Memories of Memories

What prompted me to look up the messages people sent me while I was in hospital for the brain surgeries?

I sit here, tears streaming down my cheeks. I’ve read these messages several times already. And each time, I’ve become emotional, inconsolable. I always remain fraginle for the rest of the day. Sometimes it lasts into the next. I’m not sure why.

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PTSD? The outpouring of love and caring from friends and family? My father’s messages, written in the form of poetry, are always the trigger. And my family’s memories of my childhood form a catalyst.

Dad wrote on the day of the first surgery:

Was it anger or pain? We never did really know,
The roll of fat at the back of your neck bright red with rage (or misery).
Today, we would probably be warned of 'lactose intolerance',
But then, we were just told to 'let her cry', and eventually you slept.

As a toddler, you hung on to your 'clobber bag'.
I don't think I ever really knew what was in it, but the bag was always there:
A large plastic bag of toys, treats, bits of paper, pulled along from room to room.
At night, it stayed at the foot of the bed and in the morning
You sometimes found a second bag of treats, so we could sleep

We relied too much on 'big brother' to take charge, forgetting how small he was.
But he really didn't seem to mind: "cummon Deb", he said,
And off the two of you went, up the ladder of life

Simon, my younger brother, sat his office at work at the Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, waiting for news. He too reminisced.

I am sitting at work staring blankly at the stuff I need to do while thinking of you. Looking at Dad's message set me off with my own memories from our childhood. The first to come up has to do with solid as well as vocal objects being projected from my room to yours over the top of the wardrobe. Next is the scene with the glass door. Hopper throwing you comes after this. More follow.

Jonathan who was with me during the my times in surgery also recalled scenes from our childhood: I have this fond memory of holding your hand and walking around with you during recess at school in Geneva, talk about a lifetime ago.

.

The surgeries took place a decade ago. I am thriving, living a full life. I am a more authentic version of me than I ever was, more comfortable in my own skin, happier than I used to be in my past life. Yet their words still move me. Even now, as I write, the tears continue to flow.

Why? Shouldn’t I be over it by now?

Omar's Shop

This was my first time striding purposefully through the alleyways in the Old City of Jerusalem. During previous visits, I’d always strolled along taking in the sights and smells of the bustling market surrounding me, peeking into a pottery shop here, stopping into a textile shop there, pausing to breathe in the aroma of herbs and spices.

But this time was different—we were headed to Omar’s shop.

Jonathan, my older brother, knew it wouldn’t take much to convince me. “He has fabulous textiles, traditional ones, not like the newer shops—you’ll love it.”

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As an ethnic textile aficionado and collector, it wasn’t a question of going or not going, it was a matter of timing—how soon could we go?

It took a couple of years, but we finally made it to Jerusalem, to Omar’s shop. I waited impatiently at the entrance to the shop as Omar and his brothers greeted Jonathan enthusiastically. Finally, it was time to cross the threshold.

As soon as we entered, my eyes popped out. Piles of pillow covers saturated with Palestinian embroidery, Druze designed place mats in earth tones. And what was this, suzanis? Pillow covers, wall hangings, embellished with the chain stitch embroidery in the Uzbek tradition. What were they doing in the region, in the Old City of Jerusalem? How did they get here?

After Jonathan told Omar of my interest in ethnic textiles, he pulled me away from the entrance to his shop, to guide me into a well lit interior. I forgot to breathe—wherever I turned, I saw stunning textiles. Even more spectacular suzanis, lively block-printed wall hangings from Persia, Indian mirror-work, and so much more.

Mouth agape, my gaze swept back and forth, not knowing where to start, until a pile of suzani pillow covers caught my eyes and held them. Unlike those in the entrance to the shop, these were silk on silk, the embroidery even, the yarns variegated in color… natural dyes? I was mesmerized.

I turned to Omar. “I don’t understand—these aren’t locally made.”

He smiled and nodded. “Suzani, from Uzbekistan.” then added, “You know textiles. Sit down and I will bring to you.”

And boy, did he. He disappeared into yet another room in the back and came back, laden with a pile of folded suzanis. He spread one gorgeous textile after the other at my feet. I gasped at each one. The colors… the designs…

The bigger ones, the most exquisite ones, cost more than a thousand dollars. Perhaps one of the smaller ones. But no, though less expensive, the prices were in the hundreds. Perhaps… No. I couldn’t. I’d set myself a one hundred dollar limit when we set out on our trip. I tried to rationalize—I could justify two hundred if I promised myself not to buy anything else. But I’d originally come here for Palestinian embroidery… Perhaps... No. There was no way I was walking out of here without a piece of Palestinian embroidery.

