KR OnlineNonfiction

Memory Loop

Look at the phone.

Answer the phone.

Dad says nothing. Then, “I don’t know, Felicia. God, I don’t know.”

Psychologists haven’t yet pinned down an abstract of how memory works. A favorite is the Model of Working Memory by Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch. Its main components are the Central Executive, the Visuo-spatial Sketchpad, the Phonological Loop, and the Episodic Buffer.

The Central Executive distinguishes the visual from the spatial from the auditory and then—true to its name—delegates the rest. It functions to direct your attention to only the most important information: your mother, healthy up until your first year of college, now suffers from Psychotic Major Depression. It affects one in every two hundred fifty people; most experience their first episode between the ages of thirty and forty.

The Sketchpad is your visual cache. It reconstructs all that you see, from mental maps for complex navigation, to form, color, and texture: Look at the phone, cheap black Nokia. Answer the phone. It’s Dad, two thousand miles away in Albuquerque but hushed like he’s there by your side in Boston, second-semester freshman crammed between bookstalls, Styrofoam coffee cup and snow-caked boots.

The Phonological Loop records auditory information. It’s an inner voice that rehearses new sounds over and over again until you commit them to memory: Answer the phone, smile, “Hey you” into the receiver.

“I don’t know, Felicia. God, I don’t know.”

His voice cracks, waivers, thunder-whips into crying—crying, your Dad—those sagging brown-gold eyes, handsome, you used to tease him. He’d wave you away but still there was that shy smile, crooked teeth and green onion mouth, the bulk of a man who wakes up at three a.m. to stock bread shelves. He tells you that since you left in August, Mom’s been sleeping all the time, crying all the time. That she’s seeing things: an old man in overalls, a longhaired woman at the kitchen window. That she’s hearing things too.

All around you, the shuffling silence of your peers, the beehive muttering of library fluorescents.

“I think she’s afraid of me,” he whispers.

The Episodic Buffer is the storyteller. It links what you see and hear into integrated units, then sequences the units chronologically, like scenes from a movie. It’s chronology you struggle with: Mom is high beam smile, suede cream pantsuit, black hair set with electric rollers and hair sprayed stiff. She is front desk at the dental office, candy-colored file tabs and cubed white sugar. But no, that was before. Now she is back bedroom at the house, a hard-wearing elastic sob. Mom is contralto sing-song early Saturday mornings, “It’s time to get up, it’s time to get up, it’s time to get up in the mor-ning!” But no, that was before. Now she is wooly and vanished, face cut by pillow crease. You are pixie hair, peacoat, dean’s list. But no. Now you are spring semester leave of absence, three and a half weeks early for your plane ride home to New Mexico, the only ticket you could afford without evidence of a death certificate. Because Mom’s not dead. Still, you mourn, shut up in your dorm room with swamp-rot bowls of Grape Nuts and milk. Stained flannel robe. Grease-ironed hair. “Depressed?” your friends ask. Depressed: mom, or you?

 

Remember when she used to call you her arroz con pollo? Of course, neither of you could’ve known, then.

Chicken with rice. Some Mexican women christen their baby girls comfort food, priming them for caretaking since birth. Tradition maintains that the youngest daughter devote her life to her mother: bathe, care, and feed her into old age. Arroz con pollo, forkful by forkful, the transfer of sustenance reversed.

You’ve been home only two months, enough to witness the piercing headaches, the sour sweat rings, the dizzy spells, the trembling fingers, the wildfire rashes, the constant dry heaves, the extra fifty pounds, all since antidepressants. And now the diapers; one of the newer pills compromises control.

Tent her swollen hands above her head—black hair thinned to stork-white scalp, hair that smells like yellowed pillow—and fit her into a clean, extra-large nightshirt. Ball the old one in your armpit to throw away later. Light the candles, vanilla tealights, and crack the window by the bed.

Thick strands of spit web at her lips.

Lids drawn, a slurred whisper: “Just let me die.”

Arroz con pollo, she won’t eat it.

 

You have yet another system for storing memory. It’s called implicit memory, a process by which you unconsciously access information from observation or previous experience. You’re good at that one. It helps you to control her crying.

“Look at me, Mama. I’m here to help, but you’ve got to look at me. I need your eyes. There they are! We’re gonna breathe together, do you hear me? Deep breaths, in and out, you can do it. Do it for me. Breathe, OK?

