I was born at home, and the midwife asked my mother what my name was going to be. She had arrived at a number of fair and elegant names for a female, but sadly the choices for male names had been reduced to things like namesakes for grandfathers, who were fine men, though apparently not good enough to spare me being named ‘George’. As the midwife asked my mother this question she closed her eyes, and very clearly, in her exhaustion, saw bright burning letters, quite on fire, that spelled the name ‘Devon’, and she said the name, a little curiously. Apparently I did not like the name George even then, and it took a flaming sign for that point to be driven home. That was the beginning of my coming into the world, and the beginning of my relationship with fire.
In the months following my birth I became sick. Around month three I got chicken pox, which is unremarkable, but the problem was that I had a rare allergy to it. Somehow my body was allergic to the pox, and I was sick for nine months. At the time, about 1987-88, little was known about it, and as I got worse, doctors informed my mother that I would undoubtedly die. Stubbornly, my mother, who had been an R.N. for many years, continued to contact every doctor she had ever heard of in search of some new idea as to how to treat me. If you know what chicken pox looks like then you can imagine what a baby would look like if that baby had it over their entire body in such severity that it was very quickly killing them. I was bright red, covered in sores that were damp and inflamed. Baby me had a hard time sleeping, as did my mother and father and nine-year-old brother. The little brother was going to die.
My mother, as a labor and delivery nurse, had worked with infants in hospitals throughout her career. Months into my sickness she was holding me as I was often held, which was until I could no longer stand the discomfort and had to be put down, but this particular time her professional knowledge identified something about me was different. My mother recognized that I was finally going into system failure. I was becoming edematous and was rapidly developing jaundice (my body was swelling up and my eyes were turning yellow). She knew what it looked like when an infant was dying and recognized that my life was approaching its final few hours and that she was going to lose her baby.
I was taken to the E.R. and they did what they could, but that was not very much. As I was dying, my mother recalled a doctor who she had heard speak years ago. While the clock was ticking, and I was fading, the man traveled as quickly as he could to the I.C.U. to meet us, and by incredibly rare coincidence he had seen my condition before.
I spent the following weeks covered head to toe in 2% hydro cortical steroids, wrapped in wet and dry pajamas, and I got better, but I had to be bound or else my infant fingers would scratch at my skin and face until the skin came off…such was my agitation. When I say I can remember it, people often don’t believe me. I don’t entirely believe me, either, but there is a tiny thing in my mind that recalls what it feels like to be miserable, bound, wet, and on fire, but more that those things it is the utter inescapability that I recall clearest. Perhaps my imagination has filled in those feelings to this story that I have heard before.
I could have turned out an odd person or a horrible person by all the evidence. Torment, after all, is how monsters are made. My mother had assumed that, If I lived through it, I would have a deeply ingrained hatred of her after all the horrible things that baby Devon would have poorly tolerated her doing while treating and caring for me. She had to pin my arms, coat me in ointment, change me, all of which caused me a great deal of pain. And yet I love my mother effortlessly, and I always have. I was reportedly a happy and loving toddler and child. I came out of that painful experience, evidently, just happy to be here.
It would also seem normal, I think, if all that had turned me into a person prone to odd fetishes or explosive anger. I remain well adjusted, dare I say, kind. Perhaps people are born who they are regardless of what happens to them?
This story of the first year of my life leads in to an odd recurring dream I had from the earliest part of my life until around the age of five. It was vivid and always the same. In this dream I was on an old fashioned warship, wooden, identical to one you would imagine Captain Hook claiming as his pirate flagship. My mother in the dream, who was mot my actual mother, and my two sisters, who I do not have, worked in the ship’s galley, as did I. The ship caught flame, and everyone aboard it including myself and my family burned to death. It was a terrible dream to have as a very young child, and it would wake me up, and keep me awake, and indeed I was afraid of falling asleep. At that age I couldn’t fully discern the difference between the dream and real world, since the sensation of fire was identical to the sensation I was familiar with. I expended a lot of my developing cognitive reasoning trying to figure out whether or not I, in waking reality, had any sisters. There was a time I was sure I did, and they had died in a fire, but this confused me, because I had also watched my mother who was not my mother burn as well, and yet she was still around. While there was a lot about this dream that I did not understand there was one thing I understood with absolute clarity, and that was what it felt like to have my whole body set on fire, because that was what the first year of my life felt like. My name came about in flames, and the first year I spent in the world was spent on fire.
