*Featured Artwork: “Studies on asemic interferences on (and within) concrete structures 5” by Federico Federici
Debris by Cindy Bradley
“We store in memory only images of value. The value may be lost over the passage of time, but that’s the implacable judgment of feeling. This, we say somewhere within us, is something I’m hanging on to. And of course, often we cleave to things because they possess heavy negative charges. Pain has strong arms.”
-Patricia Hampl, I Could Tell You Stories
When the brain’s neural networks sputter and stall on their way to and from the memory bank, the memory retrieved – if in fact it can be retrieved at all – is often a different version of what really happened, a pale ghost of its former self. I’ve become obsessed with what remains when memory begins to flutter away.
In March 2014 my father was diagnosed with the onset of dementia. At eighty-seven years old, I suppose a diagnosis like this should have been somewhat expected, but it was anything but. He has always been remarkably healthy; his mind still so sharp that dementia wasn’t in our forecasts. Subsequent telephone conversations with his best friend revealed that my dad hadn’t been himself for the past few months, and may have suffered a minor stroke that went undetected. A month later, my oldest son Jeremy went to stay with my dad in Las Vegas, where he had been living since my mother’s death in 1999. With his diagnosis, my dad’s doctor stated he’d need 24/7 care, if not with a caretaker at home, then in an assisted living facility where his needs could be met.
One Saturday at the end of April, Jeremy, along with my nephew Dustin, drove my dad to a local park, where he could sit on a bench and read the newspaper while they shot baskets on one of the handful of tidy basketball courts. A great idea in theory. I suppose being outdoors with the sun shining and the birds chirping, it’s easy to forget your age, your limitations. I presume when the basketball came bouncing towards him, he remembered echoes of former days, when his now adult grandsons were boys, and he was younger, too. When my dad stood up to retrieve the errant ball, he couldn’t find his balance fast enough, and fell. A broken hip can heal quickly and heal well, but the requisite anesthesia needed for surgery speeds the dementia frantically out of control, none of us knowing the outcome we’ll be left with.
I’m walking home from the ponding basin where I often jog. It’s a sunny, crisp early fall morning, and I’m lost in the reverie that listening to ‘70s music courtesy of Pandora so readily provides. I’m jolted out of my Bee Gees and Fleetwood Mac – induced haze when I notice a small, still bird lying under a tree out of the corner of my eye. I quickly look away. The bird is clearly dead, a hole in the center of its small body, legs bent under, and its mouth open wide.
I think of what it would be like if music no longer offered an escape back to the past, if listening to those songs that transport you so firmly to a specific time and place no longer granted a free ride. Depending on the time of my life I’m fixated on, I saturate myself in the music from that time, those days, and the memories rise as if magically invoked. How sad if those special songs were emptied of our memories.
After hip surgery, my father’s memory is all over the map. As he recuperates in rehab, he tells us he’s been to Spain, England, Oakland and even Kabul, all in the first few weeks post-surgery. This is of course due in large part to the pain medication he’s on, but he’s so convincing, so absolutely sure he’s been to these places, it becomes fascinating to observe. This is the first stage we witness: the pieces of his memory become like a giant jigsaw puzzle, hundreds of pieces meticulously put together, then impulsively tossed in the air, waiting on the fates to determine the outcome.
My brother should be here. He was supposed to be here. After our mother passed we talked about the day when our father’s health began to fail. My brother was visibly present through my dad’s aortic aneurysm surgery, and the minor stroke that followed. He’d left his home in Southern California and I left mine in the Central Valley and we converged in the desert, talked about the day to come when our dad could no longer look after himself, and debated future options.
My brother not being here now is undeniably a huge factor contributing to my father’s compromised state of mind.
I wonder what it would be like to wake up and find my consciousness has shifted, the familiar terrain of remembrances altered, rearranged, mere deviations of the myriad of memories I most treasure. I’d probably not notice, not miss that which is clearly missing. I ruminate on which memories I might keep, and which would fall by the wayside, embers of thoughts formerly burned in my mind. I wonder if I would have some kind of subconscious choice in what I remembered, be able to conjure up a past any way I’d like. Or perhaps I’d be at my mind’s mercy, a random lottery held in my head, a dicey parlay waged against my damaged psyche.
A different day. A different walk. A different bird. I’m in a different spot on my route when I see the bird out of my peripheral vision. I register that it’s lying on its back underneath a tree – variegated brown wings spread wide, white feathers everywhere -before I speed up my pace and hastily look away. I briskly move forward, yet the sight of the fallen creature lingers in my mind. I imagine the bird perched on a branch, poised to take flight, ready to soar – the moment before something caught it blissfully unaware, the moment before becoming forever frozen in a supine repose.
