The Memory Palace
By Mira Bartok
Hardcover, 320 pages
List price: $25
Even now, when the phone rings late at night, I think it’s her. I stumble out of bed ready for the worst. Then I realize — it’s a wrong number, or a friend calling from the other side of the ocean. The last time my mother called was in 1990. I was thirty-one and living in Chicago. She said if I didn’t come home right away she’d kill herself. After she hung up, she climbed onto the second-floor balcony of my grandmother’s house in Cleveland, boosted herself onto the banister, and opened her arms to the wind. Below, our neighbor Ruth Arm-strong and two paramedics tried to coax her back inside. When the call came the next time, almost seventeen years later, it was right before Christmas 2006, and I didn’t even hear the phone ring.
The night before, I had a dream: I was in an empty apartment with my mother. She looked like she had that winter of 1990 — her brown and gray hair unwashed and wild, her blouse stained and torn. She held a cigarette in her right hand, fingers crossed over it as if for good luck. She never looked like a natural-born smoker, even though she smoked four packs a day. The walls of the apartment were covered in dirt. I heard a knock. “What do you want?” I asked the stranger behind the door. He whispered, “Make this place as clean as it was in the beginning.” I scrubbed the floors and walls, then I lifted into the air, sailing feet-first through the empty rooms. I called out to my mother, “Come back! You can fly too!” but she had already disappeared.
When I awoke there was a message on my machine from my friend Mark in Vermont. He had been keeping a post office box for me in Burlington, about three hours from my home in Western Massachusetts. The only person who wrote me there was my mother. “A nurse from a hospital in Cleveland called about a Mrs. Norma Herr,” he said. “She said it was an emergency.” How did they find me? For years, I had kept my life secret from my schizophrenic and homeless mother. So had my sister, Natalia. We both had changed our names, had unpublished phone numbers and addresses.
The story unfolded over the next couple days. After the ambulance rushed my mother to the hospital, the red sweater I had sent her for the holidays arrived at the women’s shelter where she had been living for the last three years. Tim, her social worker, brought the package to her in ICU to cheer her up after surgery. He noticed the return address was from me, care of someone in Vermont. He knew I was her daughter. A nurse called information to get Mark’s number and left the message on his machine. How easy it was to find me after all those years. When I called a friend to tell her I was going to see my mother, she said, “I hope you can forgive her for what she did to you.” “Forgive her?” I said. “The question is — will she ever forgive me?”
The night before I left for Cleveland, while Doug, my fiancé, was making dinner, I went to my studio above our barn to gather some things for my trip. I did what I always do when I enter: I checked the small table to the left of my desk to see if I had written any notes to myself the day before. It’s there, on my memory table, that I keep an ongoing inventory of what I’m afraid I’ll forget. Ever since I suffered a brain injury from a car accident a few years ago, my life has become a palimpsest — a piece of parchment from which someone had rubbed off the words, leaving only a ghost image behind.
Above my desk are lists of things I can’t remember anymore, the meaning of words I used to know, ideas I’ll forget within an hour or a day. My computer is covered in Post-its, reminding me of which books I lent out to whom, memories I’m afraid I’ll forget, songs from the past I suddenly recall.
I was forty when, in 1999, a semi hurtled into my car while a friend and I were stopped at a construction site on the New York Thruway. The car was old and had no airbag — my body was catapulted back and forth in the passenger’s seat, my head smashing against the headrest and dashboard. Coupcontrecoup it’s called, blow against blow, when your brain goes flying against the surface of your skull. This kind of impact causes contusions in the front and back areas of the brain and can create microscopic bleeding and shearing of neural pathways, causing synapses to misfire, upsetting the applecart of your brain, sometimes forever. Even if you don’t lose consciousness, or, as in my case, don’t lose it for very long.
The next days and months that followed I couldn’t remember the words for things or they got stuck in my head and wouldn’t come out. Simple actions were arduous — tipping a cabbie, reading an e-mail, and listening to someone talk. On good days, I acted normal, sounded articulate. I still do. I work hard to process the bombardment of stimuli that surrounds me. I work hard not to let on that for me, even the sound of a car radio is simply too much, or all those bright lights at the grocery store. We children of schizophrenics are the great secret-keepers, the ones who don’t want you to think that anything is wrong.
Outside the glass door of my studio, the moon was just a sliver in the clear obsidian sky. Soon I’d be in the city again, where it’s hard to see the stars. Hanging from a wooden beam to the right of my desk is a pair of reindeer boots I made when I lived in the Arctic, before my brain injury, when I could still travel with ease. What to bring to show my mother the last seventeen years of my life? How long would I stay in Cleveland? One month? Five? The doctor had said on the phone that she had less than six months to live — but he didn’t know my mother.
What would she think of the cabinet of curiosities I call my studio: the mouse skeleton, the petrified bat, the pictures of co-joined twins, the shelves of seedpods and lichen, the deer skull and bones? Would she think that aliens had put them there or would she want to draw them, like me? I fantasized about kidnapping her from the hospital. I would open the couch bed and let her spend her last days among the plants, the paints, and the books; let her play piano anytime she wanted. I’d even let her smoke. She could stay up all night drawing charts of tornadoes, hurricanes, and other future disasters, like the ones she used to send me through my post office box. But she would never see this place. She probably would never leave her bed.
Lining the walls in my studio was evidence of a life intersecting art and science: books on art history and evolution, anthropology, polar exploration, folklore, poetry, and neuroscience. If I brought her here, would my mother really be happy? There was a cabinet of art supplies, an antique globe, a map of Lapland. I had star charts, bird charts, and a book of maps from the Age of Discovery. Had my mother ever been truly happy? Had she ever passed a day unafraid, without a chorus of voices in her head?
The questions I wrote down before I left for Cleveland: How long does she have to live? Does she have a coat? Will she remember me? How will I remember her, after she is gone?
Excerpted from The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok. Copyright 2011 by Mira Bartok. Excerpted with permission of Free Press.