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Wondering Who You Are

by Sonya Lea

Paperback, 348 pages, W W Norton & Co Inc, List Price: $15.95 |


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After her husband suffers amnesia following cancer surgery, the author describes their attemps to rebuild their marriage and her own struggles to regain her sense of self and identity.

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In 'Wondering Who You Are,' A Man Wakes Up And Doesn't Know His Wife

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: 'Wondering Who You Are'

"YOU NEED TO get out of here and get something to eat," the nurse says, as she hovers over the numbers on a massive computer printout.

It's nine thirty on the night of the surgery, and I've beenawake nearly two days, since we checked into the hotel the day before Richard's operation.

"I'll go if my sister gets to come in the room in my place," I bargain.

The nurse allows Christie to stay with him. In the waiting room, I scarf down a sub sandwich that Christie bought for me. I'm not hungry, the food is tasteless, but Iwill myself to eat it so I can be strong for Richard.

By ten o'clock, Christie comes to get me. "It's not good," she says.

A few minutes later, I reenter the ICU room. The nurse has my husband's arms in thick Velcro bands, held against the sides of the bed.

"The restraints are to protect him from himself," the nurse says.

I see Richard thrashing about. I bring my eyes toward his. Though pinned to the bed, he raises his head and looks into my face. His hair is matted and wet. His eyes are terrified. He's fighting to stay alive, and what I see behind yhe fear is his limitless love. He falls backward. Eyes close. Hands go limp. Consciousness leaves.

Later, I will think of this as the moment that I lost my former husband. Later, I'll say that I saw him leave while he lay in restraints on a hospital bed. I'll tell people that I remember watching him fall away, fall without a navel, umbilicus-less, as if he were falling as the first man, no longer tied to history, his or anyone else's. But right now, there is no story. There is only arguing for his life. I must keep him alive.

"Let me stay!" I plead.

"For a few minutes. And then you have to go. You're not supposed to be in here. Visiting hours ended at nine."

As if that's what I am doing. Visiting. I dig in. I want to make the nurse promise me that he'll be okay if I have to leave. Instead I look at her across Richard's body and place my hand on his belly. I don't know it then, but his abdomen is filling with four liters of blood. One hundred and thirty-six ounces. Seventeen cups. Over three pitchers of blood are pooling inside him.

Christie and I meet in the hall.

"This isn't right," I say.

"They're stabilizing him. You can come back in a few hours," she says. "If we have to break through the doors, we'll do it."

I call a few close friends and ask them to pray. I ask them to call everyone they know and ask them to pray. It makes me feel like I'm doing something.

Christie and I walk to the hotel. I shower and put on fresh clothing. I lie down on the bed with my sister.

"What are you doing?" she asks.

"I can't waste time getting dressed when they call. I have to be ready to go again."

When I lay my head on the pillow I make a deal with whoever is listening: I'll sleep for a few hours if you agree to wake me if anything happens to him.

Ninety minutes later I jerk to a sitting position, as if someone has pulled me by my arms, straight up out of bed. I call the ICU.

"You'd better get over here," the man's voice says.

"The doctor is on his way back to operate."

I wake my sister and tell her to meet me there. I fly like in my dreams when my body is light and there are no obstructions.

By midnight, his heart rate has plummeted to 40. An accurate hematocrit reading has been taken to replace the false healthy one they took after surgery. The hematocrit reads twelve. Then, when he's tested again, it reads ten, and then three. I don't need to ask the staff to confirm the danger of the falling number; I watch my husband wrestle for his life.

He is surrounded by doctors. One resuscitates him with a bag valve mask.

"Who are you?" one doctor asks.

"I am his wife," I say.

"You have to wait out there. We're taking him down now."

Christie shows up while I'm standing alone in the hall. My body has begun to chill and my teeth chatter. She places her arms around my shoulders and holds me. When the doors open, we hear the doctors calling orders in the room. We see them moving Richard's lifeless body.

"He's coding," Christie says. I know she means that they're doing the breathing for him now.

I only want his body close to mine.

