Tuesday, February 25

Swiss Cheese Memory

I'm sure I blogged about this at the time, possibly just in passing, but my mothers cousin's husband had a stroke about 18 months ago now.  Sounds like a pretty distant relation, doesn't it?  And yet, in the way of families, I've always felt closer to him and his wife than my aunts and uncles.  Let's call them, oh Don and Ann

My mom and her cousin were close as kids and young adults.  Their grandparents often took them places together (a weekend trip to Ottawa for example), they were bridesmaids for each other.  My parents met about 3 weeks prior to Don and Ann's wedding, Mom brought Dad to the church for the wedding rehearsal and then the minister told my Dad to pay attention because he was next, Dad promptly turned red as a tomato.  Maybe the minister saw something because Dad did propose a month or so later.  But life gets busy with kids and I really don't remember spending a whole lot of time at their house as a kid.  I knew them from family events, but we didn't get together for play dates that I recall.  So the closeness isn't from spending more time with them than my aunts and uncles.

Still, when I was with them, it felt more like puzzle pieces falling together than with my aunts and uncles, a very genuine feeling of being comfortable.  Their daughter and I are like peas and carrots, birthdays weeks apart.  She's autistic and even when we were 11 years old, I liked being around her.  It is fascinating to see how her mind connects seemingly unique songs, phrases and toys/props.  But believe me, if you look, there is a reason she's quoting "The Music Man" or singing Lollipop at that particular moment.  

When I was working on my masters, I helped Don with his PhD.  He did survey based research that required statistical analysis and he didn't know his way around a computer or stats at all.  I think if it was my own research I would have run to the hills scared that it was beyond my skills, but somehow I helped him through it.  His wife was teasing that I was probably under the table at his defense whispering the answers to him.  

In exchange, Don would buy me a very late lunch and part of lunch would be a pint of beer.  But of course if two people are having a pint, it's not that much more to have a pitcher of beer...  Don would be driving home so I would get more of the pitcher than he did. I think I was drunk by 5pm every time we worked on his research.  In the end, I found out I liked dark beers and Indian food, and I gained a friend.  When my 6 year university relationship was ending and I felt lost, alone and hurt, I called him a couple of times when I was an absolute wreck.  He was a friend when I needed it.

So when Don had this stroke, I felt a fear unlike what I've felt for other relatives.  When my grandparents died, I felt they were old and had a good life.  I was sad to lose them and struggled with grief, but not afraid.  But Don is a friend, he feels closer to my age than my parents (which made his 70th birthday party a bit strange).  The other scary part of a stroke is that you don't know what's going to be left behind.  Strokes can be debilitating even for survivors, this was not a small stroke like my grandfather had and recovered from.

A year ago at Christmas, so a few months after the stroke, they had an anniversary party at the hospital.  It was helpful to have familiar people around him and it was great to see improvement from his initial days after the stroke, but it still wasn't... Don.  At the family brunch two weeks ago, he was there and I could see a little bit of the old Don.  But with so many people, and names not being a strong point, it was encouraging but I was still feeling out where the edge of his improvement was.

Wednesday night he phoned us (my favourite moment, I said hello and he said "I do know you!" - keep in mind, he phoned me, but I get it, he was pleased he had the right voice and face and name connected).  After the family brunch, Mr. Lina sent him some links for his movies (Don's background is in film, he's be so supportive and provides very specific feedback) but Don couldn't make them work.  We arranged to come over to watch them together, it's more fun that way anyhow.  

Last night we went to their house and it was lovely.  Don has a Swiss cheese memory - he remembers a pub that he and I went to for lunch 14 years ago, but still can't quite picture what my parents look like.  He could talk film with Mr. Lina - both from a film making perspective about layering sounds and the more hands on work involved with actual film stock.  There is some repetition to topics, or revisiting points because he needs the reminder or more context.  But his humour is sharp, he's building new memories and it was fun to talk about shared times.  Since Ann wasn't there for research days, it's often a new story for her too.  I can see him taking threads of stories and weaving a context for some of the memories he has.  One research day, he wanted to go to a restaurant in a nearby small town where he grew up.  The restaurant was sadly closed that day, but we drove around town and he pointed out his childhood home and told me that his high school principal lived down the street - he couldn't skip school if he wanted to!  And Don chimed in with the principals name.  

Those post-grad years weren't the best times in my life, maybe not the worst but I was pretty confused on a relationship level, scholastic level, what the hell am I doing with my life level...  It wasn't spiralling in the right direction and one insecurity built on the next.  Those times with Don were really good memories for me.  Helping him was good for me, made me feel more confident in what I knew.  He was a friend when I needed it and it was good to see that friend back last night.


  1. I love these kind of posts from you. You write them so well. They feel intimate. ♥

    1. Aw thanks. It's posts like that where I find flow. It is very easy to write.

  2. So heartwarming... I'm so glad Don has recovered so well, what a great post!

    1. Thank you. Strokes certainly highlight how complex the brain is.


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