Season of the Horse

Some love stories don’t end happily ever after.

Raised in the 40s in rural New Hampshire, my mother worked a large family farm alongside ten brothers and sisters. 78 relationships between thirteen people make for a complex household. When they weren’t arguing or pestering each other, the children candled eggs and shoveled manure and stored hay for the horses and weeded a garden large enough to feed eleven children aged two through twenty-two. My old-school Irish grandfather, keen on the sport of boxing as its popularity soared in the 1950s, laced gloves onto the boys’ fists and made them duke it out when tempers rose – and sometimes just for sport. It was a hard life that took a toll on all, but especially on the girls. Two of my aunts died tragically as young adults.

IMG_0261

Brilly, my mother’s first horse in East Andover, NH.

Always, my mother loved horses. They saved her. Between chores and fighting for food at mealtimes, mom rode their old mare out into the woods to cover miles of logging trails, bareback and free. She understood equine temperament. She talked her brother into buying a saddle to share and read every horsy book she could find.

Upon leaving the farm and graduating nursing school, my mother struck out into a life without horses that ranged from New York City to Barstow, California. It didn’t last. A few years later, she settled down again in New Hampshire to make a family of her own. Soon, two horses and a pony filled the stable. Saddles and bridles and bits proliferated in the tack room. My mother was at home once more – throwing hay bales and riding for miles through the woods of East Andover.

IMG_0258

Mom with her Arabian, Zabreeze.

By the time she turned sixty-eight, my mother had spent sixty-three years on horseback. She competed in dressage and jumping. She organized group rides with friends across New England. She acted as a judge at regional cross country races. She found an Andalusian mare to breed. She was thrown and trampled and bitten and nearly drowned, her financial health stretched to the limit by foaling complications and vet bills, and she loved it all.

Horseback riding saw her through divorce. It saw her through the deaths of parents and siblings. Her love of horses defined who she was and wanted to be. She sometimes acted like a horse, wild and ready to run in heart and body when a mysterious fancy struck her, and she definitely often smelled like a

100_0311

One of her beautiful Andalusians, Dulce.

horse.Since she was old enough to walk, my mother lived and breathed horses.

Until last year.

At sixty-eight, she found herself on a trail ride with a clutch of young companions. Dulce, her spirited Andalusian, wouldn’t calm down in the presence of unfamiliar horses. He skittered sideways, tossed his head, and spooked at things that never before made him flinch. A new calculation took shape in my mother’s mind. It weighed the possible

solara 06

Her gorgeous and young Andalusian, Zolara.

costs of falling against good health over the remainder of her life.

Three months later, after much dread, she watched her horses step into a trailer that would take them away forever.

A lifetime of routine still makes her rise early and walk to the barn. Empty stalls await. Her dog noses through the quiet pasture where grass grows up, unshorn by graceful four-legged creatures. The sounds of hooves and whinnies, the warmth of big friendly bodies, the smell of oats and hay – they are gone.IMG_0260 My mother remains, bereft of the joy those beautiful animals bestowed on her for six decades. She shares horsy Facebook posts now more than ever.

I see my mother mourning and can only imagine what it feels like to acknowledge a future that no longer includes brushing down a new foal or cresting the top of Tucker Mountain on horseback.

This is the pattern of life. We win things, they stay with us for a time, and finally they are lost. Whether power or proficiency, youth or horses – our possessions eventually slip away. Sometimes the forfeiture stings, assuaged perhaps by memory – of galloping over hayfields or hugging a pony who raises his head for a pat. And perhaps it helps my mother to imagine her horses at their new home with a young family just settling down as she did once.

My mom’s heart broke over the loss of her horses. However, after listing them for sale, she began mentoring a little girl desperate for her care and guidance. With time once dedicated to chores and haying, she visits her grandchildren more often. She travels with her husband to the Atlantic ocean that she so cherishes.

The season of the horse has passed. I had the privilege of witnessing my mother’s horsy lifestyle that was lush and joyous and long. Now, even faced with her heartache in every Facebook clip about riding, I still only wish to follow my passions as she followed hers, bravely unto retirement and beyond, until they set over the horizon. By my mother’s example – then and now, in her bravery and in her commitment  – I will wring and wring and wring every drop of vitality from these precious days.

