Have I Made Peace with My Past?

Illustration: Sari Cohen

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Have I Made Peace with My Past?
I've told the story of losing my dogs to more friends than I can count. The setup is always the same. First I describe them: King Charles spaniels, a coked-up-seeming white-and-tan named Cooper and a lady black-and-tan, Simone, with the temperament and face of Richard Nixon. I talk about our lives as a pack, the neighbors driven mad by Cooper's psychotic bark, the vets who lined up antidepressants for Simone; I explain that they were half-trained and ill behaved but I loved them so much it was a sickness. Then I introduce the trouble: I had a baby, as a single mother, and my household fell apart. I'd wake up at 5 to an infant wailing, a dog growling at that infant and another dog pooping mutinously in my fireplace. I kept them, insanely, for three more years. Then I moved, and a friend took it upon herself to arrange their adoption. She assured me they would remain together. At this point in the story I pause—and my grief is real—and say, "What could I do?" I describe our last walk together, watching my friend lead them away, and how desperately I wanted to go after them...

This is where the story gets tricky. When I reached the far shore two weeks later, a neighbor texted me saying she thought she'd seen Cooper for sale on TV (in fact, she didn't say "on TV"; she gave the name of a radio station that I mistook for a TV station, but since I got in the habit of saying TV, that's how I remember it). I called my friend and found it was true: The adoption had gone awry and the dogs were in separate homes. I started bawling. All I could see was Cooper's frantic little face on TV (to reiterate: never actually on TV). But then my friend stopped me. "Wait wait wait—wait until you hear what happened!" she said. "After they were split up, they became completely different dogs. It turns out they didn't get along at all! They never figured out who the alpha was." My friend was jubilant, having watched firsthand my years of torment. And instantly, my memory started changing to reflect this new truth. The recollections I'd had of my dogs happily rolling in the grass morphed into visions of standoffs over a stolen bone, of the escape tunnels they'd both tried digging in the backyard. I came to see, in a flowering of new memory, that those dogs had never been happy with me. It had been a shit show from the start.

The question I am building to is this: When we talk about making peace with the past, which past are we talking about? The past changes when our perspective changes, so how (and why?) "make peace" with a mirage? The "past" with my dogs, as I had long imagined it, was a story that merely reflected another story I was already telling, a story about "not quitting" that can easily be traced to my father, who, every time I tried to quit something in life—the oboe, the Dorf twins' lawn Olympics, the student council that would later impeach me—would send me right back in, saying, "You're no quitter." Decades later, I was still gripped by the notion, torturing two dogs and a baby rather than correct my sight.

A lot changes when you give up the idea of your past as "a series of events that happened" and embrace it for what it is, a clutch of mutating stories with no fixed point of reference. If you're not controlling those stories, you can bet they're controlling you, so tell new ones. Tell old ones with fresh and oddball details. Tell stories you don't understand about people you'd like to dismiss. And for the sake of all that is holy, make your stories funny—just as an act of love.

—April Wilder, a writer and teacher whose new blog, TrueRufus.Com, is dedicated to narrative awareness