Piecing It All Back Together

In an engrossing account of a thalamic stroke she had at age 33, Christine Hyung-Oak Lee shares what she’s learned from seven years of recovery:

So much of memory, I … learned, is connected to emotions. That which makes me happy bypasses the process for short-term memory. I understand why it is I remember the intense events of my childhood. Why that day in the snow, being pelted by snowballs and not any other day. Why that Halloween, listening to my parents scream at each other, and not any other holiday. Why that plane ride leaving NYC for California and not any other. Why I forget all the names of all the doctors except for my neurologist, Dr. Volpi. Whose eyes were kind. Who was the first specialist on scene in the ER. Who was the one who told me I’d had a stroke. That moment.

So much of memory, I learned, is scattered in modules. Over the year, I tried to tell stories, anecdotes — and I could start a story, but I could not continue or end the narrative. Sometimes, when someone piped up and prompted me, Didn’t such and such happen next? I remembered the next part of the story.

I learned stories and memories are pieces of a puzzle, pieced together most likely by the thalamus. This means I couldn’t lie. Because I couldn’t lie, I couldn’t write fiction. But later, knowing this is how stories are told — knowing firsthand that stories are segments woven together — helps. It helps.