Sometimes when my father is sleeping, he lies with his body curled into himself, his mouth open, shaped like an O, and he reminds me of a fragile little bird.
One warm evening in June I visit my dad, my second visit of the day. We’ve brought him back to Fresno, where he’s living in Bella Vista, a memory care facility. In Fresno he’ll be surrounded by family; my sister is here, Jeremy and my nephew are back in town, my daughter pregnant with her first baby drops in, and my youngest son introduces my dad to his first great-granddaughter, who is four years old. Yet despite the family reunion, his first week in the facility had been rough; a problem swallowing left him refusing food and fluids, causing severe dehydration that landed him in the hospital for a week. Back at Bella Vista, he’s tired, but stable. My visit earlier in the day had gone well, and I thought I’d take advantage of a quiet night and check on him again.
Dusky light from the reclining sun fills the room. The room is quiet, peaceful, a CD with Frank Sinatra crooning It Was a Very Good Year plays softly in the background. Our conversation is nothing out of the ordinary until twenty minutes in.
“Honey, what happened to us?” My dad’s fingertips lightly strum his blanket in a slow, rhythmic motion.
My dad’s question catches me off guard. I have no idea what he’s talking about, but assume he’s thinking about the past few years, when school and money and life has gotten in the way of me and the kids visiting often.
“Well something had to have happened.”
“No, nothing’s happened. Everything’s fine.”
“Well you’re my wife and we haven’t slept in the same bed for two years, so I’d say something has happened.”
Oh boy. I didn’t see that one coming. I have always been told how much I resemble my mother, so I figured there could be confusion at some point, but not so soon and not like this.
I hesitate all of one second.
“Oh no I’m not!” I have no idea where this conversation might go, and no desire to find out.
My dad’s blue eyes are bleary. “You’re not?”
“No, I’m not. I’m your daughter, not your wife.”
“You’re my daughter? I have a daughter?”
“Yes, you have two daughters and a son. I’m the oldest, then Bobby, then Kathy.”
“So I have three children.”
“Yes. I’m your favorite, though. And you have four grandchildren, and one great granddaughter and another on the way.”
With this, my dad’s face erupts into an expression I’d never seen before, especially on him. Disbelief, amazement, joy splash across his face in rapid succession as he processes this information, as if hearing it for the first time. Which in that moment, I realized he was.
“Dad, does any of this sound familiar?”
He seemed to go back into his mind as he thought about the question before answering. “I think I remember having a son.”
I’m not surprised that my dad remembers having a son.
Months earlier, the night before Thanksgiving, my brother called. He’d been living in Dallas, where a job opportunity the year before took him out of California to Texas, recently divorced and on his own. I’m surprised he’s calling the night before the holiday, and not the day of, and answer his call with his usual greeting. “Hey weirdo.”
Instead of his typical “You’re the weird one” response, Bobby laughed slightly, out of breath. “Cindy, I think I’m having a heart attack.”
I have him on speaker, and stare at the phone. My own heart begins to beat frantically, as I feel panic rising up, threatening to engulf me.
“You need to call Susie. She’s mad and won’t answer my call. I need to talk to her.”
Susie is my brother’s ex-wife. Lately they’ve been talking about reconciling.
“Don’t worry. I’ll call her, and I’ll make sure she calls you. But what about -”
“I’ve called 911. The paramedics are on the way.” His words tumble out faster now, his voice labored. “I’m sorry for everything. I love you guys.”
This can’t be happening. I begin to go numb. I know he’s talking about the disastrous affair that led to his divorce and a slew of decisions that, in addition to leading to his professional and financial demise, caused him to feel alienated from his family.
“Bobby, you’re going to be fine. You have nothing to apologize for. Nothing. You just need to stay strong and know you’re going to be okay. I’ll call Susie and make sure she calls you. We love you.”
I end the call and believe what I’ve told him. I know our family, our mother’s side, is predisposed to heart attacks and handles them surprisingly well. My grandfather survived five or six, and my mother survived two or three. I had no doubt that my brother, even with the tremendous stress he was under, would survive his first.
I was wrong. My brother’s first acute myocardial infarction would also be his last.
Although I will find it incredibly difficult to talk or even to think about, I know I’ll remember every word of this conversation for as long as I live.
Some days my dad thinks I’m his youngest sister, and we’re at a lake in Ohio, listening to the Big Bands on an old, beat-up radio. Most days he knows who I am and on these days, I invite him to talk about his life, remember and savor his memories. So far, there’s been just one day when he thought I was my mother.
