to the loss of memory

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Where did you go?

I ask the question on a reel that plays a script of the same lines and sounds in metered searching, as if each time may be the time I receive the answer, not knowing until right after I ask it that it is not a new question but one I am asking all the time. Where am I? When am I? What happened? Where did you go?

I began losing you two and a half years ago. It was scary and disorienting and came with waves of nausea and panic, images of early onset Alzheimer’s and an inability to locate myself in time or place. Entire years went blank and others went vague and blurry, things disjointed, and all covered in a plastic film that distorted what I could see. Then came white outs where everything in my brain blanked into white, like the room was filled with cloud mist. Like blankets came over in protection and covered us with the kindness of not knowing. I didn’t understand that then. Then I only felt panic and loss that you were leaving, and I couldn’t get my own coiled cells to grip tighter and suture you into place. The more effort, the more you slipped out sideways.

Amnesia. Retrograde.

There were neurology visits. There were brain scans. There were many things ruled out. There were tests. There were theories.

I was told after all of this that my memory loss was most likely due to catastrophic trauma and loss. And that some of it might come back. And that this was not a promise.

You just left. That is what I still sometimes get cotton stuck in my throat about and find myself unexpectedly sliding my back down the bathroom wall about and staying there on the floor for a very long time asking the questions again and again. You just left. After so many years of being my constant. Trauma is not a new experience but one of the most foundational parts of my brain, forming me and inseparable from who I am and became. It was you that was my ally; how I coped and how I channeled hypervigilance and how I soothed myself into a sense of safety. That I remembered. Impeccably. Detail after agonizing and seemingly irrelevant detail; all of it was cataloged and carried in my brain and pulled out in carefully coded memory whenever I wanted and needed. I saw what was happening. I knew what was happening. I would not forget.

When left you didn’t even say goodbye. You didn’t warn me. I just went to find parts of you, and they were no longer there, the vault emptied or the lock changed without giving the code.

Since you left, since I lost you, this is what I have learned, not as a theory or idea but as lived knowing.

- Memory is not the same as truth and that kind of truth doesn’t really exist most of the time, which is why memory can come to mean so much and we cling to it as everything.

- Memory is not a recording of events of what happened. Nor is it the events themselves.

- Memory is malleable. It is thick and dense as forests and layered as old houses with peeling wallpaper and too many stories to tell. Because meaning changes, memory itself seems to change.

- Memory is narrative. And narratives can run like code on a computer or like the scripts in a story and are played and replayed and this makes them not right or wrong. It makes them narratives. I happen to believe we need stories to live lives of meaning. And I also no longer believe I am required to live only the narrative I lost, which means it is possible we can make up new ones to hold the same events and lives and bodies.

- Memory is identity and the way we construct a sense of self and to ask where and when am I is to really ask who am I?

- Memory is part of attachment. Meaning, I miss you. And I also understand now, or at least understand better, how your choice to leave was both a fragmentation that was also the only way to stay complete. Care is not always what we imagine it to be.

After the amnesia came the significant short-term memory loss and difficulty with recall, and this is the source of an entirely different frustration. A reduction of neurons in the right hippocampus of my brain. This comes from what comes after trauma and the way a brain tries to come to terms with that which is indigestible. I cannot pull to mind the most recent of things. I cannot recall things. I do not remember where I put things. I do not remember the time for things, the day of things, what I said two days ago. I do not recall the name of a song I used to always know right away. I do not recall names or numbers. My brain refuses to process stimuli and rejects the information already being carried and so the disorientation is near constant and things take so much more time living this way. I write everything down. I check things many times. I still makes so many mistakes.

All these signs of your departure like a trail that leads to nothingness, just vacant nagging agitation of not quite being there, wherever there is. Constant reminders of you who are no longer and are no longer here.

What do you name yourself? Do you even have a name?

  1. Memory as a card catalog, things stored under different titles and themes and placeholders, pulled out as needed and necessary to construct a cohesive narrative at any given moment.

  2. Memory as an analog system that integrates data with process.

  3. Memory, short term and long term and episodic memory, as held through a complex redundant network of neurons coming to be both through our need to recall something and also through associations.

  4. Memory as imaginary or imagination and maybe we are all in a dream and do not even know it.

  5. Memory as that which made told me who I was and then when you left me I was so, so lost.

Sometimes there is no cohesive narrative that can be constructed connecting there to here and so the cards spill out and you look down and everything is blank and then the room goes white. Mine did.

When I had first moved to Chicago twenty-three years ago, I lived on a street that had an ice cream truck that would wander the neighborhood streets late into the summer nights. My brain was so bent those days and years, so desperate to find loopholes out of memory and into something steady and solid. I would sit out on the front stoops, or by the open window from the third story flat and could hear it chiming as it roamed, plunking out the song that never was able to finish because it was broken. “Up and down the city road/In and out of the eagle/That’s the way the money goes/Pop.” Pause. “Up and down the city road/In and out the eagle/That’s the way the money goes/Pop.” Round and round it went. Never did we hear “goes the weasel.” Ever. It just started over. No completion. No endling. Just an endless loop that never finished.

This is how you have been to me, in your loving of me and in your leaving.
I think you were there to help me and you did.

And you started over, again and again, the same beginning and middle and what I assumed was end but was never ending, the same story. Always seeking and searching and scanning so as to stay safe. And then it was catastrophic, bringing to light what had never been resolvable and only ever been a story and the song started over and over, but could never get to the conclusion. Never have resolution. Pieces breaking off. And then the song stopped. I couldn’t hear you anymore. I couldn’t recall you anymore. You left.

Brains are voluptuously intricate. I no longer have the code to the vault. Perhaps you hold it for safekeeping, or you tossed some of it out into the ocean. I’d like to think if I ever really needed it back, you would grant me access though I no longer think I would. So just please hold onto the key for me. Stay close. But don’t return if you don’t need to. Consciousness does not require holding every piece of information at every moment as I once imagined it did. I seem to have stumbled into a different knowing. One where I realize the limits of my knowing and the story I live inside and since I know the contents as real, I no longer require continual altars to their existence.

I want to say thank you for everything you ever did and gave me. Thank you for keeping watch. Thank you for holding what no one would or could. Thank you for knowing.

I miss you, it used to be often now it is sometimes.

I don’t know if you will ever come back. Or come back in the same form you were before. I don’t know that, if you do, we will recognize one another fully. I think in your absence I have become something different. I would like to think we would have a cup of coffee somewhere and you would place your cards out on the table and I would think to myself, what a familiar story. It reminds me of someone once I loved very much who gave me life.

In love and defiance,

That which cannot be named yet as it is still finding form