IMG_0035

Mom and I heading off for a ride one fine morning in East Andover, NH. (c. 1986?)

Advertisements

Deathbed Regrets

“The trouble is, you think you have time.” –Buddha

On their deathbeds, people often have the same regrets. It’s a wonder, because we vary wildly in interest and religion, in political opinion and leisure activities, in earnings and luck. Yet at the end, when looking back, we are united.

The witto ones enjoying a hike near Teluride, CO.

The witto ones enjoying a hike near Teluride, CO.

What do people wish they had done with their time here on Earth? Here’s a hint: they don’t wish they had made more money.

In her article, How To Buy Happiness, Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky reports people on the brink of death wish they had spent more time “connecting with friends, nurturing intimate relationships, socializing at parties, consuming art, music, and literature, learning new languages and skills, honing talents, and volunteering at our neighborhood hospital, church, or animal shelter.”

Most of these things require little or no money. Of course, money can help us fit more of these activities into our day-to-day lives. But money and expensive purchases aren’t the ticket to real well-being.

IMG_2693“In wealthier nations, where almost everyone has a basic safety net, increases in wealth have negligible effects on personal happiness,” Dr. Martin Seligman states In Authentic Happiness. “In the United States, the very poor are lower in happiness, but once a person is just barely comfortable, added money adds little or no happiness. Even the fabulously rich—the Forbes 100, with an average net worth of over $125 million dollars—are only slightly happier than the average American.”

make-money-roadsign_480People who neglect other aspects of life for money tend to be less satisfied with their lives, but you won’t see these findings portrayed in popular media or explicitly added to the curriculum at school. Consumerism has become synonymous with the American Dream. More and more education seems to be about this “Race to the Top,” an overzealous Cold War mentality that just won’t die, that pits the world’s sixteen-year-olds against each other in an absurd battle to see which nation’s children have mastered skills relevant to only one domain: economics.

Don’t get me wrong. Education prepares many to graduate into productive and lucrative jobs. A healthy income may fulfill basic needs – even provide considerable pleasure (like gourmet food, lavish furnishings, purchase power) – but income generation alone neglects a huge part of what it means to be human.

Lisa finding flow on the Colorado River.

Lisa finding flow on the Colorado River.

What can moneymaking neglect? According to psychologists, two other parts of life are often overlooked: engagement and meaning. Engagement is about using your unique talents to accomplish tasks or overcome challenges, like navigating a tricky jeep route or playing your favorite sport. Getting lost in this experience is called “flow,” which creates happiness and gratification.

A meaningful life is one connected to a greater movement, something like our community, school district, a club, or church. Joining something bigger than ourselves allows happiness to transcend the limits of one, especially when we use our unique talents to help others.

IMG_4431Some realize too late that money isn’t enough, that they’ve devoted too much of their precious time to getting ahead. They want to go back for a favorite hobby with a friend, quality time with their spouse, laughing with their kids, helping at the food bank, meeting new people. As individuals living in a wealthy nation, most of us have opportunities to enrich and balance our lives not only with wealth but with engagement and meaning too.

944287_10151675750293035_253895901_nAlready we’re a step ahead; we live in Moab, flow capital of the United States, where vacationers seek to make memories. I, for one, expect I could earn more money elsewhere. I could save more for retirement. I could live in a bigger house. However, you and I know intuitively that more and bigger isn’t necessarily better. That’s why we choose to be here and leave the opulence to others.

For we are rich in other ways.

IMG_4407We are rich in vistas. In rivers and trails and red rock towers. We live here for the public lands and silent spaces, for likeminded people. Tucked into this desert canyon, we are part of a community fueled by adventure and grounded in an understanding only recently described by science but known in every human heart, that experience outweighs possessions.

IMG_4230Every day this beautiful place reminds me of a wonderful idea. So do my mountain biking neighbors. And the kind people and businesses of Moab. Even the tourists who seek excitement in our pristine region of cliffs and wild canyons…

It is possible to live without regrets.

 

 

 

(Originally published in the Moab Sun News.)

 

pic

A Life of Failure

Failure is underrated.

