Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Disruption of Memory, by Stephanie Cornell

“I told him four times already.”

“He doesn’t remember anything,” said my mother. “It’s from his accident.” Of course. The accident. I had missed so much in two years.

“Oh, did he hit his head when he fell off the roof?” I replied, suddenly trying to put together how a broken heel might result in memory loss.

“No, the bicycle accident.” She said it so casually, as if this was common knowledge. Not once in twenty-eight years had this been mentioned, but now she was recklessly tossing around the possibility as if it were fact. As if we all made this association, as if it were regularly inserted into conversations at family functions or pulled out among friends as the punch line to a joke.

I remember the warm spring afternoon we gathered to celebrate Colin’s first birthday. I remember the Fritos and vegetable dip, the bottles of birch beer soda, and how quickly the laughing stopped when the slideshow abruptly shifted from California landscapes and group photos at dinner to my father smiling weakly from his hospital bed, half of his face as black as obsidian, swollen and taut. His shoulder the color of eggplant. That photo, in an instant, sucked all the air from the room, holding our breath hostage until a collective exhale resumed the balance of oxygen. My father chuckled uncomfortably, allowing a breathless “Wow” to escape his mouth. He hadn’t seen himself like that.

I had not seen him like that either. When he arrived at Logan Airport the previous November, the thing I was most concerned with, more than anything in the whole entire world, was not the condition of my father’s face, but that my mother not cry in public. “Please. Do not cry,” I’d insisted more than once on the way to the airport, and again while we waited at the TWA gate. It was vitally important to me that these tanned, radiant strangers from California not see my mother cry. Before the first passenger exited the jetway, my mother was breaking every rule and allowing tears to fill her anxious eyes.

It was my grandfather I saw first, his tall frame popping up from the crowd of the passengers. When my father finally emerged, his face was the color of mustard, a pale mossy green lining the edge of what now revealed itself to be the remains of a bruise covering the right side of his face. The white of his eye a deep crimson; the skin around it a dark mauve. His right arm was suspended in a sling to support the broken clavicle. And if this were not enough to bear, my father – upon first seeing us – began to cry in public. My mother fell into his chest and also cried in public.

At home, he would show us his purple hip and the platter-shaped bruise that ran down the side of his thigh. He would give us presents from California, like he always did when he traveled on installations. For me, a copy of Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, not because he liked them – I’m not sure he even knew who they were -- but because I had started playing flute the previous year. In many ways, it was no different than the other times he came home after a long work trip. This time simply included a sling and adults crying in public.

I was eleven years old that October in 1983. As a child already prone to worry, it was my misfortune that I be the recipient of the first phone calls from Palo Alto. I didn’t sense anything at first. Steve, my father’s coworker, was a close family friend. I’ll try again in an hour. Just tell your mom that I called, ok? To me, it was still a novelty to take a message and carry it around like a secret until I could report it to my mother when she would return home. It made me feel responsible, like a grown-up. I carried three or maybe four of the same message around that afternoon, ready to burst when she finally came through the door. But it was immediately clear from my mother’s reaction that three or four phone calls from Steve was not something that should feel like a privilege but something that should make you worry.

My mother would soon learn about the bicycle tire that turned at ninety degrees, how my father had flown through the air and landed on the pavement. I would soon learn that the initials I.C.U. meant Very Badly Injured and that teachers and guidance counselors will treat you a bit differently when your father is admitted to one. I would not learn any details other than “blood clot near the brain” and subdural hematoma, but those words don’t mean anything to an eleven-year-old. It was through the behavior of the adults around me that I understood it was Serious. When one’s family never takes phone calls behind closed doors, the sudden onset of whispered conversations from the bedroom is terrifying.

It would be ten years before I learned how close to death my father had been; five years more before I learned that he had slipped into a coma. And still another twelve years to learn that my father’s memory had suffered as a result of the accident; that he suffered toxicity from the Dilantin he’d been prescribed to prevent further seizures; that there had been seizures at all; and that it was perhaps my mother, and not my father, who suffered the most. My father’s memory of the entire day and those that followed has been erased forever. It was never written to his hard drive. My memory and that of my sister’s is written based not only on limited information but limited understanding.

