I sit in my car for hours, driving towards some important destination. Traffic is light and my mind is churning out random thoughts ranging from the telephone call I had with someone at work to the trip I’m planning for the summer to what to get my daughter for her birthday in July.
Suddenly, I become aware that I can’t remember anything about the last 45 miles. This is a strange phenomenon – an out-of-body experience while conscious. I know I drove past cows in the fields, rest areas selling food that should come with a warning label, and up and down winding roadways that required my attention lest I plunge into oncoming traffic or off the road. I know that my hands gripped and turned the steering wheel and my foot alternated between the accelerator and brake.
I know that this is true because I’m still sitting in the driver’s seat listening to music at levels that will necessitate a hearing aid by the time I’m 47. I’m not crashing through the guardrail separating me from several seconds of incomprehensible airborne terror that culminate in a very loud sound that, I imagine, I’d never hear as the previously-rigid surfaces of my car and my body became one in a blaze of light and heat.
Instead, I’m sitting comfortably in the driver seat, belted against the cheap cloth seats of the cheap car I drive. I remember crossing a large bridge some time ago. By looking at the turnpike ticket I slide from between the visor and roof. I decide, in a decidedly nonscientific manner, that I’m somewhere between exits 9 and 3, a distance so large that it would be just as accurate to say that I’m in State X.
As I consider the faux graphite dashboard and orange displays flickering in front of my eyes, it occurs to me that almost an hour of sensory input has disappeared – or perhaps never been registered? – while I watched everything through the windshield. I note this without any particular alarm because it happens to me on a semi-regular basis, like the sporadic tingling in my right pinkie that comes and goes two or three times a year, or the dizziness that forces me to focus on a fixed point when I sometimes jerk upright from a prone position.
I know that all of these things would be of great import if I were living on the savannah, hunting to eke out an existence while trying to avoid anything with teeth sharper than mine. And as that thought runs through my mind, I imagine myself being jerked out of my waking reverie by the sounds of a very large, very furry creature entering my cave. I see myself leaping up to my feet, grabbing my spear in one motion, but drunkenly staggering into the wall as the dizziness from a too-quick sit-to-stand transition hits me. A pair of fangs as long as my index finger wobble in small circles directly in front of me. I hurl my spear at the beast, my one and only shot to save myself. But between the still-spinning space and my insensate fourth digit, it bounces harmlessly off the wall of the cave, not my attacker’s throat, and I fall to the floor helplessly to await my fate.
From this highly-realistic mental recreation of my life in Africa during the Stone Age, I immediately conclude that I could not have survived 5 minutes there. I would be the equivalent of a TV dinner for more competent creatures: convenient, easy to find, and (I hypothesize), generally edible.
But, as I sit in my car in 2011, I find solace in things like doors that require thumbs to open, modern heating and plumbing, and the wonders of Peapod, which magically transports food from Stop & Shop to my house. My weaknesses are not a serious impairment in this world. And as I consider the lost 45 (now 55) miles of road behind me, I conclude that this new gap in memory doesn’t mean very much, other than as an intellectual exercise.
I’m more troubled, though, by a different memory gap that divides my life neatly into two phases: Before and After. I don’t remember walking into the intersection. I don’t remember speaking to the young woman driving the car that I decided to push off the road. I don’t remember speaking to the gas station attendant who was in the road with me. I don’t remember the impact, the sound of metal on metal, of broken glass, the “pop” you hear when bumper hits bumper. I can’t reclaim the ride in the ambulance, the discussions with policemen and doctors before my surgery, anything my wife might have said to me before I woke up and asked, “Did they take my leg?”
With the exception of 30 disjointed seconds shortly after the impact – and that memory is about as coherent as Paris Hilton on a Saturday night (or, now that I think about it, Paris Hilton any time) – my memory banks have been erased. The event that, in every sense of the phrase, made me who I am today, is as alien to me as the newscasts about the Japanese earthquake. I understand that both have happened, but they happened to someone else. They’re not my experience.
Immediately after the accident, I decided that this disconnect was a good thing. People told me (and still tell me today) how lucky I am not to remember the blood, the burning skin and crushed bone. “Your mind has a way of protecting you,” is a common statement I hear from people with no expertise in the workings of their own minds, much less mine. But I’ve reflexively accepted this as true for more than 15 years.
The few moments of dim memory that do flicker in my brain used to confirm the wisdom of my initial conclusion. Months after the accident, I asked my wife where I was standing at the moment of impact as we drove through the same intersection. She told me the story, which was interesting in a purely abstract way until she came to the part when she came into the street and started screaming at me to stop moving.
And there it was – 30 seconds of memory abruptly unlocked. My racing heart and frozen mind suggested to me that this was not an entirely positive thing. I was powerless, trapped in a fragment of my history. And so I consciously decided to ignore the feelings associated with the short clip playing in my mind, and focused instead on the details of what I could remember seeing and hearing, which was almost nothing.
After that, I kept everything comfortably bottled up for years. But then I saw the World War II miniseries, Band of Brothers on HBO. The episode in question detailed Easy Company getting pinned down in a wintry forest in Belgium. Or it could have been France.
