Aftermath of an accident
In fits and starts:
It was an automobile, a venomous accordion, that composed the music of my life. It was the thing that opened and closed around me, opened invitingly, then snatched me up. The music that I heard was a kind of humming— not lovely, not frightening, just humming. And then it stopped.
For seconds, I had emerged from the dark, just long enough to hear the humming and to know that a woman was cradling my head. “It’s OK. You’re going to make it. The men are working to get you out.” When I think of her now, I imagine a perfectly round face, plain brown hair bobbed, shiny tortoise-shell glasses, and hands like mittens, down filled and motherly, gripping my head while the rest of me was coiled and held captive by the auto’s black metal.
I had become frozen and stony inside the crumpled car. More than a thousand cc’s of blood was pouring out of me and I didn’t know it. I didn’t know that entire parts of me had caved in— ribs here, a lung there, a liver thrown open.
When the words came, they seemed to originate from out of nowhere, fiercely resonant with inhuman certitude. Three times this voice spoke to me. It wasn’t my voice, but it came from inside me, from inside a place deeper than my bones, a place scientists must know exists, like the bottom of the sea or the center of the earth.
And the light. Was it the light of the ambulance? It was afternoon, daylight and sunny. The light— more neon than flimsy chiffon, but not tawdry or irritating like neon—shone above and around me, surrounding me with these words as they were articulated inside of me:
Why does memory matter anyway? After my hospitalization, after two weeks of tubes pumping up my flattened lungs, tubes raping my throat and chest, more morphine than even a pachyderm could absorb, I discovered a survivor’s miasma. Discharged, free to go home, I could not find my home. I was lost. Alone, in the middle of Walnut Street, I stood like an animal caught in the glare of a careening car. Where was I going? Where had I been? Why was I here at all?
I wanted my brain back. I’d suffered no obvious fractures; my skull was intact. I didn’t know that something had happened to the neurons, that the synapses were no longer transmitting their messages.
For half a day, I would leave my groceries on my stoop, forgetting them until I needed the ketchup, wondering at their strange ensconcement, wondering why they existed at all. Sorting my silverware became a week’s work. I couldn’t find the woman I once knew, a gale of activities and life who could go on forever.
No sense of time
A neuropsychologist told me that I had damaged my right temporal lobe and my parietal lobe and that I had diffuse damage, especially to the frontal lobe. I had become a damaged lobe: “It will take time.”
But I had lost all sense of time. After sleeping 16 hours a day, when I awoke I would walk down the street like a drunk, swerving side to side, unable to keep my balance. There was no such thing as balance.
I loathed the city’s stentorian howls; I shivered and contracted with each shout or blaring horn. In crowds, I couldn’t breathe. Alone, I couldn’t breathe. From my dreams, I would wake screaming, surrounded by a blanket and blackness, lying on the floor, writhing to escape.
I was not paralyzed, and I was deeply grateful for that. But, inexplicably, I had grown huge with rage. I had become Mary Shelley’s invention seeking my other self, ripping at my clothes, growing larger than my own life. Inconsolable, uncontrollable, I broke dishes, beat my fists against the man I loved, shattered remnants of my past— my mother’s white dishes she had tenderly given me, a photograph of myself, before. I didn’t recognize this woman; I didn’t know how to soothe her into grace.
For three years, I couldn’t remember the names of people I had just met, nor remember where I was going, in the first place. And worst of all, worst of all, I couldn’t find the words to tell this story.
I’m married now. Eighteen years ago, a daughter was born. When she turned seven she was finally given her Hebrew name: Matia, a gift of God— our own reinvention dislodged from the masculine for Matthew: Matitya. On that day, I was also named: Rafaela, meaning “God has healed.”
God has healed, enough. We celebrated, dancing in turn, my daughter, my husband, and I, surrendering our senses, suspended above our lives, almost losing ourselves for a moment to the music of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.
But can we begin again? Or do we lug with us everything we are— not as a shadow, but a second skin we must learn to wear?
Guiding me home
Scars still line my abdomen like question marks; scars shiver above my breasts, loiter against my ankles. My body will always ache with old injuries.
And the memory thief remains. There are still nights when— tired, overworked, stretched— I drive in my suburban van and have no notion of where I am or, like years ago, why I am there.
I call my husband. Together we discuss signposts, vague memories of landmarks until something inside me clicks and I go on. I reach home and want to kiss the ground because I’m home, because I’m safe, because I’m familiar.
At times, I still remain the stranger at my own door. It’s like waiting for Elijah, that furious, uncompromising prophet, tender reconciler of death and life, that phantom we open our doors to year after year. Above all I welcome these words as they return to me, the best return of all, this language that comes back to me in fragile fits and starts, that allows me, finally, to tell this story.♦