Sunday, 24 June 2012

Fading Memories

00:00:00 Posted by Ashley Lister , , , , , 4 comments

 by Shanna Germain

Recently, the city where I live has experienced a sudden and unusual rash of shootings. My partner and I were talking about guns and violence and how people react to those kinds of events, when out of the blue I said:

“I had a gun held on me once.”

“You did?” he asked.

“Didn’t I tell you that story?” I was sure I had.

“No,” he said. “I would remember it if you had.”

So I told the story I’ve told only a few times before. How when I was eighteen, I started working as a paramedic on the local ambulance. How I walked into a doublewide trailer for a routine diabetes call and a man in a wheelchair pointed a gun at me. He told me if I took his wife away, he would shoot me.

Looking back, I know a lot of things that I didn’t know then: He was disabled, she was his caregiver, he was afraid.

Looking back, there are still so many things I can’t remember. Did he have the gun when I walked in? Was it loaded? What did he look like? And the thing I truly cannot remember is what happened between the time he threatened to shoot me and the time I pushed his wife, still alive, into the emergency room.

Did I talk him down? Did someone else? Did he give up his gun like they do in the movies? What kind was it? Did I hold it? Did I cry? Did he?

I don’t know.

Maybe because I have never told that part of the story. This is how memories seem to work for me: If I tell the story of them, they survive in some form. If I never tell their story, they fade away and die.

It isn’t just the story of the gun, of course. It’s all of those memories that make me what I am. I’ve written many times about my mother abandoning me when I was young, but I come back to the same parts again and again. I’ve written a lot about my work on the ambulance, about my divorce, about car accidents and the death of loved ones. But if I haven’t written about it, it’s likely that I never will, because the memories have already begun to turn into ghosts and fade away.  

This year, I’m doing a poem-a-day project and it’s taxing my memory in unusual ways. My poems are rarely autobiographical, but they always have hints and pieces of my true past in them, for those who know where to look. In order to come up with enough material to write a poem every day, I find myself chasing down disappearing ghosts, long-dead memories, and trying to resurrect them with an object, a symbol, a line of iambic pentameter. More often than not, I fail. They are fleeting things, slipping outside the reach of my pen with a surprising quickness.   

I don’t write to heal from trauma or to let go of the memories. I write to save the experiences, to preserve them forever in the seal of words. The trouble with that is they’re not perfect preservations. After a while, they become recordings of recordings, so far from the original that the truth I am trying to save becomes lost in translation. 

I’ve written about the man with the gun a lot this year, even before the recent shootings took place. He appears in the opening stanza of “Near Misses,” and you can see I’ve already begun to move him away from the truth that he was. The true memory is fading and becoming a thing of objects and universal truths.

Near Misses

As young as two, the rock through the window
falls just to the right of vital organs. My mother
screamed so I didn’t need to find a sound.
Fifteen years later, a man holds a gun
so close I can see the black hole of the
chamber against my eye.
On a river wild, I slid from the back of a raft,
grasping at air.
The plane from Mexico struck by lightning. Twice.
A car rolling on black ice.
A hole in the lower heart.
Lyme disease. Horse bucked. Riptide caught.

It’s a wonder we go on living at all.
It’s a wonder we go on living at all.
There is wonder in going on living at all.

 That day, as we continued talking about the man with the gun, my partner asked, “What were you thinking when you were standing there, with him holding the gun on you?”

That part I do remember. Because I’ve written about it.

“I was thinking that I’d escaped death so many times that I was probably long overdue, that it was okay if he shot me, because I’d lived such an amazing life.”

I thought that, at eighteen. I stood in a trailer in my jumpsuit with my paramedic kit in my hand and I looked at that man with the gun in his hand, and I thought, “If I die, it’s okay.”

Or maybe I didn’t think that at all. Maybe I’ve just been writing that, again and again, so that it will become real. And in time, the true memory will fade away into nothing more than gunpowder and smoke.


Shanna Germain is a writer, editor, leximaven, she-devil, vorpal blonde and Schrodinger’s brat. You can find her poem-a-day project at and more about her and her work at



Ashley R Lister said...


Thanks for joining us here on the Dead Good Blog this weekend.

Love the poem. Love the story behind it, and it was pretty cool to follow the link and be able to hear you read your work.


Shanna Germain said...

Thanks so much for inviting me. My absolute pleasure to be here. I've loved reading all the pieces from this week.

Best, s.

vicky ellis said...

We edit our stories all the way through don't we? Swapping and changing bits according to mood or audience. Eventually we become our stories when they are all that's left behind.

Terrific guest blog, thank you. (You already know I love your poetry).

Vicky x

Shanna Germain said...

Oops. I commented, but I think I might have done it wrong. Trying again!

Thanks, Vicky, for the nice words. And yes, it continues to amaze me how many ways there are to tell the same story, how it evokes something different each time. There is so much power in the ways we use words.

All the best, s.