggressive breast cancer into remission long enough for my dad to be released from the hospital. She died two days before I turned 16
Almost everything tangible about my family dates from the tornado onward. Most of our belongings probably were blown into Lake Michigan. And when my dad remarried, my step-mother threw away dozens and dozens of rolls of film that my mom had bought and shot but had been too poor to process.
So, I’ve obsessively collected a lot of things in my life; mostly objects that prove I’ve been here: concert and movie tickets, ballgame stubs, pieces of my many cars, political pins, maps, 9/11 + 1 editions of magazines and newspapers, comedy club schedules, etc.
I have a handwritten goodbye letter by my mom to her kids, and, of course, I cherish it. Yet I wish there were more. My sister and I, the two oldest, knew her, but only as children. And my two youngest brothers not only don’t really remember her, they call their step-mother “mom.”
Not long ago, I realized that I’d become a journalist in response to my childhood. It’s a hard career generally and more so for someone of modest writing and photographing talents. And yet I love it. I love it because journalism is collecting — however ephemerally — stories, facts, sources, photos, experiences and such.
Like buddhist monks who create ornate works of art only to throw them off a cliff, I know that the most important things I collect are, for all intents and purposes, gone after I hold them. Well, except for what I post on Facebook, which will be read and harshly judged by beetle-architects a million years from now.
As for the tickets, stubs, newspapers and stuff, their disappearing gradually. The better goal is crossing the lake leaving no wake.