The past relived and a road not taken

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

Within one day, my son experienced two intense layovers in his mind and memory. And within one week of that, he was given a glimpse of a flight he reluctantly decided against.

The first memory trip was a visit with a childhood friend he has seen only one other time in 45 years. The second memory trip was a visit to a friend and his mother whom he’s been in contact with since high school graduation 35 years ago.

Last week, Jimmy, my son, met grade school constant companion, JJ, at a vacation spot where he and his fiancé were staying. One of the things that had drawn the two boys to one another as kids, besides their ease at getting into trouble with the principal, was that my son is James John and his new pal John James.

“He is quiet, reserved now, Mom,” said Jimmy.

Maybe it’s because his mom Sumi died two or three years ago at age 83? I recall JJ as always grinning with that kid gleam in his eye that meant he was plotting something. I liked him. And his mom.

“I don’t remember JJ,” my son went on to explain. “I mean, it was a nice time, his fiancé is nice. But even after spending a few hours together, nothing really clicked. Of course, I remember stories, things we did, but I don’t know HIM.”

This is not unusual – nearly half a century changes us, and not everyone is going to be able to be irrepressible like when we were wild and crazy with energy, nor necessarily simpatico like we’d been with the kid we met when we were eight.

“I brought up as many names as I could remember,” Jimmy said. “I left Nat City before high school. JJ never left the area. He knew something about every name I threw out there. It’s another life. I’m so removed from it. I’ve always considered and said that my life began when I moved to Incline. I don’t discount the first 14 years of my life, just a disconnect.”This made sense to me, for it’s happened to me in my life – some periods were more intense than others for whatever reason or time.

Jimmy continued. “Thoughts and memories were reeling through my mind after a few hours with JJ. Refreshing the old memory log.”

He said good-bye to JJ and his girl, thinking about the encounter and its memories non-stop. Then he stopped to see Tim, the high school buddy. He and his mom happened to be looking through boxes of photos “and there were stacks of pics on the table,” Jimmy said. “I knew them all, all those kids in the photos. Another overload of forgotten memories was unleashed. All those people happened in my life, it’s all in my memory bank.”

My son experienced time travel, I thought to myself. Not that we’re all not doing it anyway, easily falling into a brief moment from 60 years ago as we’re talking to a neighbor today.

“Having SO much brought to the forefront in one day . . . wow,” Jimmy said. “I had weird, freaky dreams all night”

This seemed logical to me, his dreams mixing up kids from grade school with kids 500 miles away where we moved when he was going into high school. All my grade school pals were my high school friends. And my adult friends. Different times, different kinds of dreams.

“PTSD is 100 percent real,” Jimmy said, surprisingly. “There is nothing traumatic about my memories, but it is the same thing.”

This was a revelation to me too, that PTSD didn’t have to be bad, just stressful.

“A super cool day,” Jimmy said.

A day that won’t be leaving his memory log, as he calls it, for some time. An overload day, however full of long-forgotten good times; a weirdly PTSD-inducing day indeed.

A few days prior to this, my 50-year-old kid had run across a former boss. This guy had been station manager or some such at the hard rock radio station where Jimmy was a DJ. “He and I talked about points throughout a life when fork-in-the-road type decisions are made. No regrets, just wonderment.”

This intrigued me; how often had Jim and I done just this – what if we’d done…?

Jimmy went on. “A HUGE decision in my life was in September 1989. He [station manager] had recently been fired from the station. He landed a program director job in Stockton, Califonria, and asked me to come work with him. All he had was weeknights midnight to 6 am, but it was a guaranteed gig.”

I was thinking how little we know of our kids’ lives; but then, how much do they know about ours?

“I was only two years in [as a DJ], totally green. This job offer was a big deal. Thrilling. Really honored to have been asked.
“The other fork in the road was this: that I had just moved into a house with four buddies, I was working days at the record shop and on the air 6 pm to midnight weeknights – way better time slot than the California one. Had just ‘found’ a dog we named Yoda. And had just met a hostess at a Mexican restaurant downtown who would go on to give me my two children, who, in turn, have made me who I am.”

What a cool thing for a dad to say, I thought.

“Of course, Mom, you know the fork I chose and never regretted.”

Yes, I wouldn’t have the grandkids I have otherwise.

It was natural for Jimmy to wonder what might have been, which he had no doubt done here and there in his life, until his old station boss told him his story of having gone to California for the big time. “He was bummed that I didn’t follow him,” Jimmy said. “But that only months into that gig, things began to turn sour and he was very glad I hadn’t gone. He said it was a brief and forgettable time in his life. His wife and kid would drive up into the foothills simply to see the sun.”

Interesting story with the revelatory finish: Jimmy said, “My wondering about that fork has ended.”

Not many of us get to see the road not taken.

Much less spend an entire day in déjà vu of our childhood and youth, recalling it name by name and photo by photo.

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