June 28, 2013

Fiction Friday: The Self that Remains





Tom was one of those people we all have in our lives. He's someone to go out to lunch with in a large group, but not someone I ever spent time with one-on-one. We had some classes together in college and even worked in the same lab for a while. He's a good-looking man and almost all girls, including me, had crush on him. But I didn't really know him. Besides, he's out of my league and my love was not the overwhelming kind. Even so, when I heard that he had brain cancer that would kill him in four months, it stopped me cold.

I was 19 when I first saw him in a class taught by a psychologist, Kay. I'd seen Tom at the coffee house, the library and around campus. He seemed enthusiastic and had an exaggerated way of moving that made him unusually focused. I found it uncomfortable to make eye contact with him because his gaze was so intense and I was afraid if he can read my mind.

Once Tom and I were sitting next to each other when Kay told the class about a his colleague who had just died a few days earlier. He told us that his colleague had been a close friend, and had called a month earlier to say he had just been diagnosed with a brain tumor. The doctors said that he'd lose his memory, not his ability to form new memories, but his ability to retrieve old ones, and that he'd lose his old self.

Tom's hand shot up. To my amazement, he suggested that Kay was overstating the connection between memory and overall identity. "Losing memory or not, you still like the same things," Tom argued. "Your sensory systems aren't affected. If you're kind or a jerk, such personality traits aren't governed by the memory."

Kay was unruffled. "Many of us don't realize the connection between memory and self," he explained. "Who you are is the sum total of all that you've experienced. Where you went to school, who your friends were, all the things you've done or all the things you've always hoped to do. Whether you prefer chocolate ice cream or vanilla, action movies or comedies, is part of the story, but the ability to know those preferences through memory is what defines you as a person."

The room was silent. I looked over at Tom's notebook. "Psychologist contemplates losing his mind," Tom had written.





Tom and I crossed paths again years later when we were both working for a research company. I saw Tom in the halls from time to time, said hello and that's it. I wasn't sure if I still had that feeling, but it didn't matter though because I was content with my life as it was and again, my love's not the overwhelming kind. After I left the company to begin an academic job, I ran into a woman from the company who asked if I'd heard the news about Tom.

"He has an inoperable brain tumor. The doctors say he has four months to live. He just got back at his apartment. I just visited him. You might want to drop by and say hello, " she said.

I called the number she gave me immediately and a caregiver answered. We made an appointment for the following day. "He's not so good first thing in the morning. The drugs. And some days aren't good at all. Call first and I'll let you know how he's doing. Apart from that, I should warn you, he doesn't remember very much, the tumor has wiped out his memories of the past."

It's called amnesia.

The next day came. When I knocked at the door, the caregiver invited me in and led me across a fluffy white carpet to the living room. When Tom walked in, I stood up. He came over, shook my hand and said, "thank you for coming."

His hair was thinning, he'd lost weight, but otherwise he looked the same as I remembered him. The same narrow face, same smile, same gaze.

"I don't know if anyone told you," he started, "but I have a brain tumor that affects my memory."

I nodded.

"Please forgive me for asking this, but I do this with everybody. Could you tell me your name again and how it is that I know you?"

"Um...my name is June."

There was neither recognition nor nonrecognition. Just a calm, interested face staring back at me.

"We were students together at Stamford," I continued. "We took a couple of psychology classes together."

"Oh, yes, I have a degree in psychology."

"We were in Professor Kay's class and we worked in a lab together."

"Who?"

"Professor Kay, the psychologist."

"Did I love his subject?"

"Yes, I think you did. You always seemed pretty focused."

"That's good. I'd hate to think that I was doing something I didn't enjoy. So we were students together. I guess that was many years ago. Did we stay in touch after that?"

"Well, we ended up working, a few years later, for the same company. A research corporation."

"Did we work together?"

"No, we were in different divisions. You worked with Jesse, and I worked with Bob. But we saw each other from time to time and I was interested in what your group was doing. Your team gave a really good presentation during the annual roundup. I remember you had worked on a very clever new musical instrument called the bead box."

"Huh?" he said, looking at the ceiling, "the bead box. Doesn't ring a bell. But I don't get many bells ringing these days!" He laughed, a trouble-free laughter and it sounded so nice.

"Well it was very cool," I commented.

He looked over at me. "So, were we friends?"

I just stared. Would it be rude if I told him that I never really thought of him as a friend? I mean, if one person thought of another as a friend, and the other person denied it, that would be hurtful. Should I tell him that I had crush on him? Of course no, I shouldn't. Tom had no memory of me one way or the other. As I was thinking this, he spoke.

"It's okay. There's often this...gray area, I guess you'd call it, in human relationships, isn't there? We meet people, we see them every day, we say hello, but we don't really know them. We say they're our friends, but really, you can't be friends with the hundreds of people you meet, can you? It's enough that we had a shared history together. We were in the same places for a time. We were part of each other's fabric." He made a rubbing gesture with his fingers and thumb.

The phone rang. The caregiver brought it to Tom. It was his mother. Listening to his end of the call, I understood that she herself was bedridden and was not doing well. This was their daily call. I got up to leave but Tom motioned for me to stay. The caregiver took the phone away when he was done.

"It was nice of you to come. It was helpful too. It's comforting to put together the pieces of my life, to see what I've done. To know that there were kind people like you who were in it with me. Thank you," he said.

Then I left, walked down the stairs, past the apartment building, back to my car. Then I sat in my car with the key in the ignition, not wanting to move. Professor Kay felt that when we lose our memory, we lose our entire sense of self. When I saw Tom, something fundamentally Tom was still there. Some of us call it personality or essence. Some call it the "soul." Whatever it is, the tumor that took Tom's memory had not touched it.

I cried, finally. I don't know what did I cry for. But somehow the feeling suddenly became overwhelm. Tom has always been in my memory and I'm glad to know someone like him.





8 comments:

  1. nicely done. u r such a talented writer sis ^^
    perhaps more stories r coming? hihi. keep it up. have a good day ;)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. i publish a story once a week. thanks so much Jess. have a good day :)

      Delete
  2. It has been two years I didn't write short essay, when i was in school, i used to write and asked my teacher to check them.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I am one of the characters in this story. :P

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. oops sorry i didnt ask for your permission to use your name :p
      haha. its just a fiction kayy ;)

      Delete

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