IMG_4042_2I have abundant experience in this arena. I poured weeks of work into two 100-page federal grant applications that earned polite rejection letters. Tied to the end of a rope, I’ve plummeted off rock climbs again and again, most recently only a foot from the top of the cliff – literally, twelve inches from grabbing the last hold.

With trepidation, I joined Moab Toastmasters, a public speaking club where I stumble over my words and struggle to express myself clearly, or sometimes – gulp – at all. I’ve said things in meetings and in the halls at work and in emails that later made me blush.

One time I admonished a student in the wrong way for distracting his classmates at exactly the wrong moment, and embarrassed him. I’ve earnestly written passages for a novel that turned out so ridiculous my wife and I later laughed until we cried while remembering a teen practicing kung-fu forms in the haunted forest under the secret gaze of a mooning love interest.

Old_Running_ShoesOne of my most spectacular fails: I trained for months to run a 100-mile trail race only to drop out six miles from the finish line.

This is just the beginning of my catalogs of missteps. Sometimes I take aim at too lofty a goal, but most often, I just screw up. I make mistakes.

As the years roll past and the errors mount, I’ve come to see failure as one of the most powerful things about being human. I’m not talking about failures that cost someone their life or injure people. I’m talking about those moments when we mess up in a way that teaches something about the limits of social decorum, the law of reduced flexibility with age, the constraints of physics, which dance move is no longer hip, about how the world works.

Murphy's Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

I totally understand nobody wants to fail. We aim at perfection – in our duties on the job, as a spouse, in raising a child. However, no matter how careful we are, someday something will go wrong. Just check out a blooper reel from the latest romantic comedy. Even the world’s best actors aren’t perfect, and honestly, their mistakes sometimes entertain more than the film itself.

So here’s where the magic happens: in light of the fact that failure is inevitable, despite best laid plans and any devotion to excellence, I have two options. I can take the normal route of denial and cling to the voice of the ego who avoids risks and refuses to admit defeat. Or I can acknowledge my fallibility and embrace these blunders as opportunities. I can take those grant proposals and turn them into successful applications to other organizations. I can use those climbing moves on a new route. That’s the magic of humanity – the ability to remember and improve upon the past, to turn failure into flourishing.

Baby

According to studies, one of the reasons children learn things so fast, like new words and novel motor skills, is their willingness to make mistakes. Children haven’t yet adopted our aversion to failure; in trying, failing, and trying again, they grow.

The other boon of failure is this: it means we’ve striven for something. Even though I didn’t finish that 100-mile race, it was one of the best experiences of my life. Those months of training weren’t wasted. Rather, I saw many beautiful miles of trails, shared smiles with fellow runners, tasted rain on my lips, discovered the limits of my endurance.

So I hereby make a resolution. I resolve to take myself less seriously. I’m only human. Maybe I’ll try that new dance move after all. Perhaps I’ll write another (somewhat less absurd) novel. I’ll attempt the difficult rock climb that looms beautiful and intimidating over the crag. I will do these things because failure isn’t embarrassing. Faux pas isn’t fatal. And there’s no shame in trying, only possibility.

403187I take inspiration from Michael Jordan who said, “I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” From Thomas Edison who said, “I have not failed. I have discovered 10,000 ways that won’t work.” And from my father, a successful city manager who has told me more than once, “If I do something well, it’s only because I’ve made a mistake before.”

By embracing the risk involved in being human, perhaps I can find a little more inspiration and success, even in failure.

(Original published in the Moab Sun News, 1/8/14)

pic

Reaching to the Other Side

I remember.

Hospital BedWhen I was eighteen years old, a car hit me as I biked across the island of Martha’s Vineyard. My skull shattered the Pathfinder’s windshield. After a fight with the paramedics, while being medivacked to Boston, I slipped into a coma. For days my family fretted while doctors warned them: “Beware when he wakes. If he wakes. This kind of brain trauma can change someone. Often the person will become more temperamental and cruel.”

Duly warned, my friends and family waited.

Many head injury victims experience memory problems, ranging from brief stints of blackout to long-term amnesia. I fell somewhere in between. My high school years had been largely erased, my working memory cut down to less than thirty seconds. Once I’d regained consciousness, I asked repeatedly, like a broken record, day after day: “Why am I in a hospital? Why am I in a hospital? Why am I in a hospital?”

