I had a dream, I think (or perhaps a drug-induced hallucination.)
I’m in a grand ballroom, large but not enormous. Bordering on baroque, but with a curious variation — the walls were covered in books. Shelf upon shelf, reaching far higher than anyone could reach or a sane person would climb. But missing the usual rows of tables, chairs and stacks that typically populate a library. Was it a ballroom or a library?
Around me milled some dozens of people, mostly dressed casually, with the occasional sport coat or modest dress here or there. Perhaps it’s a party, I wondered. Still disoriented, I gazed about the hall and thought that some of the guests appeared faded, as though in old photograph or through a fog.
Trying to clear my head, I focused on those nearest. Many of the guests wore a gold star on their garments. It was shiny, five-pointed, and perhaps the size of a large coin. The stars’ meaning wasn’t immediately clear. Then I realized that I recognized some of them — many of them were my family? Was this a family reunion? I decided it must be.
I turned and found myself facing my younger brother. “Remember when you got bit twice by that black German Shepherd while you were on the swings at your friend Mike’s house?” he inquired. No greeting, just this non-sequitur from my childhood.
“Sure. That hurt like the blazes, but why bring it up?” I asked, bewildered.
“It’s a good story.”
“Okay,” I ventured, “What’s going on here? Is this a reunion? Where are we?”
“Sure, we’re getting together to swap stories, just like we always do,” he said.
I was skeptical, as those events are usually held outdoors and accompanied by tables full of food and coolers of cheap beer, all of which were absent at the moment. At least there ought to be a big platter stacked with cucumber sandwiches, for crissakes.
I ventured another look around. Most people just seemed to be milling around, with quiet conversations below my level of hearing. Off to one side, a woman smiled at me. I didn’t think I knew her, but much about this place was confusing. She had shoulder-length silver hair, tied loosely with a cord. Her eyes were gray, but somehow seemed warm and calming. She wore a soft leather work apron and sat at a small desk, polishing a gold star like the others I’d seen.
As I approached, she greeted me. “Hello Don, I’m the Smith.”
“Do I know you?”, I wondered aloud, “I’m sorry, I know a lot of Smiths, but I can’t seem to recall you.”
“We haven’t met before, I know you from the stories,” she explained. “And my name isn’t Smith — I’m called the Smith. It’s what I do. I create things from raw materials, like this gold star or these books. I help people craft the stories that tell about their lives and their loved ones. I work in words and images.”
I looked at the star in her hand. “And gold?” I ventured.
“Yes, and gold,” she smiled, “those things really aren’t that different to work with — it’s all in the refining and polishing.”
On her desk was a book, I saw my sister’s name on the cover. I asked, “Is that book about Kathy?”
“Yes, it is. I like to read about people while I create their star, it will turn out better when I can feel what they did during their lifetime. This isn’t a big story compared to some, but it’s wonderful.”, she seemed to gush a little, like a young librarian who’d just discovered a new author. “When you read this book, you can feel the love that was so central to her life. Her stories tell of the challenges and sacrifice of young motherhood, the joy of raising a family, and the courage and pain of her illness.”
She handed me the book and I opened it gently, leafing through a few pages. “Why are some of these pages are blank?” I asked.
“Those pages aren’t blank,” the Smith replied, “they just aren’t for you. Not all of her stories are shared with everyone. Everyone has public stories, family stories, and intimate moments — you will only see the stories that you were part of, and those you’ve been told by others.”
“There’s a lot I can’t see here”, I observed.
“Of course there is, no one is really an ‘open book’ as they say. You may learn more of her stories over time, and many others you will never know. Some of them only you know, from when you shared personal things with each other. But believe me when I tell you, this girl deserves her star.”
It was Kathy’s star. I asked, “But what is the star?”
The Smith explained, “The gold star is a reward for a life well lived. At the end, when all your stories have been written, we decide who earned a star.”
A simple gold star, peeled from the mimeographed pages of elementary school homework and aggrandized in precious metal. It made sense. Because when we do good work and live lives that create stories that transcend our lifetimes, we deserve a gold star. “Is she here?” I asked.
“If you mean ‘she’ in the sense of her person, her soul, energy or essence, then no — she’s gone. What you see in this place is your collective memory of her, indeed, of everyone who is or was dear to you.”
I searched the room. I saw my mother’s auburn beehive hairdo, and her cat’s-eye glasses. Near her was my maternal grandmother in a house dress and apron, brushing flour from the front. Another sister was there, coffee cup in hand, all of them just as I recalled them, all sporting gold stars.
The Smith continued, “The books are your stories. They are thin or thick, old and new, exciting and dull. They are the collections of each person’s values, adventures and interactions.”
Beginning to understand, I asked, “Do I have a book?”
“Certainly,” she replied, reaching for a volume on the shelf. “It’s unfinished, of course. I haven’t worked on it in a while, but I recall it was interesting, with a rocky start, a touching love story, and some adventurous parts in the middle.”
“Can I see it?” I asked.
She shook her head. “That’s not really necessary. You were there, and should have been paying attention. Besides, looking backward isn’t the point. Think about where the story goes from here. Your book is already longer than some, and that’s fine, but remember that a life well-lived has breadth as well as length, and the truest test is the memories that others carry when you are gone. You create your stories, I just write them down.”
At that point, things got fuzzy again, and the nurse was asking me to rate my pain level from one to ten, and whether I needed more Fentanyl or if I thought some oxy would be enough.
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