Blank Space

Our minds have a funny way of re-writing history. What do we do with all we’ve forgotten?

Lauren Quinn is a writer and teacher. Her work has appeared in The Believer, ...

 

In the closest thing I have to a memory of my uncle, I am sitting in my dad’s car, pretending to be his girlfriend.

I am four years old. We’re at a stoplight, on our way to my uncle’s apartment in San Francisco. The day is gray and the windshield wipers are groaning, the engine rumbles as if the whole car might break apart. My dad has let me sit in the front seat, which makes me feel dangerously mature. I glance at the people in the other cars, and I think that if I hold very still—if I sit up taller and tuck the seatbelt down around my shoulder—I could trick those other people into thinking we were lovers.

Then the memory snaps shut. There is blackness, nothing. When it opens again, we’re in my uncle’s apartment: narrow entryway, black kitchen walls, Victorian Bay window. My dad walks me across the kitchen, lifts me up, sets me on the stool. He smoothes a piece of paper out in front of me. “Draw a picture, Lauren.” Then he walks to the bedroom, opens the door and disappears inside.

I can see the kitchen with razor clarity, the exactitude of the details: the tin can holding the markers and pens, the dingy side of the refrigerator, the white angle of the drawing table. Cars whoosh outside the window, Hayes Street cold and deserted below.

My uncle’s bed is on the other side of the wall. Through the wood and plaster, I can hear muffled voices. Long silences expand between the words.

I swing my feet and pretend not to hear. The tips of the felt markers are stale. I am the only one who uses them anymore.

*

Most childhood memories exist in such flashes: disparate scenes. It can seem as though there is little logic to what our brains choose to remember, and what they don’t. Often, the chronological narrative that explains these recollected scenes remains obscured to us, a blur we try to sharpen through family stories and photographs. Despite our efforts, this lack of memory “veils our earliest youth from us,” Freud claimed, “and makes us strangers to it.”

A variety of biological mechanisms are involved in the complex and tenuous process of making memories. Buried between our sizeable cerebral cortex and our base reptilian brain, the hippocampus is the toll plaza through which sensory information must pass before being stored into declarative, explicit memory. At the end of the hippocampus is the almond-shaped amygdala, responsible for sorting emotional stimulus and forming non-declarative, implicit memory. While declarative memory expresses in language—facts, events, narratives—non-declarative memory expresses through performance—habits, behaviours, emotional responses.

A feedback loop between the hippocampus and amygdala converts short-term memory into episodic narrative memory. Working in concert, the two brain regions form long-lasting impressions of emotionally significant events, what you call your life story. Without this interchange, we would never form new memories. We would, instead, live in the perpetual present, a place devoid of stories.

Failures of the memory system generally occur in two directions: retrograde, in which a person can make new memories but cannot recall prior information, and anterograde, in which one’s life story is recalled but new memories cannot be formed. In both cases, time dissolves and a person is left either without a history or unable to write a new one.

*

My uncle died in that bed on the other side of the wall. I wasn’t there.

The story goes like this. He opened his eyes, looked at his boyfriend—young and pretty and not yet sick himself—and in a final flash of lucidity said, “Make sure Lauren gets my art supplies.”

My mother likes to recount this memory. She likes to say that my uncle and I shared “a special bond.” And the evidence is there: photographs in which I am curled towards him, playing telephone or sitting in his lap. But I myself can’t tell you much, because I’ve blacked my uncle out.

It’s as though my brain has snipped him from a photograph. Everything else is clear—the furniture, the houseplants, the other people, with their bad perms and torn-up blue jeans. Only my uncle, the central character, is missing.

