Forget Me Not

In third grade, my friend Janet and I discovered a sure-fire way to cause a few moments of unconsciousness.  We were clever enough to engage in this play only at my house, where there was no mother, only my older sister Karen, who was weary of having charge over her baby sister and giggly friends; she mostly ignored us. For several afternoons, we locked ourselves into the bedroom Karen and I shared and literally knocked ourselves out.  We took turns: one of us was the fainter and one was the catcher.  The fainter stood with the backs of her legs brushing up against the bed, then slumped down to her haunches and counted to ten.  After the ten-count, she held her breath and jumped upright quickly, before her blood pressure had time to adjust.  The result was a sudden blackout.

The catcher’s job was to stand in front of the fainter and keep her from falling forward.  It wasn’t necessary most of the time, but we were cautious.  The fainter inevitably fell backwards onto the bed for a few seconds of unconsciousness, a sort of mini-nap.  The moments after waking were exhilarating. 

When it was my turn at catching, I’d study Janet’s face and body.  Her facial features slackened as she fell back, signaling her loss of consciousness.  I leaned forward with my face over hers on the bed, watching her and waiting for her eyes to open, for her to remember where she was.  It wasn’t possible to take a breath in those few seconds of waiting.  My heartbeat and breathing instinctively recalled the sensations, and both functions seemed suspended as I plunged vicariously into brief, blessed unconsciousness with my best friend.

Just as Janet’s eyes fluttered open, I glimpsed momentary disorientation before recognition prevailed.  We both gasped, then I fell back on the bed beside her while we giggled and reveled in the oddly refreshing sensation of remembering where we were. This was too much fun to keep to ourselves, so we invited a third friend to join us.

“Come see how we make ourselves pass out!” But that afternoon our friend fell neither forward nor back and plunged to the floor between me and the bed, hitting her head on the edge of the bed on the way down. She wasn’t too keen on our pastime and sported a colorful bruise on her forehead for a while, just to emphasize her displeasure. At age eight, I didn’t have that much memory to lose, but the potential for injury seemed too risky, even then. I didn’t yet know how thoroughly I would someday guard my memories. They were clues to who my mother was, and to who I was becoming.

A coworker of mine once told me a story about her grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s disease and lived in a nursing home.  “When Grandad died, Grandma’s disease was fairly well progressed,” Melinda said.  “We weren’t sure how she would take the news of his death.  She’d been forgetting things and didn’t always know who we were, but she always knew Grandad. When he died, we couldn’t bring her to his memorial service and tried to break the news to her without upsetting her too badly. She was heartbroken. 

“The next day, though, she’d forgotten all about Grandad’s death,” Melinda said.  “When she asked about him, we told her again, as gently as we could, but she grieved like he’d just died.  This went on a couple of weeks, until we realized it was just cruel to break this news to her again and again.”  Melinda frowned and looked away.  “We started telling her that Grandad was on his way or that he’d gone fishing.  It was hard to say those things at first, because we knew they were lies, but it seemed kinder to let her forget that Grandad was dead.” 

I don’t know where I am or what day it is. I’m conscious of lying on my back on a carpeted floor. When I open my eyes, I watch the blades of my bedroom’s ceiling fan rotate for a bit before I close them again. As I’ve grown older, my body’s begun to rebel at physical challenges and my language center, once a source of pride, doesn’t cough up names or words as quickly.  My first thought is this: Is memory the next piece of ground I’ll be forced to give up? I’ve learned to accommodate loss, but I won’t give up memory without a fight.

Within seconds, I remember with great relief it’s Wednesday morning and my day off.  There’s a wet cloth in my right hand, and I raise it to press against my cheek, where its coolness sparks sensations in the side of my face and brings back the memory of the morning, of the aborted walk with our two dogs.  I remember the chocolate lab walking his owner at the end of our street, how our dogs pulled like crazy to meet him, how their combined eighty-pound weight dragged me off of slippery wet grass to the pavement, and how I saved a face-first plunge only with my hands and one knee, which are now raw and bleeding. But I still don’t know how I ended up on my bedroom floor.

Many years later, when I awakened on my bedroom floor with momentary loss of consciousness and memory, my priorities had shifted. I eventually remembered standing up too quickly from the cedar chest at the foot of our bed to get a bandage from the bathroom for my bloody knee.  I was unconscious when I landed and when the side of my head bounced against the floor.

When my husband discovered I’d passed out and given myself a concussion, he turned me in to my doctor, and she insisted that I go to the emergency room.

“Someone told me you had a fall this morning,” her nurse said when she called.  “Dr. Willard thinks you should be seen in the emergency room.”

“No, really,” I say.  “I’ve got a slight headache, but I’m fine.” I’d begun writing the memories into essays, hoping to make greater sense of them in written form. I was at my computer when the nurse called and didn’t have time for hospital visits.

“Just to be safe,” she said.

A few weeks after my concussion, and after the emergency room bills stopped trickling in, I began to forget the ballyhoo that surrounded what was eventually diagnosed as vasovagal syncope, or simple fainting after sudden loss of blood pressure. It was embarrassing to admit that after twenty-five years as a medical technologist, up to my elbows in other people’s blood and body fluids, I’d fainted at the sight of my own blood. What lingers is the frightening uncertainty of not remembering where I was and why.  I wonder what it was like for my mother to awaken this way day after endless day.  She didn’t choose schizophrenia any more than I chose to give myself a concussion, didn’t deserve her disease any more than I deserve good health. I hadn’t fallen victim to schizophrenia as I’d once feared, a victory not of my winning.