Omar saw my struggle. “I have some pillow covers you might like.”

He trotted out to the back room, and returned with his arms laden with beautiful suzani embroidered pillow covers. I breathed a sigh of relief—I’d be happy with a couple of those.

After choosing two of them, Omar unrolled a rug out on the floor. “You know textiles. Where is this from?”

I took a close look. “It looks like a Berber rug from the Atlas mountains in Morocco, but the design is not traditional.”

Omar beamed. “That’s right. It’s a modern design.”

I could see Jonathan beaming too. With pride?

I wandered around the shop, admiring the ikat woven coats from Uzbekistan. I looked at the prices and turned away. Maybe on my next visit.

I noticed a pile of the Palestinian embroidered pillow covers in the front room. I pawed through them but couldn’t find what I wanted. I approached one of Omar’s brothers and pointed to them. “Do you have better quality ones?”

Like Omar, he went into the back room. He approved of my choices. “You have good eye.”

I came away with four stunning pillow cases, a Persian wall hanging, a book about Palestinian embroidery written by Omar’s father, a goofy smile on my face, and the conviction that I’ll be stopping by on my next visit to Israel.

Memory Shards

Why won’t he help himself? Why doesn’t he bring his hands out from under the blanket?

His bed is so weird—a box, covered with a thin blanket, pulled tight. Tucked in so neatly, too neatly. Hospital corners.

All the other soldiers were laughing, chatting. Propped up in their rumpled beds. They wanted the candy I offered. Or did they? It was lousy. Cheap—I wouldn’t have taken any. Were they just being polite? Just tolerating us, a bunch of thirteen year-old girls dressed in our khaki scout uniforms, coming in to cheer up the wounded soldiers, to give them candy.

What were we thinking? Who came up with the idea anyway? Our troupe leaders? What were they thinking? Didn’t they realize we’d probably come across some like this one? Horrific, terrifying.

I almost walked past it. No one mentioned this room. Was I not supposed to go in? But I was curious. The bed was weird. Why was it so quiet in there? But no, the voices were just soft.

I rationalized. It wouldn’t be fair to skip this room. All the others got candy.

Why didn’t I leave as soon as I realized there was something very wrong? I wanted to see. The bed was high, and he was lying flat. I took a step closer, then another. I rounded the corner of the bed. And froze.

The soldier’s eyes were wet and glistening. An impossible black. I remember fixating on his eyes.

Why am I remembering this now? What triggered it? I search through the files in my mind. Oh yes, memories of trauma and confusion, of panic and fear. Not knowing what to do, seeking help where there was none. Memories of the early days after the brain bleeds, all those hospital stays, the seizures, the brain surgeries.

And there I was, remembering another hospital, more than four decades ago, during the Yom Kippur War. Another traumatic event. Another memory of fear, of a burnt soldier. Had he been trapped in a burning tank?

I stood frozen. I couldn’t look away from his eyes. Twin pools of darkness. Almost overflowing. Like a still black sea at high tide. Almost contained. Mostly contained. Weird, wrong.

The rest of his face was horrifying. A patchwork of mustard yellow and pink. Or was it red? Scars? Raw flesh? I don’t remember. The mustard yellow I remember, vividly. A still mask, with a sheen. Like shiny rubber. Not sweat.

I recoiled inwardly. His face repulsed me, I was terrified by his hideous shell. My thoughts and emotions were everywhere and nowhere. Was I shocked? Afraid? The only coherent thought in my mind was about giving him that candy. All other thoughts were only partially formed as they scurried around in my mind, out of reach.

A crumpled brown paper bag filled with lousy candy in my hand. Why didn’t the visitor come to my rescue? If he’d only reach for it, this ordeal would be over. Why wouldn’t he?

A tableau: the soldier, his visitor, and I, frozen, suspended in time and space.

The soldier and his visitor, their eyes are locked onto mine. The visitor, his mouth open, his eyes round. The soldier, his face... His nose… Where is his nose?

I want too look away. But his eyes draw me in. I want to do something, to react, but all I am capable of is a lone whimper. I don’t understand. Why? How? What? Why am I here? How do I..? What am I supposed to...?