I’ve learned how to tell the story I’ve stringed together from other people’s memories. My uncle tested positive for HIV in 1985, at the onset of the AIDS epidemic. Within a year, he had full-blown AIDS, and within two years, he was dead. I can flesh out the spaces between these facts with my own snap-shot memories: the relatives coming in to visit, cramming futons into our two-bedroom apartment in Oakland, or the way I crouched in a loud auditorium to draw a pink birthday cake on my uncle’s patch on the AIDS Quilt, the public memorial composed on individual commemorative panels. I can tell you how the family gathered around my uncle’s bed for a photograph while I hid in the corner with my Skipper doll. Someone called me to come take a photo, and I can tell you that in that photo, I am sitting next to my uncle.

My uncle’s bed was against the wall. There was a ficus plant in the corner. On fogless days the sun came through the Venetian blinds in angry little slants. The floors were wooden. The bed was dirty—soiled sheets and Chinese takeout cartons and chicken bones. My uncle’s boyfriend wasn’t much of a caretaker. They’d been party boys, a hairdresser and an artist, stoned and drunk and sticking their dicks into holes in the walls of gay bathhouses. In the stories that have survived, they are always inebriated, always laughing, always fucking someone, as though permanently frozen in alcoholism’s chase, the moment before it all comes crashing down.

My uncle got sick first. Jamie kept cutting hair, kept partying, kept busy. He hadn’t signed up for this. Eventually, Jamie died too.

One of the great stories in our family mythology took place in that bed. Or that’s where I imagine it happening. My uncle was already sick, thin and sarcoma-spotted, but the veil of dementia hadn’t fully descended. Some friend of his was making a documentary about the men dying of AIDS in San Francisco. I picture something grainy, black-and-white, hand-held. I hear an off-screen voice saying, “What do you want to say to people to who say this is God’s curse, that you got AIDS because of your lifestyle?”

I imagine my uncle propping himself up on his elbow. “Everything I did, I did in search of love.” I picture the camera zooming in and what’s left of his Paul-McCartney good looks flashing across his face. “And that’s a helluva lot better than dropping bombs on Cambodia, wouldn’t you say?”

There were other movies—art-house movies, box-in-the-back-of-the-closet movies. After my uncle died, my grandparents flew out from Milwaukee to help my dad sort through the apartment. They were digging through the canvases, the sketchbooks, the reels of old film. I can see them sitting on the floor, the shades drawn, a Midwestern minister and his Sunday School wife.

They put on a reel. Against the wall, a series of cocks appears—naked, flaccid, erect, swinging, stiffening.

“Jane, turn it off!” my grandfather roared.

My grandma closed her eyes, pinched her brows together and shook her head. “I’m not shocked, I’m not shocked, I’m not shocked,” she repeated.

They say it was my uncle’s last great prank.

My grandparents were good people from the world of Friday Night Fish Fries and Miracle-Whip Jell-O moulds. Together they ran Milwaukee’s first integrated congregation. They believed we were all God’s children and that you walk with the people, because that’s what Jesus did. There are worse things to believe. For his seventh birthday, my uncle asked my grandparents for a Barbie doll. No one remembers any debate or discussion. “Jane,” my grandfather roared, “get the boy a Barbie!”

There’s a story my uncle told my mom one night, drunk and in a blackout. (“If he’d have lived, he would have had to deal with that.”) He said he could remember being sick as a kid, six or seven years old, and my grandma taking his temperature anally. “I got the distinct impression she enjoyed it.”

He didn’t seem to remember telling my mom the next day. So my mom didn’t ask anymore about it—whether the memory was an isolated incident or the tip of a larger iceberg, a fragmentary flash of an obscured truth. My uncle died, and the story, if there was one, died with him. All that remained was that flash, and I can’t even tell you if it’s true or not. In fact, I can’t even tell you why, against the backdrop all the things that have been lost, this is one of the things that has stuck.

*

In their report “A New Solution to the Recovered Memory Debate,” researchers McNally and Geraerts liken repressed memory of childhood sexual trauma to an undetected malignant tumor—a swollen space existing silently inside us.

