Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Writing with Memory Loss

I am not sure what's going on lately, but I definitely have pockets of memory loss, bad sectors in my brain that can't be accessed.  I did have a couple of incidents that have contributed to this memory loss as well as a family history of it.  Lately it has been worse.  The funny thing about memory loss is you don't know you have it unless it's staring you right in the face.  I tend not to believe people when they said I said something I don't remember saying, but when they show me what I don't remember doing, that's very unnerving.  It makes me uncomfortable.

When I was two, I took a fall off of the top of a house ladder, head first onto concrete.  My mother tells the story in detail, in particular how she held me in the car while my eyes rolled back and I vomited.  They had to drive an hour into the city to get me to the Children's hospital.  This was in 1970 before there was 911.  She loves to tell the story of how my dad sped through every red light hoping to get the attention of a police car.  She said I had a bad concussion and a skull fracture.  She blames my sister, who is only two years older than me.  She blames the four year old for not doing a good enough job babysitting.  I don't know if that contributes to my poor memory, but I definitely have sketchy memories of my childhood in general.  I take my sister's word for whatever happened.  What I remember is very spotty, like images in a dream.

Four years ago, a week after my husband and I returned from our honeymoon, I passed out in the middle of the night because of stomach pain.  I was walking to bed and  apparently cracked my face into something hard on my way to the ground.  My assumption is it was the corner of an end table, but I don't really know.  The first thing after passing out that I remember is sitting in bed with paramedics standing over me. 

My husband told the paramedics that we got married the week before.  I looked at him in complete shock and said, "We got married?" which terrified the bejesus out of him.  "Yes," he said a little too calmly.  At one point I remember panicking because I didn't remember where the children were.  "Where are my kids?" I asked my husband.  He looked even more frightened and told me they were in bed.  After all, it was 3:00 a.m.  Where else could they be? 

The paramedics took me to the hospital and continued to ask question after question.  I remember all I could come up with was the year.  I had no idea of the day, the week, the month, nothing.  While I was at the hospital I gradually started remembering things.  I do remember how difficult it was to come up with the date and tried hard to remember our wedding and honeymoon.  I still don't remember my husband walking me to my bed after getting me off the floor.  When my husband wheeled me to the parking lot to go home, I was absolutely surprised that I was at Bethesda North.  I don't know where I thought I was, but remember being so confused and disoriented even after they released me. 

I took two days off work because my eye was too swollen to open it.  I remember going back to work on a Wednesday standing in front of the elevator on the way to my office.  Someone caught sight of my bruised arm and asked me what happened.  Then they looked at my face!  The funny thing was I was taking karate and had torn the ligament in my thumb while fighting a very large eleven year-old.  Everyone's first thought was I had a bad karate class. When I said I "passed out", they assumed I was drunk, which wasn't the case at all and not exactly the image I want at work.  I finally explained it as "fainting."  They all thought it was weird that I randomly fainted.  I do too. 

As the week went on, people kept asking me questions about work, detailed questions about application specifications that I had designed and was in the middle of documenting.  It hurt my head to think about it, to try to access those sectors of my brain.  I called one of my clients to ask them a question.  They promptly informed me I had already called and asked that, not knowing I had cracked my head.  At some point, I sat in my boss' office and told him that story.  He told me a concussion can give you memory loss.  I had an epiphany and told him they told me that - but I had forgotten until he mentioned it.  It is kind of ridiculous to tell someone who may experience memory loss to go back to the doctor if they do - they should write it in sharpie on your hand instead.

Lately, over the last few weeks, I have had that sort of memory loss - not just not remembering the exact word for the situation or remembering if I took my medicine (which I forget all of the time).  One day, I went to the basement to put in a load of laundry just to realize I just did it only thirty minutes earlier.  At my son's soccer game two weeks ago, I asked my daughter for a bottle of water.  She said the one on the ground was mine.  I said no it's not.  She said you took a drink.  I denied it.  She looked at me with the same look that was on my husband's face when I said, "We got married?" and told me it really was my water and she was absolutely positive she witnessed me drinking half of it.  I meekly told her, "OK, thank you," and drank my water. 

There have been more and more times lately when there are empty spots in my mind.  I did forget to mention it at the doctor's office.  Hopefully I'll remember it next time.

I was actually going to end this post and forgot that my point was how it is to write memoir-type things with memory loss.  The fact is I have always had problems writing about my family and my childhood in particular.  It did suck quite a lot.  Now that I have a problem remembering the order of things, the exact context of events, and so forth, I can much more easily write about the things that pop out to me.  I can fictionalize the chronology and join related themes in my life without worrying about hurting people's feelings.  After all, the details are not exact, the chronology is wrong, and one thing that happens can be easily blended to other things at other time periods. 

I can't think of anything more liberating as a writer than being free to let loose about your past without worrying about offending anyone.  It is a gift to be able to reconstruct the past creatively without forgetting about the things that were important.  I think (and hope) that I didn't lose anything that was important.  I will never know.

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