In 1960, when Janet and I rushed back to my empty house from Oak Park Elementary to make ourselves pass out, my mother was already an old hand at blacking out.  For nearly eight years, she’d sampled insulin shock coma and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), more than a hundred times.  According to some, ECT’s effects on memory and brain function can be profound.  In 1958, neurologist Max Fink, who studied ECT extensively, likened the effects of ECT to those of severe head trauma.  In both, the alterations in brain-wave activity were the same, he said, as were biochemical changes in spinal fluid. In his opinion, ECT induced changes similar to concussive head injury.

I have few memories of my mother from before I started school and not very many after. Many of them consist of watching her stare vapidly out the car windows as we drove to or from her Saturday ECT treatments at a local hospital while she lived at our home with us for a few months around my sixth birthday.  There were also episodes of violent outbursts in between her treatments, memories it pains me to hold on to. It might be kinder to forget, as my coworker Melinda discovered, but I won’t consciously give them up. Maybe it’s a function of this kindness that there are so few available to me; my forgetting must have begun early. I recall only a handful of looks or touches—and no words—directed at me. It was as though she didn’t know or didn’t remember that I was her daughter, as though I didn’t really exist. 

My sister Karen learned how to forget some things, too. She told me that our mother once mixed bleach in our lemonade and made us drink it, that she left the lights on in our bedroom through the night sometimes as punishment when we were rowdy at night.  “I really don’t remember too much about those years, though,” Karen said.  “I hated feeling like I, like we, weren’t normal.”  

I know what she means.  As soon as I entered school and became aware that other families weren’t like ours, that craziness was to be feared and that crazy ones should be ostracized, as though mental illness were either moral failure or a stubborn refusal to act normal, I felt something less than normal, too.  I couldn’t very well forget I had a mother who lived in an insane asylum, could I?  I couldn’t, but I could pretend she didn’t exist. Did that mean we were even?

In 1982, my father and stepmother gave me a black leather hatbox that once belonged to my mother, as well as a few pictures, papers, and books.  I was twenty-nine years old—the same age she was when she was diagnosed with schizophrenia—and the only keepsake I had of her at the time was a ring that Karen had passed on to me.  The ring isn’t valuable, with its tiny chunk of a diamond in the center.  It’s not pretentious either, with gently filigreed white gold domed up to a flattened center, in which the stone is lodged, almost level with the setting. It was a size or two too big for me, but I had it sized and still wear it occasionally, for a few weeks, before putting it back into my jewelry box, forgotten for another good while. 

Aside from a ring that didn’t quite fit and a black leather scrapbook, the only tangible evidences I have of my mother’s existence are stored inside her hatbox. There’s an album with perhaps thirty or forty photos, dating from 1944, when my parents met, and a scrapbook of my mother’s high school memories.  There is the letter written to my father a few days before she died in 1966. There’s a college typing textbook with her name and a few margin notes inscribed in it. The hospital records from her sojourn at Southeastern State hospital from 1953 – 1957. A handful of black-and-white photos and a small collection of papers, mostly copies of vital documents. The guestbook from her funeral service. The hatbox was a gift from my grandmother before my mother’s marriage to my father, and bears her married initials, “BBH.”  Barbara Bloom Henke. 

Before her death in 1966, it’s likely my mother had forgotten most of the people and places memorialized in the photos I now study for the stories they might tell. She’d likely forgotten that she loved to ride horses and boats as a girl, that she played bridge with passion, and that she enjoyed winter trips to her parents’ beachside home in Ft. Myers, Florida as a young woman.  Unlike Melinda’s grandmother with Alzheimer’s, who forgot recent events and remembered only life long past, my mother had probably lost both old and new memories.

At stake for me now are the decades of memories that make up my life story, which include people and experiences whose influences I couldn’t have imagined in third grade and didn’t recognize early enough. Some are still revealing their value. The thought of losing any memory, even ones whose only worth seem to be lessons learned, makes me want to gather them up and tuck them all away for safekeeping, somewhere safer than my mother’s hatbox. The problem with memories is that as soon as I pull them out to wonder at hidden significance, they become unyielding in my hands, the way Lot’s wife became a pillar of salt as punishment for looking back at her home in Sodom, presumably the place she’d lived and loved her whole life. Whether her instinct was born out of curiosity about what the future would hold or out of longing for what she was losing, I can relate.

Most of my life, I tried to coax a living, breathing mother and a new history of our lives out of a collection of random, mostly petrified artifacts and the stories I invented to explain who she was, who I was. Artifacts don’t give up truths easily, and there’s no one left to ask. Meanwhile, I accumulated memories of my own life through writing the words that seem best to describe them. The words too often become as frozen as the moments immortalized in snapshots, now guarded with the persistent resolve of a daughter determined to remember and to tease out meaning. I’m wary of losing even one.            

Because really, if I lost the memories, who would I be then? 

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