I find I’m really good at managing my memories. By that I don’t mean I remember things really well. I have actually recently realized how adept I am at “forgetting” just the right details or re-framing events to fit my preferred narrative more neatly.
For example, while writing my recent post on my missionary companion eloping, it dawned on me that I’d been telling the story wrong for probably 20 years. It may be a minor detail, but in my telling of the story orally I had always said that I called my mission president the night my companion eloped and interrupted his big meeting. But when I read the journal I was keeping at the time I rediscovered that that wasn’t how it went down at all.
I had actually enjoyed that first night all by myself and had held back to let Elder Ferreira make the call himself. I had called my mission president the next morning. I had only heard about Elder Ferreira interrupting the meeting the previous night because one of the Elders I joined in the next area over, Elder Christensen, had been at the mission home playing the piano.
I’m not sure why or when I changed the order of events and I’m not sure it even matters. But it is a bit odd when you realize so concretely that your own memory has been wrong. I sincerely believed the fabrication! I certainly don’t think I was intentionally lying although I may have originally jumped headlong into the George Costanza method of self-deceit, “It’s not a lie if you really believe it.”
I think it’s a funnier story when I am the one making the first call interrupting my mission president’s seminar late at night. I certainly appear more concerned and stalwart as an LDS missionary if I had called right away. It puts me in a more positive light even if just slightly I guess. But it wasn’t the truth.
It also doesn’t escape me that the journal entry that took place a day or so after the events unfolded is certainly the most accurate telling of the story. I automatically think of Joseph Smith’s several renditions of the First Vision story. His earlier retellings are obviously more accurate than the official canonized version that was formulated 10+ years afterwards and places him in the best possible light; it tells a better story. It also makes you reconsider if any of the Bible gospel accounts are anywhere close to reality when they were all written a generation after the events were supposed to have happened.
Yeah, right. He still lives. And there are people today who believe that about Hilter, Elvis and Osama Bin Laden so it certainly doesn’t take much.
Lastly, that elopement story dug up another memory trick of mine… the forgetting of something painful. Like the missionaries in the Book of Mormon Musical, I have always been pretty good at “turning it off.”
But, as I was re-reading my journal I remembered Elder Christensen.
Immediately after the elopement, I had been instructed to join him and his Brazilian companion Elder Castanha in the next area over. Both of them were a breath of fresh air, but because I couldn’t speak Portuguese very well yet, Elder Christensen especially was my first source of comfort in Brazil.
He and I hit it off immediately and became instant friends. We talked for hours each night. He could cook well and he fixed some familiar Americanized favorites. Most importantly he understood. He understood my culture shock. He understood my language frustrations. He understood what I’d given up to come on a mission. He understood the familial and cultural pressure from back home. Lastly, although we never talked or even hinted at it I’m certain he understood being gay and firmly closeted especially to oneself.
I knew it subconsciously at the time and I’m sure he did too. If anything drew us to the other it was that. It wasn’t an attraction in the sense we were fighting off lust for one another. I actually don’t believe there was an attraction from either one of us and nothing happened. It wasn’t that at all. It was a sense of finding a brother. I credit Elder Christensen with saving my sanity. The week or two period I spent with him was the only bright spot in my first 4 months in Brazil.
Eventually Elder Christensen and Elder Castanha were transferred and our threesome was broken up. I got a new companion, an American who was a piece of work all his own. Elder Christensen soon went home and I think we may have written once or twice.
But the reason I had “forgotten” about Elder Christensen was because of a rumor I’d heard a year or so after that. I’d heard that he had killed himself. And even more than that painful idea alone was the presumption on my part that he’d done it because he was gay. Since that day I’ve lived with this idea that someone I admired and loved like a brother had found life too painful and hopeless.
I avoided thinking of his suicide at all costs. If that’s what it meant to acknowledge you were gay I wanted nothing of it. I’ve never talked about Elder Christensen. For all intents and purposes he was wiped from my memory. Since the information on his death came 2nd or 3rd hand at best, my assumptions about it were just that… assumptions.
So, I googled Elder Christensen and his hometown yesterday and found a listing in the hometown newspaper for his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. I’m confident it was his parents, because in spite of the very common last name, he had a very unusual first name and he was listed among their kids as “deceased.”
Perhaps avoiding thinking about about his tragic ending was a survival tool on my part. But I wrote this today so that I don’t forget anymore and that he isn’t forgotten. He didn’t know that it does get better. For me it got better only when I left the LDS paradigm behind and accepted myself, something unthinkable back in our mission days. I understand that. I only wish he’d been able to discover that too.