On a Monday night in April 2021, my sister texted me: “Have you talked to mom?”
The message felt ominous. If it were good news (“Have you talked to mom? She won the lottery!”), my sister would have said so. I ran through my mental checklist of reasons I should have talked to my mom. Had I forgotten Mother’s Day? Her birthday? My birthday? Once I concluded that I hadn’t (again) been derelict in my duties as Attentive Adult Son, I realized something must be very wrong.
Whether through nature or nurture, both of my parents possess a deep, New England need to project that everything is fine, there’s nothing to worry about. My mother sometimes postpones the relaying of bad news until a situation is stable or fully resolved. My father, who worked for decades as a glazier installing glass storefronts, developed a stoicism as a tool of the trade. Related to his professional walk-it-off-itude, he is also reluctant to disclose or seek treatment for any medical ailment. He tends to see how long he can tolerate discomfort in hopes that it goes away on its own.
So every few years my father ends up gritting his teeth until, for example, a migraine becomes so powerful that he can’t sit up or his thumb fails to stop bleeding after a vegetable-chopping incident. Then, once his energy is too depleted for him to protest, my mother whisks him to the hospital, updating my sister and me once things settle down. Knowing such a possibility was in play, I called my mother (something I do frequently, by the way).
Earlier that day, she told me over the phone, my father had moved some framed pictures from the shelf where they had been for years to another spot in the family room. Twenty minutes later, he asked my mother why the pictures weren’t in their usual place.
He was able to recognize her and he knew the contours of their home, but it seemed that his brain had spontaneously deleted the past few weeks and much of the previous year. He repeatedly expressed concern that he had forgotten his sister’s birthday, which he hadn’t missed at all (but I had … whoops).
My dad was once again in no position to refuse a trip to the hospital, so my mom took him there. At the E.R., he wondered aloud why everyone was wearing face masks.
He expressed his confusion in a disoriented way, not a wake-up-sheeple anti-mask tone. When he was asked a series of memory assessment questions, he couldn’t identify the day of the week, but he did know that Joe Biden was the sitting president.
All I could do was worry. I wanted to get in a car and drive from my apartment in Brooklyn to the hospital in Boston, but for what? Because I wasn’t yet fully vaccinated (curse my relative youth and good health!), my presence would have been more of a threat to my parents than a comfort. The hospital wouldn’t have even allowed me inside. My acute concern, compounded with this ambient coronavirus stress, turned me into a supernova of pure anxiety.
During the pandemic, my family had been acting out of a more abundant abundance of caution than many. Which is to say: When my father checked into the hospital, I hadn’t seen my parents in nearly a year and a half, and it had not occurred to me that some other medical misfortune might befall them during this time.
I’d been caught with my guard down. I felt the strain of terror one experiences when confronted with the fact that a loved one’s brain might be (to use a clinical term) dunzo. It’s hard not to assume the worst; and the worst, in this case, seemed unspeakably bad. I was too nervous to even offer hypotheses about my dad’s condition to my wife, as if theorizing out loud would alchemize my fear into reality.
That night I slept, but mostly didn’t, cellphone clutched to my chest with the ringer volume cranked all the way up. Two hundred miles away, my mom, sitting awake in a chair in the hospital room, didn’t have reception. Because of Covid protocols, she wasn’t allowed to go into the hallway where I could reach her if needed. But of course she didn’t tell me that.
The doctors returned with test results the next morning. The scans indicated that my dad was suffering from amnesia, a condition I primarily associated with 20th century television shows. Someone gets bonked on the head with a coconut and forgets their own name. I wondered if the doctors had tried hitting my father with a second coconut, a treatment I remember working for Gilligan.
Specifically, my father was in the throes of transient global amnesia, a condition that sounds as if you are so wealthy you forget where you own property. (“Is the summer house on Turks … or Caicos?) In reality, transient global amnesia is a form of short-term memory loss that comes on quickly and completely (hence the “global”) and disappears within a day or two (i.e., transient).
The doctors told us that once a bout of transient global amnesia passes, it isn’t expected to recur, but they don’t really know what causes it. They think that because the condition sometimes appears concurrently with a powerful migraine the two phenomena might be related.
I heard this all secondhand from my mother via text message. Everything felt worse because of the distance, made unbridgeable by circumstance. I later read that transient global amnesia can also occur simultaneously with a powerful orgasm, and if that’s true, kudos to my parents, I guess!
Around lunchtime on Tuesday, my father’s memory returned all at once. His strategy of simply waiting out a malady had, technically, proven successful.
My mom knew that he was fully back when he asked whether they’d been Covid-tested at the hospital. He remembered nothing from his blackout. Wow, he said, as she filled him in on the details of the past day. Wow wow wow. She still cringes when I bring up my father’s lost night. The exhaustion and uncertainty is still so accessible, so immediate for her.
My dad thinks the whole thing is hilarious. Why wouldn’t he laugh? He wasn’t really there, so he never knew there was anything to worry about.
In some ways, I was there more than he was. I was mentally present even as I was physically remote. Stuck in a limbo between my first and second vaccine doses, I found that difficult questions became even more complicated. How much should we insulate the people we love from painful truths? How can we be there for the people we love when we can’t be there with them? Where do we put our anxiety when there’s no obvious outlet? The pandemic heightened this stress but didn’t create it. There are always going to be some kinds of circumstances. We can only ever get so close to the people we love.
The reasons my mom doesn’t want me to worry are the same reasons I always will.
Episode is a weekly column exploring a moment in a writer’s life. Josh Gondelman has worked as a writer for “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” and more recently as head writer and executive producer of “Desus & Mero.” His stand-up comedy special, “People Pleaser,” is available to stream.
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