Only after months of physical, occupational, and speech therapy was I able to return to a shadowy facsimile of my former existence.

But what’s the first thing I remember? What cut through the haze of my befuddled mind as I lay on a hospital bed? What reached me even in the darkness behind closed eyelids?

A hand in mine.

Hand in HandI remember that human contact as if it were the first experience of my life. Somebody was holding my hand, and I gave three squeezes, a coded message of words I cannot forget.

I. Love. You.

When the other stuff had been stripped away – memories and intellect, dreams and expectations – all that remained was a desire to connect with another human being. More visceral than my identity, more important than confusion, the need to offer love grounded my first experience as a human crawling onto the shores of his new life.

I offer this singular memory because it has helped me contextualize some of the stuff going on today.

I recently watched an interview with a social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, who tried to explain why the political climate of our age is so contentious. One of the main reasons he gave for the toxic status quo is our tribal tendency to demonize the other side. “Once you think [the other side] is evil, the ends justify the means… You can do anything because it’s in the service of fighting evil.”

Bill Moyers talked with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt at http://billmoyers.com/segment/jonathan-haidt-explains-our-contentious-culture/

Bill Moyers’ interview with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt: http://billmoyers.com/segment/jonathan-haidt-explains-our-contentious-culture/

Regardless of whether we’re Democrat or Republican, according to Haidt, this tribal bent pushes us to ignore or even hate the other side. It shuts down our ability to see any kind of positive motive behind the other’s actions. If he isn’t part of our group, he must be crazy or deluded. Haidt says, “When it gets to the mental state in which I am fighting for good and you are fighting for evil, it’s very difficult to compromise. Compromise becomes a dirty word.”

The crux of this age, then, might be withdrawing these severe judgments that ipso facto accompany our viewpoints.

In my small town, we’re lucky to enjoy an intimate setting that puts individuals of differing views in close proximity to one other – at our schools, in the supermarkets, on Main Street, and in the pages of our newspapers. It’s natural to appreciate diverse ideas from people we respect and meet on a daily basis, whereas on the Internet or in cities, it’s all too easy to seal ourselves in bubbles demonizing anybody from the opposite side.

Found here.

A good example of the irrational tribal mind. Found here.

I saw this interview with Mr. Haidt, and I had to take a step back from my own assumptions and prejudices. I began to notice all the user comments about “evil” following articles online. I started to rethink my own dismissal of the other side.

So now I try to remember a hand in mine when I was coming back to the world and what it told me. It said before judgments or requests, before politics and policy, we can offer generosity (and love) to the person at hand. They deserve it, and it’s the most important gesture I know.

As it happens, of course, nobody’s really trying to do the wrong thing or make poor decisions. The only way we’re going to win as a people, is if we agree to debate the public good without attributing nefarious intentions to honest, caring citizens. As we come out of this fog of outraged partisanship, here’s to three words on which I’ll hang my hat:

I. Love. You.

I love you America. I love you fellow American.

Never STOP Loving

(Original published in the Moab Sun News, 10/23/13)

AMNESIA Goes to Court

The woman’s insurance company respectfully informed me that I still owed $2,650 in damages. My head shattered the Nissan Pathfinder’s windshield, my bike scratched the body panels, and my torso tore off a side-view mirror. Somebody had to pay for this. “We are looking to you for full reimbursement of the Net Loss. Very truly yours, Greg McDonnell, Claims Representative.”

Their letterhead assured me of a commitment to excellence: “Insurance that starts with you.”

The letter came just a few weeks after I started eating again. My jawbone had healed. My short-term memory had improved so I could remember a little bit of what happened in the previous day. I was creating new memories and beginning to understand just how much I had forgotten from the last two years of high school; college classes were tough.

The letter went into the trash where their other claims had vanished.

Some people decry our overly litigious society. I’m one of them. I recently read about an accused murderer suing two of his former hostages after being shot when they escaped and informed police of his whereabouts. A lady sued Universal Studios after being too scared in their haunted house.