My mother remembers everything. The date comes without hesitation: October 25, 1983. It was a Tuesday. He returned on a Saturday. She almost lost her husband. We almost lost our father. She remembers everything.

Stephanie Cornell is a gypsy with too many hobbies living in Asia, where she has worked as a copywriter, marketing consultant and television producer in Seoul, Tokyo and Singapore since 2007. A Boston native, Stephanie's photoblog documents her life overseas, travels around the continent and a love of bicycles.


  1. yes, stephanie's work is quite engaging.

  2. I especially enjoyed the ending of this piece.

  3. thanks emersonlitphoto

    i agree

    it is both unexpected
    and satisfyingly so

  4. I really loved this essay. It was so descriptive I felt that I was interacting with the characters. It left me wondering why the son was left in the dark for so long about his father's accident and condition after the accident.

  5. thanks,

    stephanie certainly managed to cover quite a bit of ground with this piece

    each step of the way
    as real as the last and the next

  6. This piece really spoke to me because I know many families, including my own, which have secrets or topics which go unspoken...I think many times it is out of love that certain truths are not addressed. Sometimes the truth is more painful or burdensome than it is worth. Certainly, I think that was the case in this story, as the family was trying to protect the son. And even when the son grows older and the whole story still kept from him, I think that is a result of how parents to always consider their children as "kids", even when they are 40 years old. There is always that inherent nature to protect and shield your children from the painful parts of life.

    I think the ending of the story is particularly powerful with the statement, "My mother remembers everything. The date comes without hesitation: October 25, 1983. It was a Tuesday." Dates are always important in family history. They can be markers of life and death in the family. Again, with my family in particular, there is one date that changed all our lives, and it is something we remember similar to the mother in this story. I think closing with such short and blunt statements in the closing paragraph ends the essay well, and is relatable to the readers who have felt similar pain within their own family.


  7. alison,

    you're exactly right about the brevity of the language at the end. it really sells the piece after we wander through the past, nearly poetically, as if to mirror the act of memory itself. the end is direct, and in direct contrast the the language throughout. as if there can be no debate. as if the event itself was immaterial. as if the date itself matters most.

  8. I find this essay compelling and touching. I think that the ending was very interesting and I was intrigued the whole time while reading it. I can completely relate because my grandfather well through much illness when I was quite young. I, like the subject in this essay, was not aware of the extremes of his illness until I was older. I was too young to understand anything other than the sadness and worrying that was around me. I really enjoyed reading this.

  9. This essay was fantastically descriptive and dark. The depth of his mothers burden and turmoil, keeping everything to herself to protect her children from the truth is moving.Telling his mother repeatedly not to cry when only she realizes how close she was to losing her husband is sad, the sentence "I would soon learn that the initials I.C.U. meant Very Badly Injured and that teachers and guidance counselors will treat you a bit differently when your father is admitted to one." was tremendously powerful and I really enjoyed the reading. When I was six, my father had a heart attack and was in the hospital for several weeks, he ended up pulling through but I did not realize the gravity of this situation at the time. Reading this essay was the first time I had thought about this in years but I feel as if my mother probably thinks about it with some regularity.

  10. This essay was fantastic. It took the most simple subject matter in the photograph and expanded it into a story that I could not stop reading. The vivid description of the father's condition created an image in my mind that I won't easily forget. That combined with the point of view of the 11 year old really allowed me to focus on the emotions of the characters instead of simply considering the technical aspects of the injuries or situations. The reader grows with the speaker as she describes the information she learned as she got older. This makes the very end even more powerful, as it makes it seem as though the mother is overwhelmed with information, because not only does she keep all of her own knowledge and concerns, but ever since the accident s
    he has to take on all of the memories that the father is missing.

    I loved reading this and the blog is fantastic!


  11. This was an emotionally captivating essay. When I read the sentence, "Please. Don't cry," I was reminded of all the moments where my family experienced tragedy. Each time, I would beg my mother not to cry in public because it only caused me to break down. The intimate language and tone of the essay allowed for me to become connected with the story. The characters emotions were clearly expressed, helping readers become invested in these characters lives. I began wondering about their world outside of the essay and what other stories they had to share. I agree with everyone else that the ending was very well-done. The short, quick sentences made for a powerful conclusion to this poignant essay.