DISRUPTION OF MEMORY

This piece was written for the wonderful A Picture's Worth project. Based on the saying "A picture is worth a thousand words," participants were tasked with writing a 1000-word essay inspired by a photograph. Originally published October 2010.

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“I told him four times already.”

“He doesn’t remember anything,” said my mother. “It’s from his accident.” Of course. The accident. I’d missed so much in two years.

“Oh, did he hit his head when he fell off the roof?” I replied, suddenly trying to put together how a broken heel might result in memory loss.

“No, the bicycle accident.” She said it so casually, as if this was common knowledge. Not once in twenty-eight years had this been mentioned, but now she was recklessly tossing around the possibility as if it were fact. As if we all made this association, as if it were regularly inserted into conversations at family functions or pulled out among friends as the punch line to a joke.

I remember the warm spring afternoon we gathered to celebrate Colin’s second birthday. I remember the fritos and vegetable dip, the bottles of birch beer soda, and how quickly the laughing stopped when the slideshow abruptly shifted from California landscapes and group photos at dinner to my father smiling weakly from his hospital bed, half of his face as black as obsidian, swollen and taut. His shoulder the color of eggplant. That photo, in an instant, sucked all the air from the room, holding our breath hostage until a collective exhale resumed the balance of oxygen. My father chuckled uncomfortably, allowing a breathless “Wow” to escape his mouth. He hadn’t seen himself like that.

I had not seen him like that either. When he arrived at Logan Airport the previous November, the thing I was most concerned with, more than anything in the whole entire world, was not the condition of my father’s face but that my mother not cry in public. “Please. Do not cry,” I’d insisted more than once on the way to the airport, and again while we waited at the TWA gate. It was vitally important to me that these tanned, radiant strangers from California not see my mother cry. Before the first passenger exited the jetway, my mother was breaking every rule and allowing tears to fill her anxious eyes.

It was my grandfather I saw first, his tall frame popping up from the crowd of the passengers. When my father finally emerged, his face was the color of mustard, a pale mossy green lining the edge of what now revealed itself to be the remains of a bruise covering the right side of his face. The white of his eye a deep crimson; the skin around it a dark mauve. His right arm was suspended in a sling to support the broken clavicle. And if this were not enough to bear, my father – upon first seeing us – began to cry in public. My mother fell into his chest and also cried in public. 

At home, he would show us his purple hip and the platter-shaped bruise that ran down the side of his thigh. He would give us presents from California, like he always did when he traveled on installations. For me, a copy of Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, not because he liked them – I’m not sure he even knew who they were -- but because I’d started playing flute the previous year. In many ways, it was no different than the other times he came home after a long work trip. This time simply included a sling and adults crying in public.

I was eleven years old that October in 1983. As a child already prone to worry, it was my misfortune that I be the recipient of the first phone calls from Palo Alto. I didn’t sense anything at first. Steve, my father’s coworker, was a close family friend. I’ll try again in an hour. Just tell your mom that I called, ok? To me, it was still a novelty to take a message and carry it around like a secret until I could report it to my mother when she would return home. It made me feel responsible, like a grown-up. I carried three or maybe four of the same message around that afternoon, ready to burst when she finally came through the door. But it was immediately clear from my mother’s reaction that three or four phone calls from Steve was not something that should feel like a privilege but something that should make you worry. 

My mother would soon learn about the bicycle tire that turned at ninety degrees, how my father had flown through the air and landed on the pavement. I would soon learn that the initials I.C.U. meant Very Badly Injured and that teachers and guidance counselors will treat you a bit differently when your father is admitted to one. I would not learn any details other than “blood clot near the brain” and subdural hematoma, but those words don’t mean anything to an eleven-year-old. It was through the behavior of the adults around me that I understood it was Serious. When one’s family never takes phone calls behind closed doors, the sudden onset of whispered conversations from the bedroom is terrifying.

It would be ten years before I learned how close to death my father had been; five years more before I learned that he had slipped into a coma. And still another twelve years to learn that my father’s memory had suffered as a result of the accident; that he suffered toxicity from the Dilantin he’d been prescribed to prevent further seizures; that there had been seizures at all; and that it was perhaps my mother, and not my father, who suffered the most. My father’s memory of the entire day and those that followed has been erased forever. It was never written to his harddrive. My memory and that of my sister’s is written based not only on limited information but limited understanding. 

My mother remembers everything. The date comes without hesitation: October 25, 1983. It was a Tuesday. He returned on a Saturday. She almost lost her husband. We almost lost our father. She remembers everything.