A Summer Not to Remember

Losing your memory’s like that one movie — you know the one I’m thinking of … except not as fun.

I can’t remember the moment that wrecked all my summer plans.

Oh, I know when it was: 7:23 a.m. on June 19. I know where, too: at Center Street and Macada Road, Bethlehem, PA. I just don’t remember it.

Because of the concussion.

They say I ran a red light and slammed my car into an ambulance. That I fell asleep at the wheel driving back from a Philadelphia airport with my wife Stacey, then seven months pregnant with our son. I have plenty of souvenirs: the police report; the newspaper clipping; the broken arm that’s still healing; the blood clot that formed in my leg three months after the crash, sending me limping back to the hospital in unbearable pain.

But there’s no memory — just a 48-hour blank space in my mental log.

Stacey, who wasn’t badly hurt, says I was a lot of fun in the emergency room. Every two minutes, I’d go through this cycle: “What the hell happened?”

“Oh my God — is Stacey okay?”

“What about the baby?”

“Oh, thank God. Is anybody else hurt?”

“What happened in the crash?”

“Really? How’d I do that?”

“Wow, my memory isn’t what it used to be.”

[One minute later]

“Where am I?”

“What the hell happened?”

And so on. Stacey says they eventually made a sign for me while she and our infant-to-be left to get checked out.

“You remember who I am, don’t you?” Stacey asked the next day.

“Of course I do,” I replied, eyes twinkling. “You’re Denise!” Har har!

Actually, my long-term memory was fine. There was no Hollywood-style amnesia, with me forgetting who I was and wandering out of the hospital to have comic misadventures. I just couldn’t remember what was happening minute to minute.

Two days after the crash, around 2 a.m., I lay awake in bed OD’ing on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block. An episode of “Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex” was coming on. I’ve seen this one before, I thought. Oh well, I’ll watch it again. I was still awake two hours later when the programming block repeated. On came the same episode of Ghost in the Shell. But … wait, how did it end? I watched it again.

Our brains are constantly processing, sorting and storing information. According to the information-processing model, a lot of what our senses perceive (say, the hum of your computer) is immediately tossed out, while we focus our attention on just one or two things (like the text of this article). And if that information in our short-term memory strikes our brain as particularly useful, or if we hear it again and again, we move the information to our long-term memory, where it can hang out pretty much forever. This is why I still know my address from when I was six, how to factor a polynomial and the lyrics to “It’s the End of the World as We Know it.”

As soon as I could hold a thought in my head for more than a minute and a half, I started to invent work-arounds. All I had to do, I reasoned, was memorize any important information: move it from my defective short-term memory and encode it in the long-term memory.

A hospital therapist came to check my brain three days after the crash.

“Now we’re going to test your memory,” she said. “At the end of our session, I’m going to ask if you remember these three words: apple, table, penny. Got it?”

I nodded. I’d blaze through this test and get on with my life. “Apple, table, penny,” I thought.

She asked for my name, my age, what year it was. I answered.

“Apple, table, penny,” I thought.

She had me recall images from flash cards.

“Apple, table, penny,” I thought.

She asked me to read a paragraph, then tell her what it said.

“Apple, table, penny,” I thought.

“Okay,” she said, finally, “now what were those three words?”

“Apple, table penny,” I answered proudly.

“Great! And what was the question I told you to ask me as soon as we finished?” What!? There was no such question! I turned to Stacey. She nodded ruefully. Aargh.

The short-term memory gradually improved. First it got long enough to have a conversation (the first one I remember was with a hospital orderly about the movie Memento). Then long enough to recall a TV show’s plot two hours later. Eventually, they let me leave the hospital, and today my brain seems to be pretty much back to normal, focused again on my family, my career, religion, superheroes, cartoons

Wait … what was I writing about?

Article © 2005 by Michael Duck