"Oh, the comfort--the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person--having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all right out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and with the breath of kindness blow the rest away." --from A Life for A Life
Back in early December, I began a post to you which I immediately entitled Brain Power, but I never finished it; it seemed to stall somewhere around the fifth or sixth paragraph, and since then it has languished in draft mode. Now, nearly five months later, I know why. I'm sorry these are not the long-promised reflections on my marvelous visit to Paris and London, but I'm afraid that the City of Light has to step aside for the moment. Life intervenes in both joy and sorrow, and each has its time. This time, it's my brother Tom's.
Here is where I began in December, but it would have read the same two weeks ago, and so, changing only two verb tenses and a determiner, I will start with what I wrote then:
"My brother Tom and his wife Jean were in town this week for his regular six-week check-in at the Tisch Brain Tumor Center. It's usually a speedy affair; they arrive one afternoon, spend the next morning at the brisk clinical consultation (I go along for the ride to take notes), and then the next day they are on the plane back home. But meanwhile, we have the opportunity to see what his brain is doing, both in pictures and in the neurological and physical observations of the medical staff. It's a rare education in the control center of our physical, emotional and intellectual lives.
It's been more than two years and two surgeries, and many doses of therapy, since Tom was diagnosed with his aggressive tumor; he seemed to be holding his own--that is, the tumor hadn't grown more, at least visibly. The two years, as you might imagine, have been fraught with dire changes in the way not only he lives, but also his family, including his grown children and his siblings. Most certainly it has changed the way we think about the life we have because of our brains. Though Tom has been jolted into an entirely new existence by his glioblastoma, we around him have also made noticeable adjustments, hoping to support him and Jean as best we can in both emotional and practical ways, but also responding to the awareness that what we take for granted, especially in a family as usually healthy as ours is, is really as vulnerable as all life. Thinking about that changes the center of our gravity a notch, a quiet seismic shift.
For me, learning about his glioblastoma has made me think a lot about brain power.
Some decades ago, I came across an article about memory and the way it's stored. It seemed significant to my teaching at the time, because it described the way an experience or vision is stored in the brain, not as I had imagined it, as solid as stone, so to speak, but variably in pieces here and there in that gray matter. Further, it could be recalled by very differing impulses piece by piece, culled from different locations in the brain. I could see how that was happening in the people whose journaling I was privy to, particularly when they wrote again, days or weeks or a year apart, about the same experience. Each time, depending on a lot of factors being different--time of day, the catalyzing observation or sensation, whoever the writer was sharing the memory with--the related memory would change, from slightly to drastically; or it would begin differently, or center on a different aspect of the experience. Like a spotlight moving randomly over those stored cells, one piece or another would show up as the highlight...at least most of the time.
I'm sorry to say that my initial intrigue didn't make me want to do a more exhaustive study on the locii of memory; I took the article's information and applied it, accurately I thought at the time, in the way writers, especially journal writers, whose memories were the basis of their words, draw out by simple cues--a word, a gesture, a sensation--a reflection on a past part of their lives."
That's as far as I wrote in December. Somehow, my intention that morning had drifted away--I can't remember why, only that, interrupted or not, it slipped my mind what I really want to come back to about Tom's disease. All sorts of alien threads began to weave themselves in, and I wasn't sure they were leading me to the right place.
As a journal writer (and teacher), it would have been wise of me to practice what I preach...that in the sort of writing that we do, there is really no such thing as irrelevance on the road to meaning; our minds' eye has a better sense of the whole picture than, consciously, we do. Keep writing and the connections will make themselves known. Memory, I should have reminded myself, comes in pieces, not all on the same track, either.
So here, writing now, the story picks itself up without hesitation.
In those long ago days, I wish I had continued reading about memory and the brain in more depth, because now it might have bolstered what I had been scrambling to understand during and beyond Tom's visits, his clinical reports, scans and behavior. As well as those changes in thinking and feeling which his disease pushed to the surface in all of us.
Memory, it seems to me, is not only about past experience but about the uses we make of it every minute, every second of our lives. Though we learn it in elementary biology, it often escapes that searchlight of recall that the rest of the body outside the mind also holds memories, depending on them to function in the most ordinary ways...how to walk, how to talk, how to blink and recall pain or happiness, how to wake and sleep, how to eat, play, work, love, dance.
Nothing illuminated that more than Tom's last visit two weeks ago when he drew himself out of our brother Charles' car after the ride from the airport. I could see he was slower of movement and will, though what impressed me more was the way his mind seemed to work differently than his body, as if a disconnection between them had occurred in the last two months since I'd seen him. He had little trouble with what I will call intellectual memory (I'm sure there is a better term for it, but this isn't a scientific reflection, only a sister's impression)--indeed, facts about the present and the past came forth easily enough, if in halting speech. His body, though, appeared to forget how to walk, even eat (though he still had the healthy appetite all of us do), or recognize direction. Jean, bless her, had grown so accustomed to being his physical motivator that she could no longer leave him for even a few minutes.
It saddened all of us who had seen him in those last months because he appeared so unlike the take-charge, do-this younger brother that we (and he), beyond reason, were hoping would emerge again, even for short periods. His favorite response to how he was feeling was, "Oh, I'm okay...really."
From the beginning, we were all cognizant (the brain holding that information firm; the spirit keeping it at bay) of the way his tumor would progress, and his life diminish with it. But hope is one of those aspirations that rides the soul between mind and body; it was in us to hope for the best, even the impossible.
What I know now, watching Tom over these last years, and then watching him as, smoothly and quietly, he passed away early on the Monday after Easter, is that the brain is most remarkable at keeping us going beyond the body's tenure, purely by memory, and certainly by its compatriot trust. That beyond what we think we have the strength for nonetheless invites us further to the realm of possibility. Through brain power, even damaged and waning, we are privileged to follow to that realm if we remember those lessons of living we have been storing unused for just such occasions as life--and death--carry us to. There is a fine sense of timing inherent in us, and there is valor and fortitude for the grasping. If we are lucky, we find them at hand at the right moments.
Only a day after his visit here, Tom's brain finally gave way. In his hospice room, waking intermittently, but mostly sleeping, Tom was surrounded by as many of us as could come to stand watch, to be near and to comfort (but who comforts whom at such times, one asks?). It is memory, and the force with which memory becomes us, that gives such moments their dignity and power. Not a depletion of self as we wrongly assume when the body falters, but the transfer of a self into what we others can carry forward within us, the good continuing, the past a seamless thread on which life endures.
The faithful hand, Miss Mulock reminds us, will "keep what is worth keeping, and with the breath of kindness, blow the rest away." And in Tom's passing, there is so much good to keep.