We don’t know exactly how this space comes to exist, since true trauma cannot be recreated in a laboratory. It’s safe to say that during trauma, normal processing and encoding of experience breaks down. The brain becomes so busy managing the threatening stimulus and ensuing hormones that integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity and perception get disrupted.

Apparently I was a real hoot when I was drinking (when I wasn’t cussing someone out). Apparently I had an improv dance routine. Apparently I was decent at freestyling. Apparently I peed out of the window of a moving vehicle on the Bay Bridge. Apparently I got in the face of some dude trying to sleaze on me and yelled, “Don’t fuck with me, I’m from Oakland, motherfucker!”

This is called peri-traumatic disassociation. You may experience it as “spacing out,” “going blank,” “losing time,” a tunnelling of sensory perception or an out-of-body sensation. It can happen when you’re in danger, or during something as benign as a long car trip: suddenly you look up and realize you don’t remember any of the last fifty miles you drove.

In the case of trauma, disassociation acts as a survival tool. But stepping out of the linear narrative is dangerous. During disassociation, the dialogue between the hippocampus and amygdala breaks down, and short-term recollections do not get transferred to long-term memory. Pierre Janet, who first explored the relationship between memory and trauma in 1889, claimed that “when people experience intense emotions, memories cannot be transformed into a neutral narrative.” Without their proper time stamp, these moments don’t get filed into the narrative of your life. Instead they become vagrants triggered by sensory stimuli—smells, sounds, the slant of sunlight across a soiled bed—that wander your brain in real-time. You lose the plot line of your life. Such compartmentalization is one of the key predictors of the development of PTSD, and can lead to fragmented or blurred memories, or amnesia.

A 1941 study by Sargent and Slater found significant amnesia in 144 out of 1,000 consecutively admitted WWII combat veterans. A half-century later, Carlson and Rosser-Hogan found that 90 percent of Cambodian refugees who had resettled in the US reported amnesia, a fact they believed “supports the view that dissociation is a universal response to traumatic experiences.” Van der Kolk and Fisler’s 1995 Harvard Medical School study of individuals with reported traumatic memory concluded that “it is in the very nature of traumatic memory to be dissociated, and to be initially stored as sensory fragments without a coherent semantic component.”

We tend to think of trauma as large, singular events, but trauma can be any inescapable moment that overwhelms one’s existing coping mechanisms, van der Kolk and Fisler tell us. Ongoing traumas produce more profound amnesia than singular events, as do traumas incurred by humans (as opposed to natural disasters). The long-term dangers of this survival tool extend beyond loss of a coherent storyline: once a person experiences disassociation, she becomes more likely to use that as a coping mechanism in triggering circumstances. Once we’ve learned to dip out of linear narrative, stepping out of the story becomes habit. Children are more likely to disassociate and subsequently disremember than adults.

Often, when a traumatic experience is not integrated into the larger episodic narrative, the effects of disassociation express behaviourally, especially in the case of childhood trauma. Children who experience such disassociation are more likely to engage in deliberate self-harming activities such as suicide attempts, substance abuse and cutting.

*

Apparently I was a real hoot when I was drinking (when I wasn’t cussing someone out). Apparently I had an improv dance routine. Apparently I was decent at freestyling. Apparently I peed out of the window of a moving vehicle on the Bay Bridge. Apparently I got in the face of some dude trying to sleaze on me and yelled, “Don’t fuck with me, I’m from Oakland, motherfucker!” This story became a legend among my friends, one in which I am the central character. I don’t remember it happening.

Suffice to say things weren’t going great for me then. In my early adolescence, I sliced blades across my skin and fantasized about suicide. There was a piece of me that wouldn’t be quiet, something on the edges that wouldn’t leave me be. When I found alcohol, I found my great silencer, a hand placed over the mouth of my burning self-hatred. They say that any addiction is a means through which to escape an intolerable reality, and in alcohol, I found a way to exit my life and enter into a blank space.