However, the lawsuit is a bulwark against corporate turpitude and lawbreaking by individuals, and many claims merit attention. For example, U.S. states won a multi-billion-dollar settlement from cigarette makers. Countless individuals have been favored over corporations and other individuals for illegal behavior. Going to court isn’t fun, but sometimes it’s the only gesture that will be understood and the only recourse in seeking justice.

Witnesses said the sound of impact was memorable.

A new letter said the insurance company would seek damages to its client’s automobile in court.

I didn’t know what to do. I went to the person I most trusted at the university, my professor of religious history who had taken me under his wing. Professor Stein welcomed me warmly to his office, sat down in an old, stuffed chair, and held the letter out to read. His great beard wobbled as his lips sped silently over the words. I gave him the police report too. While he read, I studied his observant Jewish attire, the tassels from the tzitzit worn under his black jacket, a black hat on the coat rack.

“This is absurd,” he said, waving the letter. “She hit you!”

“What should I do?”

“I will contact a friend about this. The best lawyer in Vermont. We’ll see what he says.”

Countersuit was what he said. We met in one of the tallest buildings in downtown Burlington, right next to the courthouse. James Rivlin reviewed the accident report and explained that I could sue the driver.

“What are your goals for this lawsuit?” he asked.

“I don’t want to pay for the damage to the car. And I suppose her insurance company should get the message that this is wrong. Originally I just wanted to move on with my life, to put the whole thing behind me. But now that they’ve dragged me back into this crap…”

“If you sue for the maximum liability coverage, only her insurance company will have to pay. The driver won’t have to pay anything. For her policy, that’s three hundred thousand dollars. It’s a good case, and Professor Stein is a friend. We can do the work pro bono.”

“Um. Okay.”

Once the process was set in motion, it gained its own momentum. I occasionally stopped by the Rivlin offices to work with an investigator, Brian Stone. He wrote everything down with a gold mechanical pencil. Everything. Whenever he made a mistake, he paused and erased and rewrote. Other than the occasional meeting, I didn’t have much to do. My lawyers collected documents from police. They scheduled and carried out depositions.

Yay for helmets.

Later, the insurance company’s lawyers deposed me in a long interview in a Boston high-rise, during which I mostly said, “I don’t remember,” or answered yes or no without embellishment. My lawyers patted me on the back when we left. “I wish every client gave such concise answers,” Brian said. But it was only the truth. I didn’t remember anything about the accident. All else was merely conjecture.

During a grueling two-day evaluation in Brookline, a psychiatrist ran me through a gauntlet of tests. Math problems, puzzles, reciting lists of words from memory. A computer screen threw colors at me, and I had to press the spacebar when it blinked green. I drew charts from memory.

Several weeks later, her ten-page report arrived.

“Daniel’s rate of processing visually-presented material is impaired… He scored below the 1st percentile in comparison to others of his age and education…  Daniel was also impaired in his performance of the ACT, an aurally-presented task that is quite sensitive to difficulties with working memory, divided attention, and speed of processing… His subjective complaints of ongoing memory problems are therefore borne out not only by his inability to recall specific information from events occurring before and after his accident, but also by scores on formal memory tests that reflect a level of performance that is inconsistent with, and significantly lower than, premorbid ability.”

After getting fixed, this bike went on to carry me around Burlington and Yosemite National Park. Then my best friend Jed bought it from me. After a couple years of use, he passed it on to my brother, who owns it to this day.

And in the conclusion, she wrote: “The pattern of results suggests that Daniel may have sustained a blow to the left fronto-temporal region, affecting his working memory for verbally-presented material, followed by a more posterior blow to his right temporo-occipital-parietal area, affecting visual information processing and encoding. Reduced finger tapping with the right dominant hand also raises the likelihood of involvement of the right motor cortex.”

     Lower than expected.

     Deficits.

     Diminished. 

      <1st percentile.

      Poor performance. 

     More errors than expected.

     Impaired. 

     Impaired. 

     Impaired.

What price tag can be put on the inner workings of the mind? What value do our memories have? Would $300,000 make things better? Would I recoup full function even if I won a million dollars in court?

Of course, the answer was no.

