This Sunday will be the 18th anniversary of the accident that changed my life. I’m still learning new things about what happened to me then, even now.
While eating lunch with Cara yesterday, our discussion turned to the accident and its immediate aftermath. (Nothing makes better meal-time conversation than reminiscing about the physical (mine) and emotional (hers) trauma of my unsuccessful foray into car pushing.) In passing, she reminded me that an above-knee amputee came to visit me after I had been moved out of the ICU. “Nice guy,” she told me; 30 years old and a new dad.
I stared at her blankly.
“You refused to see him,” she continued. “Your were freaking out. You told me there was no way you were going to speak to anyone who was missing limbs. You wouldn’t even use the word amputee.”
I find this bizarre on two fronts. First, I don’t remember it. Given Cara’s description of how I reacted to the possibility of meeting someone else with limb loss, it seems almost impossible that this wouldn’t have remained burned into my brain, one of the clearest post-accident memories that I would carry with me over the next 18 years. But there’s nothing.
Second, I don’t think this is the first time Cara has told me this story. I have a vague recollection of her bringing this up several times over the years since the accident, but it wasn’t until long after our conversation yesterday had ended that I realized it. In other words, I’ve buried this story – perhaps multiple times – over the course of nearly two decades.
I’ve come to grips with the fact that my memory is an unreliable tool. I’ve written frequently about the strangeness of having the most significant event of my life – an event I was largely conscious for according to all accounts – wiped from the hard drive in my head. But after I got discharged from the ICU, I do remember most of what happened.
I remember the box of Godiva chocolates and the card attached to it that the girl whose car I was pushing sent me. I remember that my dad ate them. I recall being terrified that if I couldn’t figure out how to piss into a bedpan I would have serious complications (read: pain) removing the catheter. (The doctors had told me as much. Nothing motivates a man to pee more than the threat of excruciating pain in that particular body part. This, in fact, may be my clearest immediate post-accident memory – the abject terror that enveloped me at the thought of a brutal catheter removal. The fact that I no longer had a leg paled in comparison.) I remember a guy from my soccer team and my boss standing by my hospital bed, visiting.
But Cara asking me whether I wanted to talk to another amputee my age and amputation level? Me practically screaming at her to make sure that it didn’t happen? Gone.
But wait – there’s more.
Cara went on: “There were actually a total of 3 people who I really remember trying to visit you,” she said. “There was another amputee. A BK. He was a military guy – really young. You actually spoke to him briefly. He came in the room and you were polite but it was very quick.” I shook my head. This too may as well have happened to another person. How did these guys even know that I was in the hospital? Who were they? And why don’t I remember them?
“And then there was the priest. He was from my family’s parish – he had replaced Father Fred. You told me to keep him the [expletive] away from you. You made it very clear that you wanted nothing to do with him. So I spoke to him outside the room. I thanked him for coming but told him that you weren’t Catholic yourself and that you wouldn’t be receptive to him and what he had to say.”
The priest. The third member of my Amnesia Trinity. As Cara described my reaction to his showing up at my hospital door, at least it seems consistent with how I know I viewed the world at 27. I was not and had never been a “church guy.” Religion was something that people used to escape and justify why bad things happened to them, a tool of the weak. That’s what I thought then. So my “Keep him the hell out!” stance made sense to me as I stared at my bowl of pasta, listening to Cara.
But my behavior in response to the Mysterious Amputees Who Materialized at my Hospital Door feels strangely disconnected from how I think about myself (and by extension, how I think about who I was in December 1997). The more I turn it over in my head, the more bizarre my behavior with the other two members of the Trinity seems. I’m an above-knee amputee who refuses to speak to another above-the-knee amputee who’s basically the same age as me. I push away a guy who can presumably provide real insight into what I’m going through. Shortly thereafter, I welcome a military guy considerably younger than me who’s the “wrong” level of amputation and I speak with him.
What the hell was I thinking?
Cara correctly notes that the Amnesia Trinity shouldn’t surprise me given the amount of stress and medication surging through my body at the time. Expecting myself to behave rationally probably holds me to a standard that I couldn’t possibly satisfy as I stared for hours a day at the empty space below my left knee.
My hyper-analytical brain – also generally known as my everyday operating system – posits more sinister psychological implications. I rejected the above-knee amputee because I couldn’t yet face what I had become. I welcomed the BK because he provided a narrow window I could peek through to get a glimpse of limb loss without getting completely overwhelmed – after all, he was different, having retained his knee.
In the end though, I just stack these stories about myself onto the pile of post-accident tales that interest me because I sit at their center despite the fact that they could have happened to a stranger so far as my memory is concerned. And they just sit there …