Three doctors in hospital-blue scrubs and caps start to move the gurney down the long hallway. I follow alongside, holding my husband's leg; there are so many doctors that it is the only place where I can touch his body. When we get to the elevator and the doors open, two doctors move the gurney while the other continues to press air into Richard's lungs. Christie and I stand and watch as he's wheeled into the large elevator. I hold tight to my sister's arm.

"Come if you want," the doctor says.

We follow. Everyone faces Richard. The elevator is quiet. No one speaks. The clock stops, minutes run out, time ends. My heart beats into my ears. The I-want-Iwant-I-want that runs constantly through my head finally halts. The terror of losing him gives way to another place, a place beyond my fear. I am a lake in winter. I place my cool hands over Richard's heart. The doctors watch me. I lower my head. Their faces turn away: slow, tender, a graceful offering. They proffer a private moment with my husband. The gesture happens in a minute and forever, a gesture so kind that in the years to come, I will turn the moment over and over and over, a holy of holies in my mind.

In the silence, I ask that everything be given to my husband. I will myself to pour into him through my hands while the air is being forced into his throat. His chest raises and lowers. We descend.

Rumi said:

When someone asks what it means

to "die for love," point


In the time we are living on the perfect ranch waiting forthings to change, I want to point to myself, and say: "Walia. I am that one."

Instead I say: "I will never leave you, and I don't know if I can be your wife."

When I say this he's sitting on the bed that is not ours, but the one belonging to the ranch, and I'm kneeling on the hard floor in front of him. I've lost my temper about the thousandth thing he's forgotten this month—maybe it's a date that we're trying to have, maybe it's a memory I wish he shared, maybe it's some shit I wanted him to do. I can no longer pretend that I feel like his lover. Even though we have friends staying with us, I'm yelling, because every facade I've been holding up—the good wife, the nice girl, the nurse—is crumbling.

"I don't know what to do."

"I can't be the one to tell you what to do! If I get into that position, it makes me your caregiver, not your lover!"

He looks at me with innocent eyes.

"You really don't know what to do?" I ask.

He shakes his head.

"What if I help you find a therapist, someone who can help you figure out ways to commit to using your compensatory strategies?"


Richard begins the therapy. He starts to use his planner.

The forgetting doesn't change.

"What do you talk about?" I ask, after one of his sessions.

"How to talk to you."

"How's that going?"

"Not very well."

"Do you want to go to the farmers' market?" I know that we don't have to talk if we're with other people.


It's taking me years to cultivate the kind of detachment I really need. To do so, I have to step back from the people who think they know what's right for us. I have to stop paying for workshops and just begin the daily workff building this new life. In order to observe my situation clearly, I have to risk saying good-bye to communities that make me feel accepted and loved, not because they're bad people, but because even their guidance has limits. I have to do this because right now, like Richard, I'm just trying to survive.

I go back to staring at the perfect vineyard, wondering if the owls are safe.

Though my environs are perfect, nothing feels calm. I walk the loop from the little yellow ranch house to the eucalyptus grove to the lemon trees, circumambulating with my grief. I talk on the phone with my therapist, mysisters, my minister friend, my daughter, my childhood friend. I pace the calls, a different person each day, because I'm afraid I'll poison them with my sorrow. I'm swimming through a toxic sludge of sadness. Every day on my walk, I cry. I mourn the loss of my former life, the graceful, beautiful man I was married to, and now I mourn the person I was with him: protected, desired, womanly. The sex is miserable, the forgetting is constant, our children are away until Christmas, my work is meaningless, and I'm grief-stricken about the unknowable future. Life is as silent as a Zen retreat, one where I'm on constant kitchen duty. In my surroundings of such ponderous luxury, I feel guilty for complaining about any of my problems.

Intellectually, I understand what's happening: I'm grieving the loss of the life I once knew. The past is no more, and because I'm no longer hoping for a radical change, or pretending things are otherwise, I'm what people call "depressed." Inside myself, it feels like I'm living in a black hole of waiting. I don't yet know that it's fine to wait to see what might show up. This is the beat-beat-beat before the chorus resounds. Entire civilizations have died out and new ones arisen, but I can't let go of the "us" that I knew once. And I can't fill up the emptiness with more craving. Look, there's never been "the one" to complete me. But I didn't know that losing what you hold on to could hurt like this.