“There you go—good, good—keep my eyes. Now we’re gonna move your feet over here, can you swing them over the side of the bed so they touch the carpet? Remember how Dr. Black said? No, that’s fine, that’s good enough. But can you sit up? Just a tiny bit? Good! I’m so proud of you, you’re doing so good.

“Now deep breaths. Five counts, OK? Breathe in real deep for me: one, two, three, four, five. And hold for two. Now breathe out the last six: one, two, three, four, five, six. So good, you’re doing so good. Just a couple more times, OK?”

 

Curl still as stone in late night silence. Arch your body into ear.

Listen: bare feet pat-pon on the beige carpet.

The kitchen drawer wobbles wurrr.

The sliding glass door, it cheats a sigh, the shaaaa of fabric blinds’ descent.

Whenever you’re back in that squat brown house, back in your childhood bed, you are both signal and receiver of the past. Scientists say there’s no such thing as body memory—that trauma can’t hole up in your cells, independent from your brain—and yet your cells refuse release. She’s in your blood, you are her blood.

Listen: can you hear her?

Three, four times a night, you spring from bed, hot air ballooning your chest, sometimes forgetting your glasses off the nightstand and then it’s hard to judge shadow from reality.

Her bedroom door’s open, gapping black and mouthing Listen.

There she is: on the leather couch as though it were a bus bench, a bronze fixture in the lamplight. Angel-wing begonia caped in dust, mantle clock ticking two a.m., and Mom, dull-white waffle robe, oily hair, and callused feet.

Or else the backyard, laid to rest in white hammock. Cradled under the sycamore, her brown legs crisscrossed diamond.

Or else the front porch, collapsed against the stucco siding. Red-rock lawn and white flowered yucca, green garden hose propped up like a pillow.

“Baby, they told me to do it.” Spit hot sobs. “The voices, can you hear them?”

Her left wrist. A butter knife pocketed from the Santa Ana Casino buffet. Or else the rounded end of her stainless steel bracelet. Or else a barbeque skewer. Her blood, you wear it on your hands.

Get her to the bathroom. Use steady hands, Dial soap, a warm wet hand towel. Gauze and medical tape, tight. The white bandage blooms red, expect that, don’t let it shake you.

She rocks back-forth on the toilet, thumbing the ginger basin of her palm, the same bitter ceremony. Under her breath, over and over, plainchant begging, a sacred song.

Promise her.

Promise her, please.

Don’t send her back there again. Not another two-week stay at Presbyterian, the hospital where they park her bed in the hallway under the florescent lights and adjacent the nurses’ station because she’s high risk, because she can’t tell anymore what’s real and what’s only in her head.

Can you tell, anymore? What’s real and what’s only in your head? Mom is as your cells remember her: sick. Even a decade later, when she quits the pills and the treatments and the doctors, admonishing you and dad, again and again, “I can do it myself,” when she stabilizes and returns to work, to church—God’s miracle, better again—you still listen for it, the crying that comes too easy, the sleep that lasts too long, the words that muddle.

Listen: can you hear?

There’s no release from this remembering.

 

White flag the doctors. Her medications aren’t working.

Agree that she should begin electroconvulsive treatments for her depression at the University of New Mexico Psychiatric Hospital. Electroshock therapy: ten minutes in the operating room, thirty in recovery.

“A painless procedure. She sleeps like a baby the whole time.”

You remember the voices, a chorus united: doctors and nurses, trifold pamphlet promotions.

“The only real potential for harm is the risk she poses to herself if she doesn’t get treatment.”

Administer an IV of Brevital into her arm. Ask her to count backwards from ten.

“The most common side effect is short-term memory loss.”

Inject a muscle relaxant called Succinylcholine to safeguard against broken bones, cracked vertebrae. Velcro the blood pressure cuff.

“She might forget what she had for lunch. Little things.”

Strap her legs to a stretcher. Insert a rubber guard between her teeth. Supply oxygen.

“Less common are headache, muscle soreness. Make sure she gives it an hour or so before she jumps back to her day job.”

Douse her temples with conducting jelly. Attach the electrodes.

“ECTs are run of the mill. Doctors perform twice as many per year than tonsillectomies.”

Press the button, 240 volts of electricity to the brain, twenty-second grand mal epileptic seizure.

“We’ll restore this pretty lady to health in half the time it takes medication. How does that sound?”

The voices, they told you to do it.

 

Early morning hospital: blue padded chairs and watered-down coffee, liquid bleach and see-through toilet paper, commercials about the power of Zoloft and once-daily Paxil, Channel 4 News, the Today Show.