I clutch a crumpled brown paper bag in my hand. Why do I have a bag in my hand? A bag of candy. Lousy candy. Candy for the soldiers. I’m supposed to offer it to him, to hand him the bag so he can reach in— Why isn’t he moving to take it? Why isn’t his visitor helping me? He too is frozen, his mouth agape. I’m only a kid. He’s the adult. He should be helping me.

I stand for an agonizing lifetime.

A hand appears from behind me, grabs some of the candy from my bag, reaches out, and drops them onto his nightstand. They fall with a patter, a couple bounce.

And the spell is broken.

Wandering Jew

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A lush Wandering Jew plant dominated my kitchen window sill. A dusting of silver on the leaves lent a light sheen to the stripes of deep magenta and pale teal. The plant kept sending magenta tendrils up and down the window and cabinets. I was constantly working to discourage it from spilling into the sink and sneaking into the dish rack.

After having forgotten to water it for a while, the plant started shedding dry leaves and stems. I finally remembered the plant, I over-compensated and watered it too much and the debris became slimy.

The plant was no longer lush, nor beautiful.

Shortly after I returned from a trip to Israel, when I was clearing the dish rack and sink of slimy debris, I gave up. I decided to reclaim my windowsill—I removed the Wandering Jew from the kitchen.

My kitchen windowsill was detritus free, no longer hidden by a curtain of leaves.

And there it was, my life, me. A Hanukkiyah (menorah) that I brought with me from Israel when I moved here, another that Bill, my now-ex-husband bought me when we traveled over Hanukkah to see his family, an empty jar of marmite, imported from England, an empty jar of lemon curd also imported from England, a glass prism with a dragon carved into it. Symbols of my past life—growing up in Israel, where I am still firmly rooted, my marriage, now dissolved, England, where I was born, a continuing influence throughout my life and the source of my accent, and dragon boating, the bridge between my past life and my life post-brain injury—the path that led me to the person that I am, that I am only beginning to understand.

Tangle

I drifted towards the light, a white, pure light. I wanted to become one with it. I felt warm, at peace. I was. Time was irrelevant. Until I realizedI was floating in place, no longer drifting upward.

I was vaguely disappointed as I regained awareness, awakening into a dark room, my room in rehab. I was disoriented, confused. Where was the light? Where was I? What had just happened?

I felt detached from the world around me when I emerged from the grand-mal seizure. I was an outsider, baffled, numb.

“You’re going to the neuro-ICU.”

What? Why? I didn’t understand. I was supposed to be discharged from rehab the next day. I was supposed to be going home. I couldn’t go back to the ICU. I was done with all that. “I’ll be coming back here, won’t I?”

I relaxed when the nurses assured me that I’ll be returning to the rehab center when all this was over. Whatever this was.

The numbness and confusion stayed with me for several months, through a third brain surgery, my return home, early recovery. That same numbness, detachment, resurfaces every so often. I am still trying to understand what happened to me, what is happening to me, why it won’t go away.

I occasionally wish someone would rescue me, take the bloody brain away.

Hold it! Why am I writing about wanting to be rescued? Though true, I don’t see how I got there.

I’d been writing about other events where I wanted to be rescued. The time when I was thirteen and found myself in a hospital room with a burnt soldier. I’d been distributing candy among the the wounded soldiers from the Yom Kippur War. Somebody had the brilliant idea to send us, a group of girl-scouts over to Rambam Hospital to cheer up the soldiers. And there I was, in a white hospital room, white walls, white bedding, white lighting, with a burnt soldier and his visitor. I stood frozen, my bag of candy tilted towards him, with no clue what to do, wishing the visitor would rescue me and reach out for the candy.

I’d been writing about the time when I tried to understand how a friend, Menachem, had fallen to his death. I was seventeen, on a hike with my boyfriend, Amir, and Menachem and his girlfriend, Naomi. Naomi, Amir, the EMTs, and the police officers tried to protect me from the horror of Menachem’s death, from the sight of his broken body, his brain spattered across the rocks.

I’d been writing about my first grand mal seizure which took place between my first two brain surgeries, when I was forty seven years old.

I’d been writing about the numbness I felt after these events, my difficulties processing them. Except that I felt no numbness after that seizure. I knew exactly what happened and I knew about the possible implications, that the neurosurgeon might postpone the second brain surgery to six months away. No, I didn’t feel numb. In fact, I was very much grounded—I was swearing. I didn’t want to postpone the surgery. I wanted it over with so I could move on and start rebuilding my life, a life that had been brought to a halt by my brain bleeds. I’d been writing about numbness, a numbness I felt after my encounter with the burnt soldier and after Menachem's fall to his death.