The final line of the report wasn’t cheerful. “Since these deficits are still apparent over a year post-injury and given the severity of the injury initially, prognosis for a full recovery to premorbid levels of functioning is guarded.”

The court date drew near. I borrowed a sport coat and tie from my father. My mother bought me two pairs of pants and two shirts. I borrowed my stepfather’s shoes, which were a little tight but polished to a sheen. So familiar were they with my running clothes and beat up college wardrobe, Brian and James breathed real sighs of relief when I arrived at the courtroom in a mélange of borrowed attire.

“Dan is entirely realistic in his expectations. I have never had the impression that a large financial recovery is of great importance to him.”
–James Rivlin, Esq.

The defendant hadn’t shown up for the jury selection, but the insurance company’s lawyers were there.

Potential jury members filed in, a gloomy group of individuals who cast me sidelong, unfriendly looks. Who could blame them? They were torn out of their regular lives to judge a case that existed only because of an insurance company’s greed. After some preliminaries, the judge asked to talk with us in her chambers.

Thus began the arbitration. “Surely you can come to a settlement without going to trial,” she said. Judge Carter was a stately, gray-haired woman with a no-nonsense, penetrating gaze. She told us the insurance company was prepared to pay fifty thousand dollars to settle. My lawyers said no. Judge Carter went away to talk with the defendant’s attorneys in another room. I sat uncomfortably at the conference table, waiting in silence for their counter offer. Brian looked through some documentation. James gazed off to some other time and place. He said, “You’ll get a third of whatever they offer. One third will go to your health insurance company, and a third will cover our fee.”

The judge came back. “Sixty thousand.”

James looked at me. He looked at the judge. She looked at me. I shrugged.

“I think we can get more,” James said. He talked with the judge about our case. I spoke up a little, but I mostly let the attorneys do the spinning.

“You look healthy. You sound healthy,” the judge said to me.

“As Mr. Rivlin mentioned, I have memory problems.”

“A panoramic radiograph showed a horizontal, minimally displaced though well positioned, compound fracture at the inferior aspect of the vertical ramus.”
–Oral surgeon

“Okay.”

“And I had my jaw wired shut for five weeks. I couldn’t eat for more than a month.”

“There! See his pain and suffering! We should be going for more money!” James cried, as if my broken jaw were the real tragedy.

The judge went away.

She came back. “Ninety thousand. It’s their final offer.”

“A moment with our client please.” When Judge Carter was gone, Mr. Rivlin said, “What do you think, Daniel? Ninety thousand. We could get nothing if we go to court.”

“Or we could get more,” Brian pointed out.

“Let’s be done with it,” I said.

A month later a check arrived for $28,865.97. I’d never seen so much money in one note. I bought a used car. I spent thousands on travel and adventure and climbing equipment, determined to use the insurance company’s money to build up a new reservoir of memories. For three months I traveled across the country with my wife-to-be. We went to New Zealand and Thailand and Laos. Three years later, I backpacked across Europe with the last of my funds, and when they were gone, I kept going, never the same again.

But when are we ever the same?

AMNESIA: Memory as Identity

At eight years old, I was fascinated by the movie Regarding Henry. It stars Harrison Ford. His character suffers a traumatic brain injury from a gunshot wound. Henry has to piece his life back together, but the viewer knows he will never be the same, and in his case, that’s a good thing. He was a bastard before the mugging. Henry’s forgotten who he was and his memory’s been wiped clean. It’s a story of redemption through head trauma.

Never did I expect to go through a similar experience – in reverse. When you don’t start as a backstabbing, adulterous, mean guy and end up an angel, it’s a little harder to make meaning from the challenges of recreating yourself. When there’s no predetermined plot arc showing you the way to go, it feels a lot like being cut adrift.

Who am I?

I’m a collection of memories housed in a brain with unique wiring. But what happens when the structure gets jostled? What happens when some of the memories are dislodged and the wiring rerouted?

Am I the same person?

You could say we change every day, since we’re making new memories every day. And that’s true – to an extent. It’s a gentle change, though, a glacial shift hardly noticeable because the pace is typically so bloody slow.

An oncoming car connecting with a noggin at more than thirty miles per hour – that’s a recipe for fast change.

