Notes on mortality and persona


“So,” my lunch companion said one recent Friday, “the rumor was that you died after seventh grade.”

I dipped a French fry into hummus, and she continued talking.

“There were rumors that you’d died,” she said. “Other rumors.”

I don’t remember much of the conversation after that. I got caught up, as I do, in self-indulgent reverie.

The backstory: I spent a few years of my childhood in South Carolina. As childhoods go, it was hardscrabble-ish. I had reasons to stay out of the house pretty much all the time, and I had a bike, and It Was a Different Time.

One bike ride proved fateful just days before school ended. A hurtling sedan helmed by a heedless driver clipped my bicycle, sending me up in the air, then down onto the back of my skull.

A three-day coma. Another three days in the twilight, as school ended with the rumor mill swirling with tales of me transfigured into some sort of sympathetic specter: the cautionary tale, a tragedy to be invoked in the same memory hole of spooky stories with poisoned Jolly Ranchers and hits of acid on Mickey Mouse paper.

I had envisioned returning to school. However, as I recovered from the coma, life at home in South Carolina got worse; my mom’s live-in boyfriend, an increasingly unhinged good ol’ boy Vietnam-era vet named Mark, told me that I “should have died,” physically reinforcing that concept.

Weeks later, I was shipped to Florida to live with my dad. And soon thereafter, my mom followed—possessions loaded in her car while Mark was hunting one Saturday. That was all the time she had.

Most of my childhood didn’t fit into the Dodge Aspen. The toys, the clothes, the ephemera—the trophies and ribbons, documentary evidence of being there, somewhere. Given the rushed, ad hoc nature of the departure, it was understandable.

Also understandable, given the nature of the departure: Like Lot’s wife fleeing Sodom and Gomorrah, there was no looking back.

Even if I’d had the kinds of friends who were close, which I didn’t, I was discouraged from calling anyone from the old life. These were heady times. My dad kept a gun on him for a while, until it became clear Mark wasn’t headed here to exact revenge or whatnot.

So it was that I managed to leave a part of my life behind, doing it without any real closure—and, solely because of the “I thought you died” nature of my departure, there was a collective mourning in a sense.

But what was being mourned was not me.

The kind of childhood I was having almost ensured that, had it continued in that way, I would have fallen between one crack or another, discovering whatever self-destructive modality was favored by whatever peer group would have me. Those who “knew” me didn’t see what
was happening.

What they saw was a generic picture of a kid whose skull splattered on blacktop, a stand-in, an inanimate, substance-less projection of childhood innocence.

I was worth more in that capacity, as a narrative trope, than I was as a flesh-and-blood human being. In that, an early introduction to a certain aspect of narrative development: the totemic synecdoche for a larger concept.

As I emerged from a coma, divested of an identity I had taken for granted, I had no idea that I had been turned into such a totem in my old quasi-hometown, one of many itinerant stopovers in which I never felt at home.

When one is compelled by circumstance toward perpetual reinvention, there are positives and negatives.

The positives: You learn how to read, and eventually to manipulate, a room; you learn that persona is subject to constant editing—a concept once considered post-modern, but is now part of the game, as people from the corridors of power on down remodel their public personae as casually as dyeing their hair.

The negatives: You learn the trade-off for that ability, which is that sense of malleability of circumstance. The soil is never truly yours, nor is the air, nor most inside jokes. You will always keep moving. Until you are too tired to move. Or those moments where you’re paralyzed by not knowing what to do next, because there is no model.

All of that—baked into the cake. Add enough baking powder, eggs and cream, and it somehow rises. Sugar and vanilla may make it palatable.

Contrary to that compelling rumor in the lede, my childhood death never actually happened; hence, the byline, as Folio Weekly rarely commissions copy three decades in advance of publication.

However, there was a rebirth of a sort. And the corollary lesson of knowing that there is the potential for further, conditional rebirths, albeit with diminishing returns.

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