Memories are strange. They’re an invaluable resource that influences our actions, our thoughts, our relationships, our decisions, our life etc. And the funny thing is how inaccurate they are. There’s that cheesy saying, “there are 3 sides to a story: your side, my side, and the truth.” Well, our memory is malleable. We can remember something as being funnier than it was, sadder than it was, colder, night time/day time. Our mind plays tricks on us. But we are stronger than the auto-pilot functions that our brain enacts. We can manipulate our memories into resources that can enrich our lives! It’s YOUR fucking memory.
I read the book, Life of Pi, in my junior year of high school. Its message didn’t hit me until much later. I wont spoil anything, but the overall theme was the value of the better story. The ‘better story’ being the way we choose to digest a memory.
I told you that story about jumping that kid for cocaine money, here’s another. My father was shot in the head and killed in 1997, I was four. My whole life I was told that he had died in a car accident. 14 years later, I was living in Idaho and my cousin told me the truth over the phone. My father was a cab driver and had picked up two young black men in a bad part of Bushwick. They wanted to rob him. He had given my mother over a hundred dollars that same morning, so he only had $45 during the robbery. The young man in the passenger seat, Elvin Hill (this one), thought my father was disrespecting him by giving him so little money, so he shot him in the head point blank. Elvin’s associate in the back seat would later explain that my father was shot while pointing at pictures of my brother and I that were taped on the dashboard.
The situation was fucked. The facts are stagnant, but the story is dependent on perception. There are so many pieces, so many colors. It’s too easy to demonize my father’s killer, to make him the villain. Here’s a better story, just a fraction of it rather:
Elvin Hill was 18 when he killed my father. I was 18 when I found out. Connections connections. How different were we at that age?
- I had two loving parents, my step-father and mother. His died at a young age, and he was raised by his drug addicted aunt and uncle.
- I lived in a house in upstate New York, in a nice neighborhood with a dog and a backyard and a pool and a trampoline and stuff. He was raised in a bad part of Bushwick, Brooklyn, back when it wasn’t occupied by white dudes with fancy haircuts and flannel vests.
- I had a great education and great support. I was in a 4-year private university. My thoughts and ideas were valued and validated. I don’t want to assume Elvin’s support system or education, he could have been brilliant, but he was arrested several times for assault, gun charges, and drug related crimes before the age of 20 and I’m not sure any college accepts that kind of record.
- I’m Brown. He’s Black.
I’m not allowed to look at 18 year old Elvin Hill and judge him. I had so many more opportunities, opportunities that I hadn’t earned. If one butterfly fluttered differently when I was 4, maybe my life would be similar to Hill’s. It was luck and lack of luck that put us in such different situations. THAT’S the better story. That’s how I look at this individual, not with bitterness, but with understanding. There are Elvin Hills everywhere, being ignored. Ignored by the school systems, ignored by society. They become helpless and are constantly told that they will never be anything. The theory of the ‘looking glass self’ states that we act the way we believe we are being perceived. The world might have told Hill he was nothing, so he acted like he had nothing to lose.
Another fraction of the story:
I told you I found out when I was 18. My mother ended up telling me when I was 19, because that’s when Elvin Hill was finally caught. Imagine that. 15 years to pin the murder on this guy. Now, I can think, “how shitty is that. 15 years to catch my father’s killer, were the detectives asleep? Did they just not care enough?” Or I can look the the individual, Mike Zeller, who was given my father’s case as a detective in Bushwick. He never forgot about him. Retiring in 2005, and becoming a Brooklyn U.S. Attorney’s office investigator, he insisted with the feds that he be able to look into the case again. He made a breakthrough when the second young man my father picked up, the one sitting in the back, agreed to testify that Hill had shot my father over $45. Hill was indicted in 2012 and sentenced to 43 years. MIKE ZELLER is the better story. My father wasn’t his business anymore, the guy was retired. But he never forgot about him. 15 years later he did good by our family for reasons that I can’t explain or understand. It was just work left undone, maybe. Or a story of the only person, other than my mother, who was thinking about justice for my father for 15 years and through sheer will and determination, made sure the man who destroyed my family was put to jail for the rest of his life.
Finally the last part of the story I’d like to share:
I am a product of my father’s murder. Everything I am, everything I will be, is because Elvin Hill decided he was gonna shoot my dad. I can use this information by playing the, “what if?” game. What if my father was alive? What if I was still living in Queens, in a working-class family? Would I be happier? Would I be better at talking to girls? Would I find writing and photography? Would I find love? It’s a shitty game. It’s unproductive and impossible to play correctly. The better story is this:
- I would never sacrifice the insights, the knowledge and experience I’ve gained to have my father back.
- I would never sacrifice my interests and hobbies to have my father back.
- I would never sacrifice my step-father, half-sister, and step-brother to have my father back.
- I would never sacrifice the girl I love to have my father back.
My father is gone and I am who I am. Life is a circle, he dies every time. There is no what if?, there’s only what now? What can I do now? How can I use this information, these memories, these arbitrary evils, the mistakes, the shit luck, to move myself forward?
We can only control so much of our lives, but we have full control of how we want to perceive them. Choose the better story.
Here’s the article on my father’s murder, published by the New York Daily News.