When I was 15 years old, I decided to keep a daily journal. I was partly motivated by the fact that my father had started to do so two years earlier and partly by the fact that I regretted not having a record of the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated less than six weeks earlier. Strange as it may seem, I have kept up that diary every day since I was 15.
January 1, 2014, marked the 50th anniversary of my first entry.
There are so many ways I could celebrate this day. I could list the most important lessons I have learned; I could reflect on my greatest joys or my greatest regrets. But I have decided to play it simple and concentrate on one subject: false memories.
I would not have realized how much we unconsciously edit our memories if I did not have contemporaneous accounts of each day of my life for the last 50 years. Most of these alterations are minor and harmless. For example, when I told people that, as a teenager, my friend Skip Baumgarten and I had seen Lenny Bruce perform live, I always said that our dates were two German tourists and that it was at a club in the San Fernando Valley. When I tracked down the entry in my diary decades later, I discovered that my memory of what Lenny Bruce talked about was accurate, but that the venue was in Hollywood and my date was not a German tourist, but a school friend named Wendy Wellwood.
But there is one false memory that had a major effect on my life. The incident began on October 16, 1979.
My wife, Flora, and I were visiting Calcutta, where we were hosted by my publisher’s representative, Lal Hiranandani. We got along well, and Lal decided to bring us to the home of a different friend each evening so that we could be served home-cooked versions of the cuisine of various regions of India.
Lal asked me what I wanted to do on our final day in the city and I said that I wanted to meet Mother Teresa. It was an unusual encounter because when we entered her office, she was involved in a heated real estate negotiation with a seller. “That’s my last offer,” she was shouting at him. “Not one rupee more!” It was not what I had expected of the saintly woman, but I liked her more for it. The next day, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
As memorable as was our meeting with Mother Teresa, it was what happened later that same day that would haunt me for many years to come.
We were to have dinner at the home of Lal’s best friend, a surgeon named Bhawani. I had met Bhawani the day before and he was a lively and erudite fellow. But when we arrived at his home, Bhawani was in a sad mood because he had come from the funeral of a friend who had died at an unusually young age. Bhawani asked to look at my right hand. After studying my palm, he sighed and asked to look at my left hand. Again he sighed. He told me that I would die at the age of 62. “Too bad,” he said, “but we have to accept our fate.”
I was startled, but I had researched palmistry and considered it without merit, so I didn’t take too seriously what he had said. Besides, I was only 31 years old, and 62 was literally a lifetime away.
Then came another day in my life…April 3, 1988.
I was in Mandalay, Burma. After visiting the Kathodaw Pagoda, otherwise known as The World’s Largest Book, I went to see the sunset from the top of Mandalay Hill. At the entrance there was a row of palm readers and their customers. One elderly man had a long line of people waiting for their turns, and I thought it would be interesting to have my palm read by him.
But by the time I returned to the entrance after sunset, everyone had gone home. Only one young man remained and asked if I would like my palm read. He looked like a real novice. I thought I caught him hiding a study book as I approached. I declined. He kept dropping his price until it was so absurdly low that it was pointless to say no. When he read my palm, his pronouncements were silly, so I asked him if he could at least tell me when I would die. He looked at my palm again and said, “When you are 62 years old.”
Uh-oh. Needless to say, I recalled my encounter with Bhawani the Calcutta surgeon.
As the years went by, I would occasionally recall these predictions that I would die at 62—occasionally, that is, until I started to get much older. Then those occasions became more frequent.
By the time I reached the age of 55, I was thinking on a regular basis about the possibility that I might be only a few years from game over. I wasn’t sure how to deal with these unpleasant predictions, but I did decide to not tell anyone about them. Not even my wife, my two sons or my closest friends knew.
On my 60th birthday, I realized that I would now be haunted by the predictions every day of my life until either I died or I achieved my 63rd birthday.
On February 4, 2010, the day before my 62nd birthday and two days before I was due to fly to Vancouver to work as a commentator at the Winter Olympics, I went for a climb in the Santa Monica Mountains with my wife and sons. Sitting above a small waterfall, I apologized for anything I had ever done to them and, in case anything happened to me, for any financial mess or other problems I would leave behind. My elder son, Elijah, was alarmed and reminded me that I had been working at Olympics around the world for more than 20 years and nothing had ever happened to me. I still kept my concerns secret.
From that day on, I woke up every morning calculating how many days had gone by since my 62nd birthday and how many remained until my 63rd. I tried not to, but I couldn’t help it.
Seven months into my 63rd year, I decided to try writing away my anxiety. I started an essay which I optimistically entitled “The Year I Didn’t Die.”
I began by finding my journal for 1979 and tracking down my contemporaneous account of the original prediction in Calcutta. Every detail was just as I remembered it. I wrote a few paragraphs like the ones above and called it a night.
The following evening, I looked for my original description of the Mandalay prediction. It said that the young palm reader had predicted that I would live to be at least 78, and that if I survived an illness that year, I would live a long, long life.
Somewhere along the line, my memory had falsely changed the predicted year of my death to match the first prediction. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. I felt a weight lifted from my shoulders.
However, the next day, a bit of the anxiety came back. I still didn’t believe in palmistry, but Bhawani of Calcutta was not some superficial New Ager; he was a medical doctor—a surgeon, whereas the Mandalay palm reader was just a young novice. I continued to count down the days.
Four days before my scheduled 63rd birthday, my wife and sons and I arrived at our home in the South of France, the mid-winter visit being my birthday present to myself.
A few minutes after midnight on February 5, Elijah wished me a happy birthday. I reminded him that because I was born in Hollywood, I would not actually turn 63 until after 5pm the following evening. I took a bath and then joined my wife downstairs. About five minutes later, we heard a loud crash from upstairs. We raced up the stairs and each of us checked the bedroom of one of our sons. They were both fine and, indeed, fast asleep. Then we turned on the light in the bathroom.
A full-length mirror attached to a cabinet had come loose and shattered. Large shards of sharp glass had landed in the bathtub exactly where I had just been lying.
Let’s just say that I made my way through the next 16 hours with great care. In the evening, I sat down in the living room with my wife and two sons and finally told them the story of the palm reading in Calcutta, my false memory of the reading in Mandalay and my daily concern over the past 12 months.
I never did determine when my false memory of the second death prediction arose. And I’m not sure why it developed.
Okay, flipping through the pages of 50 years of my life, I suppose there are a couple lessons worth passing on. From a writer’s point of view, keeping a journal has forced me to write every day, and I have never experienced writer’s block. For anyone who wants to be a writer, I do recommend keeping a daily journal.
From the point of view of just being a human being, the practice has led me to reflect each night on how I spent the hours of that day, and it has helped me focus my energies, even if my goal on a particular day was just to relax.
For much of my life I was ashamed of my youthful indiscretions: excesses, pomposity, insensitivity to others and more. But now, without denying responsibility for my actions, I have learned to forgive myself, which has made it easier to forgive others. I was just going through emotional growing pains. In fact, at 65, I still am.