My mother read plenty of books to me as a child, but never at bedtime. If I couldn’t fall asleep, she would lie down next to me and tell me a story about her childhood. I had no pictures to look at as she shared her tales, but I could paint those pictures in my mind.
On occasion, I would still be awake late enough to hear my dad coming up the stairs. After calling out my request for a glass of water – which he always brought me with a sigh – I would ask him to share a story, too. He would tell me he didn’t know any good stories. I would argue that he did. And then he would recall an incident that was usually pretty exciting and adventurous since he had been a country boy who roamed the woods. His stories about wildlife, hunting, and star gazing found a place to live in my brain. I rarely visited them for decades, but many remained and waited silently until summoned.
These days when I visit with my dad, he is usually the sleepy one. While he has moments of clarity and spunk, he feels confused and forgetful at times.
During a recent conversation he mentioned some dates that were incorrect. When I reminded him of the correct dates, he said, “My brain. It’s just going.” He has teased about his brain “going” for years, but now that he really is finding himself in the midst of confusion, the situation is no longer funny. “I just can’t remember anything,” he said.
I couldn’t escape the sadness in his voice. But I reached into that cache of country-boy tales in my head and pulled out an eventful bedtime story. “Well,” I said, “do you remember the time your horse ran you under a tree and you got knocked to the ground by a low hanging branch?”
He sat very still for a moment and then started laughing. “I forgot about that,” he said. And then he launched into the story, reminding me of details I had forgotten and telling me more than I remembered hearing before. He told me about the cow that took off running as he and others were relocating the herd. Dad bragged on the horse that nearly killed him, noting it was wonderfully skilled in chasing down errant cattle. That horse didn’t need a rider. That horse was on a mission, and Dad was just along for the ride – a ride that ultimately forced him to think fast, lie back as flat in the saddle as possible, and take a lick to the chin as he got smacked by that branch and tumbled to the ground.
“The horse’s name was Torky,” Dad said.
This was news to me. “Torky?” I said.
“Yes, Torky. T-O-R-K-Y.” He spelled it to be sure I got it right.
He was so happy to realize he could remember things from the past.
“You just needed a reminder,” I said.
“That’s right, I just needed a reminder,” he said. And from there, he took me into another memory of getting hurt as a kid.
Pretty soon he said, “Now you tell me about a time when you got hurt as a kid.” I told him about falling off a slide, and our conversation continued for an hour.
As we talked, I remembered lying in bed listening to my parents’ stories. I never fully outgrew the desire to hear their stories, welcoming them even as a teenager. But I think back to the age I was when Dad first told me this story of his wild ride on the back of a horse with a mission. Eight-year-old me had no idea I would someday be repeating this story back to him. I had no idea that story would someday help him reconnect to his past.
But that is the power of a good story.