Read.

Don’t look up until she’s ready to go home.

Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings she recuperates from electroshock: migraine, vomit, six or seven hours of sleep. Dinner, a bowl of cereal, then back to bed.

The rest of the week she slumps at the kitchen table—sweat-stained nightgown, tear-speckled lenses—circumnavigating Dad with “Why, why, why can’t I remember?” Where she is, and why? The pain, why so much pain, was she hit by a car?

Because she is Chicana and without power, because she is Medicare and without privilege, because she is blue-black arms from botched IV needles, without the strength to grip a pen, you must keep record. Write it all down for her, write, “You’re 42 years old, Mama. For the last year you’ve been sick with Major Depression but Dad and I care for you. The hospital is going to make you better. The treatment makes you forget things, but it’s only temporary. You don’t work anymore, so don’t worry about the office. Your job is to rest.”

Really you should write, “Mama, I need you, I need you even if you don’t need me, and that’s selfish and wrong, I know it is, and so is this treatment, it’s selfish and wrong to torture you back to life, but you’re my best friend and then suddenly you’re gone and the doctors say that electroshock can bring you back, and isn’t that what you’d do for me? I’m only 19, Mama, I don’t know how to do this. I should trust the doctors, right? The doctors know best, right?”

Really you should write, “Forgive me.”

Tuck the notebook under your bed next to the knives. Fetch it when Dad’s voice sharpens from repetition.

 

Dad. He’s in and out like flashbulb memories, the semantic kind, a distinction coined by Endel Tulving in 1972. There’s a difference between knowing the past—semantic memory—and remembering it—episodic memory. One is fact, the other is feeling.

Dad is steel-drum swamp cooler, People’s Court, gin rummy on her good days. On her bad days, he is locked garage door, spit-black accusations like watermelon seeds: “You’re the reason she won’t bathe, you’re the reason she won’t eat, you’re the reason.” He is stacked white envelopes, bills old and new: credit card, medical, mortgage, utilities. There’s a special drawer in the middle room for collection agencies. He is button-down shirt to refinance the house, done that twice now.

Dad is there, yes, you know that as fact. But your memory strains with feelings for her. It is mom for whom you travel back in time. Running together along sagebrush-lined ditch banks, the Sandia Mountains to your back, giant stone salmons. A balmy rush of horse manure and dirt, Rio Grande mud water. Watching The Godfather again, coffee table loaded with Diet Pepsi, buttered popcorn, a bag of peanut M&Ms—dissolve the candy shell until it’s all orange moon on your tongue, then the meat of the nut, eat that last. Holding hands together on the couch late Friday night, smothered in blankets and petroleum jelly facemasks, she your mama duck, you her itty-bitty. Holding hands together in the inpatient psychiatric ward, heavy-duty double doors and plastic visitor’s pass, a moaning-sobbing from somewhere down the hall, or from her.

Episodic memories make up your life story, but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily true. The hippocampus, the brain structure responsible for autobiographical memory, is incapable of truth. Like any good time-travel movie will tell you, messing with the past rewrites the future. Every time you reach back for Mom, Dad disappears a little more.

 

She’s never asked you outright, but the question remains: would you do it again, now, knowing what you know?

About Ugo Cerletti, Italian psychiatrist, Father of Electroconvulsive Therapy. About how in 1938, he divined inspiration from the electrocution of slaughterhouse pigs. Tongs charge; pigs stiffen, convulse, capitulate to coma. Total control for the sticker.

Less than a year after Cerletti’s epiphany, the New York State Psychiatric Institute introduced electroconvulsive therapy to schizophrenics and homosexuals: 400 volts of electricity to the brain. No anesthetic, no muscle relaxants.

In the new millennium, ECT advocates arm-wrestled the pharmaceutical industry over twenty-four million depressed Americans, the sweetmeat of the 1990s. Having undergone a public relations makeover, electroshock cashes in at $2,000 per treatment.

Sometimes pigs aren’t stunned effectively. Humans either. It’s all in the placement of the tongs. You’re supposed to stun pigs on both sides of the head; occasionally it’s the snout or jaw that gets it. We stun our humans on both sides of the head, too, at least in the United States. In the UK, doctors mandate unilateral ECTs, stunning only the right side of a head in an effort to protect language and auditory memory.

Sometimes pigs regain consciousness before they are bled. The interval between shock and knife should last no more than 19 seconds, but at least two million pigs wake up each year, caught between dying and dead.