I don’t know why this happened to me, and I don’t much care. Yet, sometimes people find out, and sometimes they want to decide why such a thing would happen. A god-fearing woman explained the reasoning for all of this happening to me, upon finding out that my grandfather had been involved in the upper echelon of the Mason Society, she explained that god curses devil-worshippers with skin problems for five generations. I remember asking her snidely which testament that was written in but I cannot, for the life of me, remember her answer.
The threat doesn’t bother me, I understand that the bible is very threatening and I pass no judgment, but the ease with which she damned me and my father and grandfather, and more importantly my children and grandchildren, caused me some agitation. My argument was dismissed when I was asked if my father had any skin problems. I admitted the coincidental fact that my father suffered from an enflamed similarity to skin cancer for more than two decades, and that it nearly killed him. I have to insist this is coincidental, or perhaps a genetic delicacy of the skin, more likely that god punishing grandpa George for having shitty friends.
What was gained from that argument was that I realized something that I believed that I had always believed. This fire that I talk about, is my fire, not God’s, and perhaps that ownership of the thing in my mind was the crucial difference between my gratitude and what could have easily become resentment. That ownership of a thing changes an experience from punishment into trial. Withstanding punishment deadens you and fosters hatred while overcoming tribulation fosters self-assuredness.
At the age of twenty, I had the burning dream again, so many years later. This time, however, I was not on the ship, but instead treading water as the ship burned down before me. The revisitation shocked me, reminded me of things I had long forgotten, and obviously, prompted me to get out of bed and walk to a café at dawn to write about it.
At a time when I was flirting with poetry and playing with different forms I wrote this thing trying to get that nightmare out in the open. I sat down expecting to write something about the ocean, about fire, about struggling, even about the strange progression of the dream, and how, as I grew older, I saw the same dream from a different angle: looking back on something that haunted my childhood. I sat down to write expecting myself to narrate a nightmare, but what came out was entirely different. I wrote about holding on to the dark things inside us, and what happens if we carry them too long. This is what I immediately, sleeplessly, wrote; a ‘poem’ that is really just a short story in disguise:
I have been to my silence
and slept there
The great storehouse of my becoming
That place where memory lives
There is a path through my silence
Where lights are hung
My bright tunnel of secrets with the world
Where the lamps are counted
I live in this glow
Where memory lives
Where light is born
There sadness hides
But is remembered
In this silence that does not end
There is much out of sight
Forgotten, as a child may be
But what is forgotten
Can always find me
Where my lights live
Bound on my road
The sadness kept in my shadows
Is hidden and reaches up for me
When I spend too long hanging lights
to remember why light lives at all
I have been to my silence and slept there
And fallen towards my secrets
Cast in as I cast them
Reaching in as they reach out
I fell to them
Where I saw them run from me
In the darkness
The lights I couldn’t hang
Hidden there in chains where I left them
And in that darkness
If I tarry too long
I can be kept where that sadness sounds
And begs for a place in my tunnel
And there I may refuse
Until all of my lights go out
The first chapter of my life was on fire in a number of ways. This dream was a kind way for my subconscious to let me know that I was beginning to approach my adulthood, shedding memories and finally growing out of my childhood situation. Growing up feels a lot like gaining perspective, and we grow up by finding new reasons to remember things. My memories remain unchanged, but their significance may never stop changing.
What came out of this whole experience of writing and remembering this was the realization that there is always a choice of how we may remember, and always a choice about who our memories make us become. They say that people are made by the world around them and that is true, but there is always a choice. Whether we choose to push bad memories away and kick them to the dark corners of our minds, or whether we allow ourselves to see them, or perhaps only to see them faintly. For me, personally, remembering from a safe distance is what I’ve found to be the kindest compromise. I remember the physical torment and the difficult-to-process kinds of fear of my infancy from a distance, where those memories may be illuminated partially by the bright, shining parts of my mind, thus-
I live in this glow
Where memory lives
Where light is born
There sadness hides
But is remembered.
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