College.

I took only three classes, which earned me my first embarrassing C-level grades. My jaw had just been released from its metal prison, so I was eating again. I went to the dining hall and ran into a pretty girl from Proctor Academy, the prep school I attended in central New Hampshire. I guess that’s where we had known each other. She said, “Dan! Oh, it’s good to see you!” She grabbed me in a long, tight hug, and I smelled flowers in her hair.

“It’s good to– good to see you too,” I stammered.

“How’s running going? Are you on the team?”

“No, I’m not. Uh, how are you?”

“Great. I had a great summer. Field hockey is going well. How’s your mom? Here, do you want to stand in line with me?”

“Um, no. Sorry. I have to go meet someone.”

I ran away. I still don’t know who that nice girl was. She knew all about me, and I didn’t even recognize her. Not one bit. She didn’t even look familiar.

Believe me, this isn’t the only time it happened. A guy at the dorm mailroom reached out the window and grabbed my hand. “Dan! Hey, man, how are you?”

“I’m good. Sorry, gotta run to class.”

After these first two encounters and more, I began to understand how important memory is, not just for keeping track of your life, but for having an identity. What does it mean when you can’t remember somebody? It can only mean that you don’t care about them, that you don’t value them as a person and a contact. I couldn’t bring myself to tell the truth. I couldn’t bring myself to say:

“I’m sorry. When I was bicycling this summer, a car hit me. I have retrograde amnesia. Can you help me remember how we know each other?”

It’s a simple explanation – plausible and pitiable. But what if I had brought myself to say this? It would have been an admission that my memories of this person were gone. If one half of an equation disappears, the solution is meaningless. If someone doesn’t remember who you are, what’s the point? You can never go back. You can’t ever have the same relationship that you once did.

How much effort would you want to invest in an idiot without a single scrap of memory about all the time you spent together?

These were the easy encounters. Harder was learning from my mother that Jed, my best friend, spoke about me during his salutatorian speech. No, I didn’t remember graduation. Apparently among other things, Jed spoke about how after twelve years as best friends, we had grown even closer during our semester of travel with Mountain Classroom. No, I didn’t remember Mountain Classroom.

Harder was holding up the relationship I had with a girlfriend of three years. I didn’t feel as close to her. I didn’t remember so many of the things she remembered. I didn’t seem to value the same stuff as the old version of myself, partly because I couldn’t remember what I was like before the accident and partly because what I could remember seemed so foreign.

No, I didn’t remember her birthday.

No, I didn’t daydream about getting married.

No, I didn’t want to have kids.

No, I didn’t want to be a doctor anymore.

As my brain healed, as I rose up out of a trauma-induced depression, I began to inventory the things in my life – my values and assumptions and principles. I held each one up for examination.

When your memories have been chopped up and destroyed, so that the people you knew look like strangers and those you remember are disappointed by what they see, there’s only one direction. Forward.

To what would I say yes? This is where my new plot line began. It’s not as flashy or redeeming as Henry’s. I haven’t solved a mystery or rebuilt a family. I said goodbye to my lost past and accepted that a new life lay ahead. That was the key to healing, the door to a new life: acceptance. Maybe this is a different plot line than I was supposed to have, but I like it. I’ve accepted the new me. Without this bit of personal redemption, I don’t think everything else could seem so damn beautiful to me.

AMNESIA

When I was eighteen years old, my life broke cleanly in two.

My memory had been so completely destroyed that I couldn’t remember that I couldn’t remember.

An orange Cannondale racing bicycle delivered me to a fracture on the island of Martha’s Vineyard on the Fourth of July, 1999. An oncoming Nissan Pathfinder, driven by a sixteen-year-old with a carload of friends, turned across my path. Police present at the scene estimated my speed at the moment of impact above thirty miles per hour.

Much later I saw a photo of the car. It showed a windshield broken as if struck by a bowling ball. My head made that spider web of cracks. My body broke off the side mirror. My bike, cracked in two, scratched the side panels as momentum carried me along and dumped me on the pavement. The medics reported that I was combative. They cut off my backpack, detatched me from my clipless pedals, injected a sedative, and loaded me into a helicopter bound for Massachusetts General Hospital on the mainland.

