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  • Gula, Gula—Listen, Listen:Memory and the Map of Childhood
  • Mira Bartók (bio)

Then we got into a labyrinth, and, when we thought we were at the end, came out again at the beginning, having still to see as much as ever.

Plato, Euthyphoro

Five years ago I was hit by an 18-wheel tractor-trailer on the New York Thruway. The day after the accident I woke up with what felt like an elephant sitting on top of my head, periodically shifting its weight from one side to the other. I did what people often do after suffering a traumatic brain injury, or TBI—I walked from room to room wondering what I was looking for. I put scissors and boxes of tampons in the refrigerator, made coffee without water, turned the toaster oven on without bread inside. If I cooked anything, I placed my palm directly on the burner to see if it was hot yet. Sometimes, unfortunately, it was.

I could give you a list of complaints, but I have saved most of those for my doctors and, up until recently, my lawyer. I am not, at heart, a whiner. Besides, I didn't see myself as a victim at the time, but rather a person who had unfortunately gotten in the way of a very large and fast moving object. I simply wanted the huge Canadian trucking corporation that owned the truck to compensate me for my bills, my loss, and my five years of waiting. In the end, my brilliant brain injury lawyer helped me avoid a brutal trial and brokered a reasonable settlement, even if it wasn't what I had originally hoped for. But whatever I was compensated for cannot make up for the loss that has disturbed me the most since September 27, 1999, the day of my accident—the loss of a multitude of memories.

Short-term memory, or working memory, is essential to daily living. For someone with TBI or MTBI (Mild Traumatic Brain Injury—a lesser form [End Page 9] of TBI), the loss of short-term memory can be quite troublesome. You could be driving to the grocery store and completely forget where you were going. You read a page from a book but when you get to the bottom of the page you have already forgotten what you had read. You make a date with a friend, then never show up at the restaurant. It doesn't matter if you wrote the time and date in your calendar, or on your Post-it that you stuck to your computer, or in your trusty PalmPilot because you won't remember to look there when the time comes anyway. Some of your friends begin to call you flaky, irresponsible, uncaring. They think you are making things up to weasel out of social commitments. These friends won't get it and probably never will. After all, you look fine and sound fine. What's the problem?

Fortunately, many TBIers (as they—I mean we—sometimes call ourselves) regain their short-term memory within the first 18 months after a brain injury. With immense effort, much of mine came back too. I carried a hand-held tape recorder everywhere I went (as I still do) and left a pocket notebook in my car and in each and every room in the house to write down ideas or things I had to do. I continue to get lost, forget appointments, and I lose my eyeglasses daily. But at least I find them now at the end of the day. The more upsetting dilemma for me at the beginning of recovery was the damage that had been done to some of my long-term memory, sometimes called secondary or remote memory. Volumes of knowledge, books I had read, people I knew, and important life experiences I had lived through flew out the window of my car that day, along with whatever detritus had been sitting on the back seat behind me.

Before my accident I prided myself as someone who knew a little about a lot of things. A short list of my passions might include: Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle...


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pp. 9-20
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