(Yes, I understand there’s a difference between the countries. But I’m American, so I understand the difference between European countries the same way I understand biochemistry – it’s something that I can look up on the internet if I ever really need that information. That being said, I’ve now checked the online episode guide and confirmed that the events described below took place in the Ardennes outside of Foy, Belgium. God bless the Belgians and their delicious waffles. Wikipedia informs us Belgium is famous for multiple kinds of waffles, including “the Brussels waffle, the Liège waffle and the stroopwafel; what is known in North America as the “Belgian waffle” is most similar to the Brussels waffle.” What did we ever do before the internet, I ask you? If I ever end up in Belgium – hell even if I end up in France – I’m asking for a “stroopwafel” because it’s the silliest looking word I’ve seen since I was in Copenhagen and learned that the unfortunate “fartpilot” is the word for “cruise control.”)
Anyway, as Easy Company’s Joe Toye, against orders, rushes out of the protection of his bunker to drag his wounded friend to safety, he gets blown up. After the bang and the flash, the viewer is disoriented. You only hear Toye’s voice in the woods. You see the landscape, but not Toye. You see the other members of Easy Company listening to Toye’s animal-like moans echoing through the blasted trees, but no Toye.
As I watched this unfold, it was like it was happening to me. I was Toye. The complete dislocation from the reality that had existed only seconds before when Toye rushed into the line of fire, the total helplessness – plaintive cries pouring out of Toye’s mouth as he tried to comprehend the incomprehensible – caused my entire body to clench up and tighten. And when the filmmakers then panned out from a closeup of Toye to a wider shot from directly above, showing him crawling away from his lower leg, which lay in the snow behind him . . . my mind reverted to what I can only describe as a primitive state. I could only feel my heart pounding simultaneously in my chest and ears. Everything else around me fell away. There was only blood pumping violently through my body.
Because of these kinds of reactions, I’ve never particularly wanted to reactivate the memories I’m convinced are stored inside an encrypted folder in my head. But at the same time, it feels so odd having my life shaped by an event that I’m old enough to remember but can’t. It seems important to remember, because everything that came before that night happened to a different person. And every choice I made afterwards was influenced by it.
Actually, to be more precise, every choice I made afterwards was influenced not by my memories of what had happened – I had none – but by the obvious physical difference I woke up to in the ICU.
If I could remember what happened from the time I arrived in that intersection until the time the doctors put me under, I might be a very different person than I am today. Perhaps the memory of my shattered leg in the street would have required months or years of therapy and medication. I could be an angry, bitter sonuvabitch, kicking kittens and barking like a rabid dog at toddlers for no reason at all as they walk past me. On the other hand maybe seeing my wife’s face as she looked at me in the street would have ripped Analytic, Hyper-Rational Dave asunder, and I would have morphed into the archetypal Sensitive Man, going back to get Masters degrees in Philosophy, Religion, and Social Work while tending to injured sparrows and talking to trees in my spare time. (If the memories spill out unexpectedly tomorrow, I think these are both equally possible scenarios.)
With such enthralling possibilities for alternate existences at my fingertips, I’ve begun to reconsider my initial willingness to bottle everything up. If I could reclaim the lost hours between walking into the street and meeting the anesthesiologist, I could better understand who I was before and what I became after. I could somehow imbue the entire experience with more . . . meaning than I’m capable of conjuring up today.
After all, I’m really quite remarkable. That’s what people insist on telling me after learning that I have only one leg and haven’t turned into a psychopath motivated by Grendel-like blood-lust. (Grendel ended up (briefly) an amputee also, so even epic poetry supports my fabulousness: I’m not like Grendel!) My life must have meaning, right? No possibility – none – that my life is just a random sequence of events.
After all, isn’t the story so much better when you construct a narrative around it? Consider my tale if you pull out all meaning, all narrative: He walked into the street. He got hit by a car. Doctors amputated his limb. He got a prosthesis. He returned to work. He was happy.”
Much better to say, “Feeling giddy with Holiday cheer only weeks before Christmas and shortly after passing the Bar Exam, Dave valiantly leapt into the road to help a damsel in distress. Tragically, the kind father of a mentally-challenged individual failed to see him in the road, in one instant taking all the sweetness out of an evening in which he’d seen his son score the winning basket in a basketball exhibition played at halftime of an NBA game. Given the option to sink into the depths, Dave instead heroically rose from the ashes of that accident, a one-winged phoenix soaring into the light to reclaim his life.” (Cue swelling music and lump in throat.) Narrative – even narrative as saccharine and poorly written as that which I’ve just subjected you to – works better conceptually than real life.
So I now sit in a chair in my bedroom, the afternoon racing to evening an hour earlier than my mind tells me it should. And I ponder what’s more unsettling – having infrequent but powerful bouts of primal fear with an unremembered world of experience that, I theorize, sits dormant in my brain (the 90 percent of the iceberg that I can’t see), or hacking into the full complement of memories from that night?
Is this a gap I want to fill?