You wake up in a strange place. Nothing you see is even remotely familiar, from the contents of the room to the view from the window. Your mind is a blank, frozen in that kind of paralysis we often experience in semi-lucid dreams. But this alien wakefulness is real.
It lasts an eternity of, maybe, five seconds. Then suddenly all the whys, hows and wheres come flooding back, and all is well again. Of course! You do know who and where you are. Perhaps you booked into a hotel in Oslo, Norway, groggy with jet lag; or you spent the first night in your new home, surrounded by anonymous boxes; or (and I totally feel this one) your parents dropped you off at summer camp for the first time in your sheltered little life.
The human brain is amazing at reorienting itself by retrieving recent memories and adapting them to new circumstances. But what if those first few seconds of complete mental vacuum don’t dissolve right away? What if they go on forever?
I FORGOT TO REMEMBER recounts how this terrifying condition of extreme amnesia changed Su Meck’s life forever --- caused by an accident so absurd it scarcely can be mentioned without evoking laughter. In 1988, the 22-year-old wife of a workaholic husband and mother of two rambunctious young boys was knocked out cold in her own home by a ceiling fan falling on her head. The only external injury was a tiny one-inch cut, which soon healed.
"Throughout I FORGOT TO REMEMBER, the patience, intuition and sheer bravery of Su’s three children...puts the relative indifference of the medical community and the appalling misbehavior of Jim to shame on just about every page."
But inside her skull, it was another matter entirely: from the moment Su awoke in the hospital, her mind was a blank slate. Not a single intact memory of her previous life remained. She didn’t know her family, her name, how to read, or where she lived, and could barely manage basic skills like walking and speaking. Released after a brief three weeks of treatment, it would take her more than two decades, the next half of her life, to become a fully capable person again --- a totally different person in many ways, because traumatic brain injuries always cause irretrievable loss.
Actually, it isn’t all that uncommon for ordinary people like you and me to be bumped on the head by the abrupt descent of a ceiling fan. So many do-it-yourselfers don’t install them correctly or improperly anchor them to structural beams, and they end up vibrating themselves into oblivion. I’ve been downed by a ceiling fan with no more than a bruise to show for it and, according to my spouse, all mental faculties intact.
Su, however, suffered what is called a “closed head injury,” which in layperson’s terms is what happens when the brain is thrown against the walls of the skull with such tremendous force that internal swelling occurs. Because there is no fracture or bone separation to relieve the pressure, further damage is caused, which is often invisible until it’s too late. If not remedied in time, the outcome is usually fatal, or victims spend the rest of their lives in a vegetative state. One thing the medical community agrees upon is that closed-head brain trauma is the worst kind there is.
By some miracle, Su survived and began a slow, determined recovery. Despite frequent blinding headaches and seizures that medical specialists seemed unable to relieve, she set about coping and relearning, with help from an unlikely source --- her oldest son, Ben, then still a pre-schooler. Young Ben literally became the dependable man of the family during husband Jim’s long and frequent absences (not always work-related).
Throughout I FORGOT TO REMEMBER, the patience, intuition and sheer bravery of Su’s three children (she gave birth to a daughter several years after the accident) puts the relative indifference of the medical community and the appalling misbehavior of Jim to shame on just about every page.
And here’s where I’m utterly astonished at the disturbing frankness and candor of this memoir. There’s no indication anywhere that protective alternate names have been used. Jim Meck --- apparently with his permission --- is out there in bold print, his own serious psychological problems (domestic abuse, adultery, bullying, etc.) displayed with little excuse except the foolishness of youth.
But Su is often just as stern with herself, revealing through trusted friends (with equally trustworthy memories, we hope) that her marriage was a loveless rebound from her college days breakup with Mr. Right. She also chides herself for not being more proactive once she’d attained adulthood for the second time and knew her domestic life was not “normal.”
Yet to their unbounded credit, the Mecks are still together as of the release of I FORGOT TO REMEMBER early in February 2014. Now with a college degree to her credit and further university studies in music and the arts in progress (not to mention the talk show circuit and co-writing this startling book), Su Meck Version 2 is up and running.
The past quarter-century has been one helluva ride for the entire family. Su’s story has given us all pause to consider just how much we don’t know about the brain and its injuries. Maybe in some direct and indirect ways, as the final pages of her book urge, more attention will be paid to the study and repair of brain trauma. Whatever happens, the Mecks richly deserve to live the next 25 years, and beyond, in calmer mental weather.
Reviewed by Pauline Finch on February 21, 2014
I Forgot to Remember: A Memoir of Amnesia