And my story of my second grand-mal seizure, which occurred the day before I was to be discharged, slipped it, near death experience and all. I definitely felt numb after that one, confused, incapable of processing it and the third surgery that followed it.

Three events, the burnt soldier, Menachem, and the near death experience. Three traumatic events, intertwined in my mind, tangled.

Caught Up

 

  • Two plus hours in the midday sun in Israel.

  • Phone calls, phone calls, phone calls.

  • Chit chatting.

  • Chit chatting.

  • Phone calls and more phone calls.

  • Walking in the heat of a hot hot day.

  • Shelves and shelves of colored produce.

  • The hot sun beating down.

  • Phone calls.

    And finally the meltdown. A meltdown like I haven’t suffered in months, possibly in a year, maybe two.

The flight from Pittsburgh to Boston was fine. No screaming kids. No loud adults. Boston to Tel Aviv was not so fine. Whiny kid in the seat in front, nagging kid to the left. Their voices cut through the veneer of numbness induced by my noise canceling headphones helped.

The train ride was fine, and I seemed to be handling the jet lag okay. But on my first morning, as soon as I stepped out into the midday sun, I knew I would be in trouble. I wore a hat, I stuck to the shade as much as possible. But the bloody brain objected with a touch of vertigo, headaches, a sense of heaviness.

The bloody brain stopped playing nice on the fifth day, after a walk to and from the grocery store. I could tell, the sun was too much, the heat and light seared through my brain. But I continued to push myself, helping Mum with the groceries. Even though I realized I needed to give my brain a rest, I sat with her while she took one phone call after the next. I knew, but I didn’t want to worry anyone. Dad’s ill-health was enough of a concern. 

And finally it caught up with me, despite the naps I took every day, despite peiodic breaks in the silence of my air conditioned room. My brain could no longer manage the heat, emotions, noise, colors.

Tears streaming down my cheeks, I escaped to my room. Tears and more tears, dripping onto the floor, mingling with the snot, soaking my pillow.

It’s time for a nap.

Cure?

That elusive other shoe finally dropped on my last day in Israel. When did the headache start? In the morning before I left? Or was it the afternoon? I was certainly in bad shape by the time I said goodbye to my parents in the evening.

Unlike the rest of the headaches I suffered throughout my trip, this was a real killer. I knew at its onset that there was no appeasing this one, that no amount of meds or ginger or turmeric, or anything, would prevent it from escalating into the screaming red zone.

I had hoped for the best case scenario, where the inevitable other shoe would wait to drop until I returned home. I suspected it would happen during the trip. The possibility that it would drop en route was unthinkable.

Not only did the unthinkable happen, but it got really bad at the worst time possible, when there was absolutely no hope for any form of respite until I reached home, more than twenty four hours later, when all it could do was worsen.

My ability to function through my headache became iffy before I left my parents' house. But I held it together, somehow. I had to. I didn't want to worry them unduly. And I still had to manage the taxi ride to the railway station, then the train ride to the airport, then passport control and security and boarding the plane.

At various points along the way the odd whimper of pain escaped before I managed to stifle it. Focusing on holding myself back from bursting into tears intensified the pain. It also caused an odd ringing in my ears, which exacerbated it further, as did moving and thinking.

I had mixed feelings about boarding the plane. On the one hand, once in my seat, I'd be able to settle in and relax a bit, which would probably bring me some relief. But on the other hand, I dreaded sharing a confined space with this particularly cacophonous crowd of passengers, which included several screaming babies and an exuberant youth group.

I had no choice. And it was bad.

I'm not sure how I functioned through the trip. I only remember it in hazy snatches. Waiting in line for the bathroom, pretending to be relaxed and pleasant while urgently needing to pee, incredulously watching a young mother getting up to rummage through her stowed carry-on while we were taxiing for take-off, trying not to gag visibly at the smell of cheesy feet newly released from the confines of plastic footwear. The pounding in my head in sync with the youth group's loud countdown until the New Year, the jagged pain as we went through some turbulence, and the searing agony whenever I woke up from yet another fitful nap.

