Sometimes finding an idea for this blog takes a while. Sometimes it comes up and smacks me in the head.
This one smacked me in the head.
Nevertheless, I hesitated to write about it, because I don’t want you to think I want you to feel sorry for me. “Oh, poor Chris, so brain-damaged.” Ick.
I decided to write about it because it gives me an opportunity to show you how ridiculous brain damage can be. What a waste of time it can be. How it can sneak into the most treasured parts of your life and trip you up. How it can do the same to the most trivial parts of your life. How nothing is safe, and everything is up for grabs.
Tuesday was our 30th anniversary, CF and me. We had talked quite a bit about how we wanted to celebrate, and finally decided on a quiet dinner later in the summer when our son is away visiting relatives. We were married in Canada on our 25th anniversary and threw ourselves a party then, but otherwise we don’t tend to call much attention to the day, and we have never exchanged presents. It just isn’t our style.
But in all that talking about how we would celebrate, just the two of us, in all of the reminiscing that we did in the days leading up to the anniversary itself, I forgot to prepare for the one very small thing that we have always, always done: exchange cards.
And so on Tuesday morning, there on the table was a card for me, along with a dozen gorgeous irises. I took one look at them and burst into tears.
It’s as if my brain had called for a drum roll, and the snare drummer had been dutifully drumming a single paradiddle waiting for me to enter, when CYMBAL CRASH! I spot the cards and my memory of how we celebrate our anniversaries comes flooding back.
I have a drawer full of anniversary cards from CF, carefully saved over the years, little reminders of our (almost mostly) happy times, timecards of where we have been, postcards from the past. I can look through them whenever I want, reread the words CF felt were most important five or ten or twenty years ago whenever I want. How could I have forgotten that?
But brain damage goes where it wants. It finds an opening and slips right in to any crack, any fissure. It hides behind the electrical impulses our brain depends on to operate, and then pounces all at once. It destroys some parts so they never return; it interferes with others just enough to frustrate our lives.
With enough of a push, I got back my memory about exchanging cards on our anniversary. I indulged myself in a good, pity-me cry in the bedroom, got my car keys and went out to the store and found the perfect card. CF did not hold it against me. (In fact, she felt terrible for making me cry.) I have retrieved that memory, for many years to come, I hope.
But I don’t anticipate getting back my memory of how to program computers or do much math. That, I suspect, is gone for good. Those are procedural memories, much more complex, involving multiple components, multiple areas of abstract reasoning. Recalling real memories is much simpler.
The real memories are still there, sitting quietly in their little axons, waiting for us to find them via a new route, one that the brain damage hasn’t ripped apart.
I’m fortunate that I still have lots of axons left intact. I remember my first date with CF (we went to Grendel’s Den in Harvard Square for dinner; she had an omelet, I had a club sandwich). I remember our unprecedented string of terrible vacations (Ant Lodge, Spider Lodge, Arctic Blast Lodge, you get the idea).
I remember the birth of our son. I remember the frantic drive from Maine to Virginia, including a desperate stop in Nyack, N.Y., at the Toyota dealership for a ring of some sort to hold the exhaust system in place after we nearly lost it on the Tappan Zee Bridge. Because of this side trip, we missed NF’s birth by half an hour, but at least we arrived quietly. We still have that car, and it still has that ring. And we still have that son.
Speaking of which, NF’s birthday is next week. I’d better double-check with CF to make certain I haven’t forgotten anything about that celebration, but I think I’m all set. CF’s birthday is in September, and I am already planning ahead. Last year, I was still in the hospital on her birthday. Her sister Peggy was able to find the present I had for her hidden in my office, but I think really CF was just happy I was conscious enough to tell her where it was.