My father’s health stabilizes. He remembers my brother is gone, but has no memory of my mother’s passing fifteen years ago. He talks about her as though she’s still around, somewhere on the periphery, asks how she’s doing, where is she living. He comments once or twice that he thinks he’s seen her in his room, but she never says a word.
My parents’ relationship was tumultuous; their marriage bristled with tensions and frustrations, eruptions that set the house on fire. Yet now he remembers none of this. My dad seems to only remember the good, which of course happens, but his memory also fails. After a conversation when he asked if my mother was happy, and hoped she was after getting rid of him, my sister could no longer take it and told him the truth. We had been going along with him in whatever he said, not wanting to cause him any unnecessary grief; Kathy couldn’t bear him thinking our mother had divorced him, and she was out there somewhere, not caring what happened to him.
I joined my dad and Kathy after she broke the news. He was sitting up in bed when I arrived, Kathy seated next to him in a brown wicker chair. They both turned to look at the door as I walked in.
“Kathy told me about your mom. I didn’t know.”
“Well you did know dad, you just forgot. It’s okay.”
“How old was she?”
I hesitated, doing the math and Kathy piped in. “Seventy-four.”
“Seventy-four? How can that be? I’m not even seventy-four.”
I smiled. “No, you’re not. How old do you think you are?”
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe fifty-five, sixty.”
“Dad, you’re a little older than that.” Kathy attempted to hold back a laugh.
He looked at us blankly. He honestly had no clue regarding his age.
“Well, how old am I then?”
Kathy continued. “You’re eighty-eight. You just had a birthday in July, and you were eighty-seven, now you’re eighty-eight.”
“I’m eighty-eight years old? No wonder I feel the way I do! I should be ten feet under by now.” He paused before asking, “Do you miss your mom?”
“Yeah, we do. It was a long time ago, but we still do.”
“How long ago?”
“Fifteen years ago.”
“Fifteen years? Fifteen years? Your mother passed away fifteen years ago, and I don’t remember?”
I looked at Kathy. Apparently she had left this part out.
“Yes, fifteen years ago. That’s when you moved to Las Vegas, after mom passed.” Kathy’s tone is patient, knowing this information will most likely not stick, it will be a conversation we’ll have many times. His move to and life in Las Vegas are among my dad’s lost memories, a time in his life when enjoyed life and was happy.
“I was living in Las Vegas for fifteen years?” My dad looks at Kathy and I, both believing and not believing what we’re telling him. We answer yes in unison, as he sinks back against his pillow.
“So I didn’t take off and leave her?”
I shook my head. “No, you didn’t.”
“You and mom had the house up for sale, but the market was slow. The house didn’t sell until after she passed, and then you moved.” Kathy also omitted how the potential move and sale of the house was a source of conflict between my parents, how my mother swore she would never move and leave her grandkids.
He lay in bed, looking terribly old and frail, learning of his wife’s death. I couldn’t begin to fathom the thoughts going through his mind. He was quiet for a few moments, Kathy and I holding our breaths until he finally spoke.
“It’s so strange to hear your wife has died and you don’t remember. Why can’t I remember?”
Another day. Another walk. Headphones on, I’m listening to Pandora 70s as I walk down the sidewalk leading to the basin. I’m lost in my head, so at first I don’t see the bird. When I notice something brown and still lying in the center of the pavement, I do a quick sidestep around the bird to avoid bringing my foot down, crushing its already broken body. I must pass the fallen bird on every lap, and even though I carefully look away, I know it’s there.
We all have those moments, those experiences that we hold on to, vowing silently that nothing will ever pry them away; their memory seared into our consciousness. I muse on those times kept eternally alive through memory: broken hearts and promises, hopes fulfilled, dreams dashed to shreds, fevered passions, the bittersweet comings and goings that make up a life. But what if we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory, the landscape of our memories distorted, surrogate memories replace the real, or maybe no memories at all. What then? I worry about the delicate fragments of memory slipping away, and what I might or might not do to save them. I ponder a treasured memory as it begins to flicker away, and I imagine reaching out to grab it, holding it close, keeping it safe. What would I do, what would any of us do, when we find we can no longer slip back and forth between the worlds our memories provide? What will we be left with then? We all have someone or something, that special person or event that we cling to, wrapped snugly in memory’s tight embrace. The memory is often all that remains. I think about memory’s crumbling walls and traversing the wreckage, combing through the debris, searching in vain for what I’ve lost but don’t remember.
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