Somehow I survived and made it on to the next flight. By the time I reached Pittsburgh, my entire body felt bruised and battered from the inside out. My progress through the terminal was slow as I tried to avoid exacerbating the pain. I felt as if a veil surrounded me, separating me from the world. Everything seemed foggy, sights and sounds muffled, as were my thoughts. The one thing that kept me going was a vision of myself crawling into bed.

Finally, after a bumpy car ride and a draining climb up to my bedroom, and sank into bed.

I stayed in bed, dozing on and off, for more than twenty hours, rising briefly less than a handful of times to eat and go to the bathroom. Once my headache waned to the point where I felt alert and could move without wincing, I returned to my normal level of activity, or at least as normal as one could be with a bad case of jet lag.

Except that I wasn't jet lagged. Not really. Yes, I still had a headache, but it was at a level that I could easily function and think through. But at no point did exhaustion hitting hard out of the blue as usually happens to me upon my return from trips abroad. I went to bed at a normal time and awoke the next day at a normal time. At no point within the next few days did I have trouble staying with a normal sleep schedule.

Could that twenty hours of sleep on my return have something to so with that? Had I found a cure for jet lag? A horrific headache that conks me out for a good day or so?

Siblings

My sister formed a Whatsapp group for the family. My siblings and I often message each other. I live in Pittsburgh, my older brother in Boston, and my two younger siblings in Israel. Though far flung, we are very close.

A few days ago I messaged them about having won a minor writing competition.

 Us photo be Jennifer Kaplan 1976

Us photo be Jennifer Kaplan 1976

Me: “I get exposure (so to speak).”

Simon: “for some reason I am thinking of Barking Creek.”

Me: “She was a young lady...”

Jonathan: “Twice a week?!”

Me: “Very provoking.”

Simon: “Only in Woking.”

Though the conversation ended at that point, my smile stayed with me for a few more minutes. About four decades ago, when we were kids, Mum taught us a limerick:

There was a young lady of Barking Creek

Who had her monthlies twice a week.

“How very provoking.” said the bishop of Woking.

“There's no time for poking, so to speak.”

 

Jolt

Accompanied by a bad headache, this morning's vertigo was worse than usual, and it didn't abate by the time I sat down to breakfast. I had to move my head carefully as I ate to minimize the effect. After I finished, I sat for a while longer, hoping that my brain would settle and I'd be able to make my way back upstairs. A bit unsteady on my feet I returned to bed.

I knew better than to lay my head down, it would only make the vertigo worse. I reclined, leaning on my pillows, keeping my head still, waiting for my brain to quit sloshing around. As it settled in my skull, my thoughts roamed all over the place.

My first thoughts were about Mikki, an Israeli friend with whom I'd exchanged texts recently. I wondered about him, about his life. What happened to him after high school? What was his army experience? Had he been an officer?

My thoughts gradually transitioned towards one of my boyfriends, Amir, whom I later married. I remembered sitting next to him on a curb in Tiv'on, waiting for his ride back to the army base where he was attending officers' course. It was springtime, the heat of summer still to come. We sat in the mottled shade of a tree, my hand on his thigh, idly stroking it through a rip in his army fatigues, marveling at the softness of the worn fabric.

Without warning, my memory flashed to another time, a few weeks, or was it months later? It was a hot and dusty summer's day. I sat next to Amir on the front stoop of a police station, my hand on his thigh, stroking it. Once again, he was on furlough. Had he finished the course by then? I know I was still in high school at the time, seventeen years old.

The door to the stone building at our backs was ajar, letting out what seemed like freezing air. Did I shiver while I sat there in the shade next to Amir?

We were waiting for our friend Naomi to join us. Her questioning seemed to go on forever.

My hand rubbed Amir's thigh back and forth, back and forth. This time he wasn't wearing fatigues. This time the fabric wasn't soft. This time, I wasn't stroking him idly. This time I had to force myself to keep my hand there, despite the revulsion I felt. Hoping that my touch helped him, I kept stroking him. Did it help me?

My hand went back and forth on his blood encrusted jeans, Menachem's blood. Menachem who had fallen to his death while the four of us were on a hike, Menachem, Naomi, Amir, and I.

I physically jolted at the memory of encountering a speck of something as I rubbed my hand Amir's thigh. Without thinking, I scraped it off his jeans—it didn't come easily. As soon as it came away, I realized what it might be.

Shaken, I thrust the memory away from my consciousness .

And noticed that my vertigo was practically gone.