On forgetting

Posted on April 5, 2010


I have the power (mostly uncontrollable) of being able to forget virtually anything. In fact, I can completely forget the number nine — should it ever prove necessary.

I hope it doesn’t. Life is strange when you forget the number nine. I know, because my father did it.

Jack was a jazz pianist. In one of his venues they’d also hired a stage hypnotist, and Jack, being Jack, decided to volunteer as a subject. During the course of the performance, the hypnotist instructed him to forget the number nine.

It was, he said when telling me about it later, like a mental “burp” whenever he tried to think of the number between eight and ten.

Or something like that.

I don’t remember clearly because I was immediately seized with the irrational fear that I would, without warning, forget the number nine. It wasn’t until about a week later that my rational mind finally kicked in. When it did, it pointed out that if I could forget the number nine, then I could forget anything, including my name, address, and even my favourite TV programs.

My rational mind has never been as comforting as I’d like.

The problem was, my rational mind was right. I was already so good at forgetting individual things, forgetting everything seemed all-too possible.

Look what I did to Ted.

Ted is my cousin, and back in 1962 he came to stay with us for a while in Windsor, Ontario. It was great — the closest to a brother I ever had as a kid.

A few blocks away was a vacant lot where we spent a lot of time playing. One day we discovered a wicked-looking barbed-wire fence that had been pushed over and was now covered in weeds. Being confirmed fans of every spy and adventure series on TV, we knew immediately what we had to do.


It’s not as easy as it looks. 

It’s not as easy as it looks

We had to crawl under the barbed wire while imaginary bullets whizzed over our heads.

Ted went first. I grabbed a branch which I used to keep up a constant barrage of covering fire as he made his way through the treacherous and ensnaring wire tentacles. At first all was well, but then he started to behave somewhat erratically. He’d stop moving for several moments, then thrash around making inarticulate, but disturbing noises. This would be followed by another period of stillness, then some more thrashing and yelling. I abandoned my post and wandered over to where he was lying.

“You stuck?”


Through experimentation (some involving blood) we determined that there was no way he could get free without adult assistance, and being that I was the one not caught up in a mess of barbed wire, I was the natural choice to run home for help. With all the importance of a soldier trying to save a fallen comrade, I took off at full speed.

The trip, at the most, took three minutes.

And I forgot. Okay? It just happened.

Apparently I simply walked into the house, sat down on the living room sofa and began reading a Tom Swift Jr. novel. Maybe something about the situation reminded me of it. Perhaps I’d been thinking, “I have to go get help for Ted, just like Tom has to get help to rescue Phyllis sometimes.” And then from there I may have remembered that I had  recently been reading a Tom Swift book that I hadn’t finished, so by the time I got home the entire environment in my mind had changed.

I don’t know.  However it happened, I was happily engrossed in my own private world when Ted came in two hours later.

“Where were you?” he asked.

“I was reading. Where were you?”

“I was in the vacant lot! I was caught in barbed wire!”

It all came back to me then.

“Oh,” I said somewhat lamely. “Right.”

Since I felt at least partly responsible for the state he was in (which, now that I really looked at him, I realised was somewhat torn and bloody), I tried desperately hard to think of something to say that might sooth him.

“So,” I said. “Did you get out?”

It didn’t sooth him.

We eventually made up — Ted had his own kinks, so he couldn’t stay on the moral high ground for long. But I’ll admit, it’s always disturbed me that I could so quickly forget something as important as rescuing my cousin. If I let it, the thought of forgetfulness can prey on me like an unseen but strongly felt imminent disaster.

That’s when I sit back and count to ten.

If I make it all the way without any mental “burps” after eight, I relax.