My memories from these years are blurry. I recall very few of the nights, but I do remember the fuzzy-wool feeling of the morning-afters: vague shapes, hazy moments, a memory just out of grasp—what we in the business call “greyouts.” Sometimes people would be pissed at me, sometimes there’d be welts blooming down my limbs, but I could never tell you exactly why. Instead I would wake up, dry-mouthed, with a deadening silence around me.

When I was alone, there was no chance of stringing together a narrative. But when I woke up in the half-light of my friend’s basement, I’d roll over and ask her to recreate the blacked-out night. I wanted a story, some explanation for what had happened and what had been lost, or at least an idea of who I needed to avoid. As my friend spoke, images would form through the fog: the backseat of a car; hands in my hair; my head over a toilet seat; the train tracks in Port Costa, a sudden flash of lights and the sound of the horn vibrating in my chest. But sometimes nothing would come, and I’d sit on her floor and feel the vastness inside me. I could sense in those moments the contours of a large black space that could swallow whole evenings, events and people. It might even be able to swallow me. Where did I go during those nights? It seemed as though one night, I might enter that space and never come back.

*

Alcoholic blackouts occur due to interference with the transfer of short-term memory to long-term memory. They are anterograde: the person can still recall the larger story of her life but temporarily loses the ability to store new memories. This is what’s called living in the “precise present.” I imagine it as entering a kind of black hole, muddled and thick and outside of linear time, from which only the body reemerges, dehydrated and elbow-busted on a friend’s basement floor. Or maybe it’s closer to the idea of apparent horizons, a space from which light and information can eventually escape but in such a scrambled form that it’s rendered unrecognizable. Who knows what happens inside that space?

Not everyone experiences alcoholic blackouts. Studies have shown that some people have greater neurobiological vulnerability to blackouts than others, but there have been no definitive conclusions as to why. People with a family history of alcoholism exhibit decreased amygdala size and activity, which suggests the predisposition might be inherited. For others, the tendency towards blackouts could arise from trauma: researchers Klanecky, Harrington and McChargue found that women with a history of childhood sexual trauma have an increased frequency of both dissociation and alcoholic blackouts.

Alcohol also inhibits the flow of neurotransmitters from the prefrontal cortex, our most evolved brain, responsible for sorting out social inhibitions. With activity in this part of the brain silenced, responses to stimuli arise from the deeper, baser parts of the brain, what your friends might call your lizard brain. You access a buried place and your responses become more visceral, and some might say, more true.

Apparently, I liked to molest my friends when I was drinking.

*

The 1973 best-selling novel and Emmy-winning television adaptation Sybil launched the notion of repressed memories into the public eye. In 1990, the landmark case The People vs. George Thomas Franklin Sr. brought judicial validation to the phenomenon, as the testimony of Franklin’s daughter’s recovered repressed memories were used to convict him of a rape that had occurred twenty years prior. A litany of court cases ensued. Many states changed laws to allow for repressed memory testimony. Meanwhile, victims churned through the talk show circuit as trauma clinics specializing in memory recovery cropped up around the country. Even celebrities such as Roseanne Barr and Axl Rose purported to have returned repressed memories of childhood sexual trauma.

Since the explosion of recovered memories in the 1990s, psychologists have been contentiously divided on the authenticity of the recollections. In 1991, a large-scale study found that 91 percent of clinicians believed claims of repressed memories represented actual abuse. As the phenomenon’s popularity crested and waned in the cultural sphere and in the field of psychology, experts began to express skepticism about the validity and prevalence of repressed memories, and particularly the practices psychologists employ to recover them. At present, surveys indicate that only 43 percent of psychologists believe it is possible to recover repressed memory through therapy.

Cognitive psychologist Elizabeth F. Loftus points to other potential sources for so-called recovered memories: popular writings, borrowed images and the unintentional suggestions made by therapists. We often rely on other people to fill in our blank spots, to remind us of the names of people we’ve met or to make sketches of the events of a long night of drinking. But Loftus claimed the phenomenon could go further, that entirely false memories could be implanted into the minds of susceptible adults. To prove her point, she conducted a now-famous 1995 study in which 25 percent of adults were convinced they believed a false memory of being lost in a shopping mall as a child.