Humans, their death is dilatory. They’re conscious for years but the stun leaves its mark, just as it has on her: blue-black veins, cavernous migraines, involuntary muscle spasms, a burlap hood of amnesia, memories in and out like light through jute weave.

 

Carry her prescriptions in your corduroy handbag, Novotriptyn for depression, Lorazepam for anxiety, Seroquel for hallucinations. Thirteen bottles in all. Store them at night in your second pillowcase—bile-orange bedfellows—because night’s when she hunts out Dad’s old hiding places and swallows all the pills at once. Horse pills, she calls them. A healthy dose.

What happens in that moment between dying and death, before the gear train advances another second’s tick?

Maybe there’s nothing, the silence of silk and smoldering incense. Hand to mouth, grace granted.

Maybe she revives memories from the field perspective—she’s a receptacle, all eyes and ears. It’s a hateful cacophony, voices pricking her forward, you’re no exception: “What kind of mom are you, so doped up you can’t even sign my birthday card? So out of control I have to shave your armpits in the shower? So crazy you can’t even go to the grocery store without getting lost, collapsed and sobbing one aisle over?”

Maybe she curates scenes from before—the observer perspective—like she’s watching actors on a screen. At T.J. Maxx with Dad, armed with walkie-talkies in case one sees something the other might like. Always they match: “You can’t wear that,” Dad says. “Then we won’t go together. Here, what if I put on the black shirt instead of the brown?” They shop for hours, then grab hamburgers. She complains about Dad’s driving, too slow; Dad complains about her Metallica CD, devil music. Back home they model their outfits, smiling catcalls, sweethearts since sixteen.

So narrow the moment between thought and action.

A whiptail lizard’s trick-escape, that’s what she pulls. In the stun of danger, a whiptail casts loose her tail, separating it from her body, distracting predators as she flees to safety: tailbone ruptures, surrendering ropes of muscle, triggering the constriction of blood vessels. She sacrifices her body to save her head.

The replacement tail is never as long or as colorful as the original. It’s an important source of energy, the tail, it’s where she stores her fat. Sometimes a whiptail will return to the site of release and eat her own tail to restore some of her lost mass.

Is that what she hunts for when you sleep—pills on the dusty ledge above the kitchen cabinets, in Dad’s dress-up leather Clarks, in the red metal toolbox in the garage—the husk of her old self, precipitously surrendered?

In the arc of an eyelid she does it. Downs the pills. Pale skin and shallow breath. Find her, or else Dad will, pill bottle breadcrumbs and flailed limbs. She stakes the bed to the ground like a fluke-style anchor.

Check for a pulse.

Look at me, Mama. I need your eyes.

Induce vomiting.

So good, you’re doing so good.

Bed rest, two or three days’ worth.

Do it for me. Breathe, OK?

It’s not like she doesn’t apologize afterward. The same weepy apology.

Still, make her promise you.

Promise you, please.

Not like this, Mama. Don’t end it like this.

It was you who ended it, she will accuse years later. “I was right there in the doctor’s office,” she will say through tears. “Right there! Did anyone ever turn to me, ask me if I wanted ECT? I never had a choice. You took my life from me.”

 

Mornings when the hospital bumps her from electroshock at the last minute because they’re overcapacity, dash after your breath on the car ride home. It’s gloriously now, and now, and now, twenty-four hours indexed chronologically, a chance to bask in present-tense memory.

Acquaint yourselves.

She doesn’t like loud music anymore, tells you to kill it. Orders steak even though she doesn’t eat red meat, laughs at your leopard print slippers until you tell her they’re hers, salts her watermelon as if by habit. Clings to Dad’s dry hand when he waters the sycamore out back, the rare, restorative delight of her touch propping him taller.

She gets quiet when she doesn’t remember, graveyard quiet, buried harangue. She leaves the room, goes outside, but later she’ll whisper, “That happened? I was there?”

Remember what it was like, before.

Time travel, for her.

Don’t lose the memory.

Don’t lose her.

Look at the phone.

Answer the phone.

Photo of Felicia Rose Chavez
Felicia Rose Chavez is a digital storyteller with an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Iowa. An award-winning educator, Felicia is currently at work on her debut book, The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom, forthcoming from Haymarket Books in fall 2020. Find her in Black Warrior Review, Normal School, and Brevity, among others, as well as at www.feliciarosechavez.com.