I don’t remember a thing about the accident. Those three words became like a mantra.

I don’t remember… what happened.

I don’t remember… why I’m in the hospital.

I don’t remember… the last two years of my life.

Memory isn’t just one operation. It’s complex, broken up into different types and processes, and our imperfect knowledge about memory comes from studying people like me – people with amnesia – and also people with degenerative brain disorders.

The doctors warned my parents, and they warned my girlfriend. He might be different when he wakes. Brain trauma can change a person, especially cases so serious. He might be mean. Disagreeable. You might never again speak with the same person.

I woke after three days, aching and stupid. I asked why I was in the hospital so many times that the question feels like the shadow of a real memory. My family worried over me in the ICU as I slowly advanced through stages of near-infantile confusion to the capacity of a ten-year-old.

Two weeks later, the torture began.

They moved me to a rehabilitation center. Every day demonstrated the futility of my efforts.

“Say these numbers back to me: five, three, eight, six.”

“Um. Did you say five?”

Occupational therapy and speech therapy were like the rack and the iron maiden to my pulverized brain. Those wonderful, dedicated, talented women would clap me in irons daily to inflict pain. I hated failure. I hated myself. I hated the rehab center. I hated the ache in my jaw provoked by the meat served on cafeteria trays. Say, wasn’t I vegetarian before, you know, before all this?

“If you ate one red M&M and then one blue M&M, what was the color of the first M&M?”

“I don’t know.”

Denise, my occupational therapist, asked me to write down my meals. She wanted a full report on what I ate for breakfast, what I found for snacks in the trove my family brought during their visits. I forgot to write down what I was supposed to write down to remember. And this was my life. My memory had been so completely destroyed that I couldn’t remember that I couldn’t remember. The notepad traveled around in my pocket like a piece of lint – useless and ignored and when found tossed aside because “What was this for?”

Getting lost in the rehab center was standard operating procedure. I didn’t know where my room was. I didn’t know where the PT facility was. Hey, they had a pool in here?

Then one day I saw the red cover and the black spiral of my notepad and an explosion of memory speared my mind. This was for writing, writing down something about food.

The explosions, those shocking moments when a series of neurons connect and fire together, they started happening more often. Pudding, chicken, and cereal. Soup, hotdogs, and iced tea.  Food began to fill up the pages of my memory journal. Then Denise stopped going easy on me. The torture escalated.

“What did you do in physical therapy today?”

“I don’t remember.”

“When did you last speak with your mother or father?”

I gazed out the window and wondered which day of the week it was. It looked like summer.

After a few weeks, they let me move home with my parents and continue therapy as an outpatient. Everything at home told me about something I had forgotten. I was supposed to go to college next month. I had been training to join the cross-country running team. Dozens of get-well cards said they were sorry. Photos surrounded me that I couldn’t place, places stared at me that I couldn’t name, names were gone like the future that was supposed to be waiting for me. Gone.

It wasn’t nice to be home.

Major depressive disorder is a frequent complication of [traumatic brain injury] that exerts a deleterious effect on the recovery process and psychosocial outcome of patients with brain injuries. (Jorge, Richardo, et al. Article.)

The weirdest part was looking at the photos. Not only did I not remember where and when many of them were taken, but I didn’t know that person in my body. Who was that? It wasn’t me. My parents confirmed it. My girlfriend agreed. So did the people who, evidently, were my friends. I was different. A different person. “I liked the old Dan better,” my father said.

My jaw, they discovered, was broken. “Wire it shut,” they said and wire it shut they did. For the next five weeks, I would drink calories through a straw, waste away to skin and bones because sucking is no way to eat.

At that time, I wanted nothing more than to go back, to return to my life and return to a personality everybody liked better, whatever it was. But I was off trail, standing in a wilderness that didn’t look familiar. There was no way to retrace my path, no landmarks or features showing me the way back.

That was the break. The fracture that split my life in two.

And life, as they say, went on. For me. For others. Proof arrived in the mail six weeks after the accident.

Please remit payment within four weeks after receiving this notification. You owe $2,650 in damages to our client’s Nissan Pathfinder.

Continue reading