I kept waiting, searching, digging around to try and force another image to come barreling out of me. I meditated, read articles, WebMD’d every neurosis I could think of. I tried to squeeze out a context. I wanted a narrative to attach to the feeling that had risen in me. Without it, I was just crazy. A pervert, possibly. A few dim bulbs felt as though they might flicker, but nothing ever turned on. Nothing more would come.

While the repressed memory phenomenon has lost much credibility, belief in the retrieval of repressed memories has persisted in some spheres. Ed Cara’s November 2014 Pacific Standard article “The Most Dangerous Idea in Mental Health” depicts a tenacious sect of the psychiatric community who has held on to the idea that repressed memory lurks behind self-destructive behaviour. Cara chronicles the experience of a family torn apart by a daughter’s accusation of sexual abuse. Her memory of the abuse was recovered while she was a patient at a residential therapeutic facility that had faced civil malpractice suits by former patients who believe they were manipulated into “recalling” false memories of sexual trauma. You can see how a patient might easily be led to believe: the loss of one’s story, coupled with certain symptoms and behaviours, leads some people to grasp for any kind of solid narrative with which to explain themselves.

As the debate around returned repressed memory continues, some psychological scientists have disregarded the idea in favour of a third category of memory loss, which isn’t really memory loss so much as memory forgetting. Instead of “losing” memories, they would instead tell you that you’d just forgotten previous instances of remembering. The memory was always in you, they would say, you just hadn’t touched it in a long time.

*

Winter, North Oakland, when I’d been sober for years. I was complaining to my friend Georgina about my recent ex and she said, “I still can’t believe you didn’t dump him a year ago, after he said that shit to your dad at Thanksgiving.”

“What shit?”

Georgina raised an eyebrow. “You know: that shit.”

I shook my head. “No. I don’t.”

“Yeah, I told you about it. He was all shit-faced, and I walked over and overhead him telling your dad about butt sex.” Georgina paused, squinted at me. “Dude, I told you about this.”

I searched inside myself for a wick of memory. Nothing sparked. “No you didn’t.”

“Yes I did. I called you the next day and you were all, ‘Yeah, I know, I heard him.’”

She stared at me. She wouldn’t budge. Tendrils of smoke rose from the cigarette between her fingers, and from behind a gauzy haze, figures began to emerge and take shape: the day after Thanksgiving, my phone buzzing, Georgina’s voice on the other end—“Dude, this is hella awkward, but if it were me, I’d want you to tell me.”

I grew very still. A hot white prick rose behind my ears and suddenly I could see it: I am standing in the hallway, overhearing my ex tell my dad choice details about our sex life. A buzz rises in me like the sound of bees. I stare at the floorboards, the way they’re nailed together. Everything in me is numb and alert.

“Holy shit,” I whispered. “I had totally forgotten that.”

I stood beside my friend and blinked for several moments. I had assumed that the propensity to dip into blankness, to erase and bury overwhelming experiences, had been confined to early childhood or periods of active alcoholism. I’d thought that, now adult and sober, I walked a straight and narrow line with reality. But standing next to Georgina, watching her give me a cock-eyed, curious look, I suddenly felt that vast space inside me. I sensed that old awareness of what my brain is capable of swallowing: moments, stories, pieces of myself.

*

“True” recovered memories are more likely to return spontaneously, outside of therapy. The traumatic memories are stored as sensory fragments rather than a narrative thread, so they tend to come back via the same sensory channels—what combat veterans and LSD users refer to as “flashbacks.”

These memories are not condensed into a coherent, linear narrative but instead exist as shards of the precise present. Rather than a typical declarative memory, which is something like watching a movie projected on an apartment wall, the compartmentalized memory is experienced as though it were happening at the present moment.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2011. I am in the city for two months, researching the long-term effects of trauma.