Richard watches television, and I sit on the porch reading books about the brain. My shelves now include books by brain scientists like Michael Gazzaniga, who talks about how one's beliefs in one's story get created. The more research I do, the more my perception of my solid self slides.

Good God, I think, you're making this up. You live in this life, and at the same time you assign meaning to it. Unlike your spouse over there watching a reality show, you amass masses of forethought, made available by the left hemisphere of the brain, which monitors all the other parts of the brain's network and deciphers their actions in order to create an acceptable sense of a unified self. Brain researchers say there is a part of the left hemisphere whose job it is to make things appear logical, to form the input we receive into stories, stories composed to feed our hungry self-image, stories that rewrite themselves to become what we now believe to be the truth.

The things that shape us, the moments that make us up, may not be possible to authenticate. But our brains create them. The "interpreter" part of the brain can impose order on information that doesn't make sense, seeking patterns, finding relationships, making personal mythology of the mysterious, irrational, and instinctive.

"Any time our left brain is confronted with information that does not jibe with our self-image, knowledge, or conceptual framework," Gazzaniga says, "our left-hemisphere interpreter creates a belief to enable all incoming information to make sense and mesh with our ongoing idea of ourself. The interpreter seeks patterns, order, and causal relationships." Our brains can even be stimulated to create religious experiences: when we receive information that doesn't jibe with the brain structures that give rise to self-awareness and understanding, one of our possible reactions is to categorize it as a sensed presence, as God.

Those times you call magical, miracles, numinous: any certainty of their otherworldly nature comes from the effect they had on you, how they moved you toward some state you really couldn't have anticipated.

My husband, in the life we had before, called me his "spiritual scout." I was responsible for being investigatory, grazing on the offerings, gorging at the godly feast, and then coming home and reporting on it. Viatic rogue to his vicarious aide-de-camp, I was his personal mythology; he was mine. This is how we ended up making our story about ourselves. It allowed us to wake up in the morning, imagine who we were, remember our past, and go about our day inhabiting these roles. Even though we create the narrative, this interpreted version is not who we are. Did Richard already know this?

I sit on the side porch, reading my brain books, looking out to the fields of flowers, dry and brittle from the summer blaze, the bees lilting for some succulent nectar.

"We think we're willing our own choices from one defined mind, like a queen bee ruling over all. But the human brain has no such sovereign ruler," I say to the bees. In the nine months we live in the vineyard, I want Richard to track me, to remember my longings and history and requests, but I cannot track me. I see that Richard isn't scared of our situation. The sadness he occasionally feels is because he's concerned about my suffering. I'm the one who is terrified of losing my identity. Especially the "us" that I think I remember. While I'm making dinner, crying to my friends, listening to my husband snore, I slowly wake up to the truth that I have no idea what makes me "me." And the thing about truth is that it dismantles even as it inhabits.

Life after cancer eats what isn't true, our outworn notions, the ideas we hold on to because we want to do life "right," which mostly means what other people want us to do. But the body doesn't die. The body changes form, goes on to be dust or food or firmaments. That personality, though, that story we grow attached to: dead, dead, dead.

"I can't stand it," I say to Christie over the telephone. "I don't know how I'm going to stay with him." I'm walking the grove of the vineyard where we've been living for six months now. "This should be Eden: we've found work, we live in a sweet house, and after years of the grey, we're living in sunny California, for God's sake. But Christie, I feel alone!" An owl gazes at me from the eucalyptus trees. "Sometimes I think it would have been easier for you if he had died," Christie says.

She's speaking a thought I've been too ashamed to admit.

"The way that it is, there's no funeral, no support. No one knows that you lost him."

I fall on my knees on the stone road. The owl turns its square, spotted head. My lungs fill, as if I have been holding my breath since the night in the hospital when I watched Richard leave.

* * *

Sonya Lea's memoir, Wondering Who You Are (Tin House Books, 2015) is about her husband's cancer treatment, through which he lost the memory of their life. Sonya has written for Salon, The Southern Review, Brevity, The Butter, Guernica, Cold Mountain Review, The Prentice Hall College Reader, and others. She mentors writing students, and is leading a pilot project to teach writing to women veterans through the Red Badge Project. Originally from Kentucky, she lives in Seattle, Washington.