I was tidying the kitchen last Monday evening when Greg came inside and told me Emilie had hit her head and was acting disoriented. They’d been riding horses, and she’d taken a fall.
I took a quick look inside my trusty self-care book, which for years has been helping me diagnose the family and determine when to seek medical attention and when to shake it off. The entry for head injuries said if the person still seemed confused after the first few minutes, go to the doctor.
I went outside and met Emilie at the yard gate. Her back was covered with dirt and leaves from her fall. She was walking okay, but she was crying, and yes, she was definitely confused, and the confusion did last longer than a few minutes.
As it turned out, it lasted a lot longer than that. When Greg first told me about the accident I assumed it had just happened, but later I learned that after her fall Emilie had gotten back on Pippin and kept riding. She’d seemed fine, and Greg hadn’t realized anything was wrong until she started asking questions like “What horse is this that I’m riding?” and “Where did that red truck come from?” The horse had been hers since October, and we’d bought the truck about a week ago. Altogether, her confusion lasted for hours. In some ways she’s not over it yet.
I took her inside to the office and sat her down on the sofa, figuring that would be the safest place in case she suddenly collapsed. She logged onto Facebook, hoping it would help her remember things.
It didn’t. It just confused her more than ever. Almost nothing in her feed was familiar. I tried to help. Look, see Claire’s pictures? She went to South Carolina for the weekend, remember? No, Emilie did not remember that—but now that I’d mentioned the trip, she demanded details. I repeated the few I knew, all of which I’d heard from Emilie herself.
She scrolled rapidly through her feed. She said she didn’t remember any of it, but she also said, repeatedly and forlornly, “All of this happened a long time ago.”
She asked again (and again, and again) about the horse. Who was he? His name was Pippin, I said, and he was hers. He used to be named Movie Star, and she first saw him years ago at Full Circle Equestrian Center where she used to work. She remembered him as Movie Star but not as her own horse. What happened to Casey, her mare? Well…Casey died back in October. What?! (Fresh tears.) How did she die? We’re not sure what it was. She got sick with something and we had to put her down. Where did the red truck come from? We bought it. Why? Because Daniel was in a wreck last month when the roads were iced over, and the Suburban got totaled. Is he okay? Yes. Where is he? Where’s Anna?
Her questions formed a sort of loop. It was a lot like talking to someone with dementia. She asked if all our animals were okay. I said yes and hoped she wouldn’t ask by name after any pets that she couldn’t remember had died. She asked about family—her brother and sister, a grandmother, a cousin, a relative’s baby—and a few friends. That was about it. Then she asked about them all again.
I asked questions too. Did she remember going on a walk last Friday with Daniel and a friend and some of the dogs? No. Did she remember Christmas? No. Thanksgiving? No.
But mostly she did the asking. Some of the answers were wrenching, as with Casey, and they had to be given over and over because after five minutes she would ask again. It was tempting to say, “We’ll talk about that later,” but it wouldn’t have been fair. In her place I would want honest answers, even if they hurt; I would be desperate to know what was real so I could hold onto it. After a while she started repeating the answers I gave her—by rote, in my exact words, like she was memorizing a lesson.
The text message threads on her phone distressed her. Who was this guy, and why was he texting her? I told her he was a manager from work, and he’d texted to let her know her register drawer had checked out okay at the end of the night, but she was still suspicious. Eventually she deleted the thread. It seemed to make her feel better.
We drove to the hospital in the mysterious red truck. The questions continued. Did we still have the black kitten with the grey neck? Yes, we did. (His neck fur had been shaved off following an accident, and his light undercoat was growing in faster than his black outer coat. She didn’t remember his name, but she remembered this quirk of his appearance.)
She was self-aware enough to know her mind wasn’t working properly. Was it normal to forget things this way? Probably. Would she remember eventually? Maybe.
As we walked to the ER entrance, Emilie suddenly said, “Anna says my hair looks dorky this way,” and began to cry. We assured her that her hair looked lovely and hustled her inside.
The admitting nurse asked a lot of questions too. Did Emilie know her name? Yes. Her birthday? Sort of. Her weight? Absolutely. Day of the month? No. Day of the week? No. She cried. Someone fitted her with a neck brace as a precaution. She looked small and sad and helpless sitting there with the pulse detector on her finger.
Anna showed up almost immediately. Emilie saw her and talked to her, but later, seeing her again after returning from a CAT scan, Emilie asked, “When did you get here?” Anna reminded her that she’d been there all along and said she didn’t really think her hair looked dorky that way.
There’s a scene in Memento where Leonard Shelby, who is suffering from anterograde amnesia, finds himself running. He asks himself, “Okay, so what am I doing?” He sees Dodd also running and thinks, “Oh, I’m chasing this guy.” Then Dodd shoots at Leonard, and Leonard thinks, “No…he’s chasing me.”
Memory is a fragile thing. Without it, nothing in our lives has context or meaning. We don’t know whether that guy is chasing us or we are chasing him. We are something like the blind man of Bethsaida whom Jesus healed in two stages. After healing him in part, Jesus asked him if he saw anything, and he replied, “I see men as trees, walking” (Mark 8:23, 24). Without memory, we see, but we don’t understand.
Memory is also dangerously subjective. As Leonard Shelby says, “Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation, they’re not a record, and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts.”
Almost everyone has had exasperating experiences dealing with people who have been divorced a long time and tell wildly different versions of events that happened years earlier. Sometimes they mean to deceive, but not always; it’s natural to paint yourself in as flattering a light as possible and ascribe evil actions and motives to someone who’s hurt you. Anger, betrayal, shame, bitterness, and any other strong emotions along for the ride all color our recollections and the language we use to narrate them; and this narration, rather than what actually happened, is what our memory records. Some details get left out; others get exaggerated. Over time the distortion increases. The other person doesn’t correct any inaccuracies in the story because the other person isn’t there.
This is the best example I know of the distortion of memory, but not the only one. Years ago I was involved in a situation in which two different parties, both of whom I respected and loved, gave very different accounts of something that had gone down. Both parties seemed sincere, but their stories, with all the value judgments and imputed motives and so on, could not in all respects both be true.
It was a hard time. These were good, beloved friends whose integrity I’d trusted for years, and having their words at odds was foundation-shaking. I was studying Latin at the time, and I remember taking comfort in Seneca’s words, “Veritas numquam perit”: Truth never dies. The truth exists, and it matters. We see in part; our knowledge is hampered by our own imperfect memories and by the unreliable recollections of others, which are sometimes our only source of information. But God knows the truth in its entirety, and he will not forget or lie.
Emilie’s memory is still a little faulty, even about things that have happened since her injury. A few times she’s forgotten things I’ve told her immediately after I’ve said them, and one day she nearly gave the indoor cats an unneeded Second Breakfast because she couldn’t remember feeding them the first time. Even after I said she’d already fed them, and reminded her of how she’d told them they’d have to share a dish, and showed her which dish it was, she didn’t really remember; she was just taking my word for it. But she is young and strong, and her concussion is a minor one. Given time, rest, and no additional head trauma, she should heal fine. I’m thankful the accident wasn’t worse, and appreciative of the chance to see inside her mind a bit–things that were important to her, things that were preying on her. There were a few surprises.
I’m also grateful that the truth is in safekeeping with the only mind in the universe that can be fully trusted.
Remember me, O LORD, with the favor that thou bearest unto thy people; O visit me with thy salvation.