An expat holds 12-step recovery meetings in his home, which I attend several times a week. The room is: tile floor and Nescafe, the thwack of mosquitoes against the window screens. House staff in the courtyard, fanning themselves in the shade.

Four men sit at the table, discussing Step Eight. Robby leans back, reaches his hard sun-spotted arm towards his fanny pack.

Head down, slight smile. Unzips.

There is a flash—an image crackles: a belt buckle, a lap, a smile.

A lightning heat stings the back of my neck. I freeze. A feeling like the hum of a thousand bees rises in me. The meeting fades and the room feels far away. The bees become louder as the heat rises. My vision tunnels to a pin-point as the bees edge the corners out.

I hold very still and stare at the table, the fray of the woven coasters. I feel every little hair tweaking like antennae. Through the black I can see a belt buckle.

The heat rises.

The hum rises.

The buckle glints.

The moment goes on for eternity, me frozen and trapped in it, until slowly it fades and I am back in the room, my hands back on the table, an old man across from me giving me a curious look.

There was no rational reason for what happened in that moment. I knew that, in the room in which I’d actually been sitting, there’d been no belt buckle, no leering man, just Robby rooting through his fanny pack for some rumbled bills. But for a moment, reality had tweaked and the only real thing had been the feeling crackling through my body, an insistent present tense I couldn’t escape.

I kept waiting, searching, digging around to try and force another image to come barreling out of me. I meditated, read articles, WebMD’d every neurosis I could think of. I tried to squeeze out a context. I wanted a narrative to attach to the feeling that had risen in me. Without it, I was just crazy. A pervert, possibly. A few dim bulbs felt as though they might flicker, but nothing ever turned on. Nothing more would come.

“The important thing is to not try and force anything,” a therapist told me later, when I was back in the States. “Just sit with the experience. Trying to push for more can be dangerous.” I now understand what she meant: trying to force a narrative could cause me to invent a false one. But at the time, I didn’t care. I wanted someone to tell me what had happened to me, what this frozen, hot feeling that existed in me was and where it had come from. I wanted to know what this dark place inside me was, how it could consume moments and then spit them back up when I least expected it. I wanted to know this place wouldn’t expand, grow stronger, one day rear up and swallow me whole. I wanted a story to tether me to reality, and to tell me I wasn’t insane.

*

Because recovered memories are fragmentary and incomplete, finding one’s narrative, and its proper place in time, is an important aspect of trauma treatment. In this process, researcher van der Kolk says, it is important not to rush. The patient must feel safe and have gained a measure of control over the secondary defences they’ve developed to cope with the trauma, such as drug and alcohol abuse or self-harm. Once the traumatic experiences are located in time and place, she says, a person can step out of the loop of behavioural reenactment.

In their Harvard Medical School study, van der Kolk and Fisler found that as survivors of trauma uncover elements of the traumatic experience, they begin to construct a narrative that explains what happened to them. But the exactitude of the constructed story isn’t the sole point of this exercise:

This transcription of the intrusive sensory elements of the trauma into a personal narrative does not necessarily have a one-to-one correspondence with what actually happened. This process of weaving a narrative out of the disparate sensory elements of an experience is probably not dissimilar from how people construct a narrative under ordinary conditions.

In other words, I’m not alone in trying to write a story. We’re all trying to write stories, and those stories might all be flawed and inaccurate and not in total correspondence with reality. We might all have a mystery at the center of ourselves, and perhaps people who have experienced trauma just have a plumper, more swollen place in which they store the mystery.

Maybe we’re all strangers to ourselves. Maybe we’re all messy, and just trying to sort through that mess. Maybe we’re all reconstructing the past from disparate images and smells and sounds, wrenching them from the void inside ourselves and lining them up, stringing them together—holding them up to each other and asking if they fit.

It’s been four years since my flash. Nothing more has come.

*

I meant to write an essay about my uncle dying of AIDS. I’ve been meaning to write that essay for years. But every time I start, I run up against my own forgetting, a negative space constellated by flashes of frozen moments: a bed, a Skipper doll, a belt buckle, woven coasters and the way floorboards are nailed together.

These snippets of detail create a sense, perhaps, or if we’re really being generous, a Jacob’s-Room-ish negative space. But they aren’t enough to create a coherent narrative. They aren’t enough to write a life story.

Virginia Woolf opens her memoir Moments of Being by describing her earliest childhood memories: the colours of her nursery room, a looking glass in the hallway, the white of her mother’s dressing gown. She ends the series of fleeting impressions with a scene so spare it takes a moment to register what’s happening. She describes her half-brother propping her up on a counter and reaching his hands beneath her clothes. She tells us how her body stiffens and wiggles as his hands work towards her private parts.

The depiction is short, buried within the meat of a larger paragraph. Woolf doesn’t linger on the scene but, instead, on her body’s instinct to recoil. The observation leads to a moment of both inheritance and identity diffusion: “It proves that Virginia Stephen was not born on the 25th January 1882, but was born many thousands of years ago; and had from the very first to encounter instinct acquired by thousands of ancestresses in the past.” In this depiction, Virginia Woolf is not herself, her biography or even her birthdate. Her identity dissolves and she becomes a mere body, a collection of inherited sensory responses.

Woolf concludes the section of early childhood recollections by pondering the potency of lost memories: “These then are some of my first memories. But of course as an account of my life they are misleading, because the things one does not remember are as important; perhaps they are more important.”

The influence of lost memories and the incompleteness of the stories we tell have continued to trouble writers, particularly those in contemporary literary non-fiction, a trend highlighted by Cara Parks’ May 2014 “Books of Forgetting” in The New Republic.

In History Lessons: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, and the Brain, historian Clifton Crais attempts to fill in the gaps in his personal narrative through research and interviews family members. He tries to use other people to scaffold the blankness inside himself. Crais’ study of neurobiology, however, leads him to understand that the lost memories he seeks aren’t repressed but rather don’t exist at all. He comes to believe that no memories remain. He detached so deeply that the story is lost. As Parks says, “it is profoundly sad to realize the memories for which he longs are irretrievably gone.”

And yet he still writes a book, still attempts to craft a narrative. I find this comforting. It makes me feel somewhat less alone, somewhat less crazy for spending hours Googling and reading and falling down the rabbit hole. For digging through studies and reports, trying to find some reason, a neurological or psychological justification for what I’ve experienced—something to explain my lapses, my blank spots, the vast silence that exists inside me—to tell me I’m not the only one.

*

“When someone dies in the movies, they just slap on some pale make-up and the person says some noble things and then they close their eyes,” my mom told me. “In real life, it doesn’t happen that way. John was angry and scared and he didn’t want to die. As the dementia got worse, he became an absolute shit. Towards the end, he didn’t want you and your brother around. That was really hard, since he’d always loved being you guys so much. Especially you.”

The memory I have of driving out to his apartment—my dad’s car, the kitchen, the drawing table, the Bay window, pretending to be my dad’s girlfriend—must have been from that time, must have been why my dad didn’t bring me in the room. That must be the larger story into which the moment fits, its place in the narrative I’ve lived but can’t remember.

As death descended and the dementia squeezed in and began to swallow my uncle, something must have remained—some spark, some flash of the connection we had shared. Because before he died, he remembered to leave his art supplies to me. So I inherited the paints, the pencils, the felt markers. I kept them for a long time, until the paints crusted and the tips stiffened and would no longer mark. I inherited other things too, photographs and the stories my family told. I inherited the alcoholism, the blackouts and the compulsion to exit the present moment. I inherited a dark place inside myself, a sleeping thing I don’t dare wake, and the flashes that come crackling out of it.

But I have lost the story. I have lost everything else.

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