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Remembering





Remembering



Darkness. That's how I remember it. Just darkness. And finally waking, or not really waking, just being aware of extreme pain, all over my body.

Thinking about it later, really pondering it, I remember being in a car. I was small, seven years old, riding in the front seat and carefully strapped in. It was the first time I had worn my new pinafore. My big brother, Jim, smiled at me and started the car. I smiled back at him, touched his sandy hair that was so much like mine. He drove us to get hamburgers for supper. Mom and Dad waited at home for us to bring the food.

Jim was seventeen and a careful driver. He went through the high school drivers' education course and had his regular license for more than a year.

I knew this: Jim stopped the car at a four‑way‑stop intersection. He started up again, without looking, and a heavy van hit us on the right side, where I sat. I was almost dead when they pulled me from the car, and Jim's wrist and right leg were broken.

I knew this because this is what Jim always told us.

For more than two weeks I was barely conscious, with broken ribs, a broken nose, and a concussion. When I finally came to my senses, all I could remember about that time was happily leaving the house and riding in the car with my big brother to get the family dinner. And then darkness.

Jim had already been discharged, but he came to the hospital every day to see me. He would look at me and try to smile, but tears welled up in his eyes and he’d turn his head away. "Sis," he would say, "I'm so sorry." When Mom and Dad came with him, they didn’t respond to his apologies, but changed the subject immediately.

When, after two months, I came home from the hospital, Jim took care of me. He still couldn’t meet my eyes, but he tried to joke and cheer me up. Hobbling on one crutch, he brought my meals on a rolling cart, and sat by my bed, talking and reading to me, sometimes playing checkers or card games. I remember that he would pat my shaven head. “Now your hair is really like mine,” he said.

Both of our parents worked, Jim and I found it natural that he should be the one to take care of me.

It was a long time before I could get out of bed, and when I did I was still shaky. I lost the sight in my right eye, and the left eye was also affected. I lost a year of school, and had a hard time adjusting to the third grade when I started again.

Jim always blamed himself for my troubles. Even when my problems were unrelated to the accident, Jim tried to take the blame and "fix" things for me. We were both slow in learning arithmetic, but Jim did his best to coach me. Reading came easily to me. Jim always asked me though, if I had any trouble with my assignments. After a couple of years, I was completely well. My sight was restored in my left eye and I compensated well for the loss of the other eye, but I grew to depend on Jim's support in everything I did.

Darkness came again when I was sixteen. This time the pain was emotional. A police officer appeared at the door. “There’s been a car crash on Broad Avenue,” he said. “The occupants of the blue Ford sedan were both killed. We found your address on the car registration.”

Both my parents were dead. My whole being filled with pain. I fainted. Darkness lasted an hour or so, then again came the terrible pain. I was experiencing again the trauma of the previous accident. Then, as I heard the doctor say, "Let her sleep," darkness descended again. During the next few days, I frequently passed in and out of consciousness.

My parents’ only relative was my father's older sister, who never married and lived in another state. She came to the funeral, and stayed with Jim and me for a couple of months while we reorganized our lives. She took legal custody of me but the courts agreed I was mature enough to continue living in the house with my older brother. Aunt Lilly went back home.

Soon after her departure, I began to suspect that there was something wrong with Jim. At age twenty‑six, he still lived at home, had no job, no friends, and few interests. After graduation from high school, he seemed to have no ambition except to look after me and my needs‑‑and my whims. When he wasn't doing something for me, he would sit in front of the television, but when I asked him, he couldn't even tell me what he was watching. He never even bothered to change the channel. A couple of times I observed him sitting and staring at a blank screen.

My parents' life insurance supported us for the three years I needed to complete high school, but by then I realized the insurance wouldn't last forever. When I tried to talk to Jim about this, he didn't react. He just turned his head to look at the blank television screen.

"Jim," I said to him one night, "What are we going to do about money? Can't you find a job?"

"Beth, what do you need?" he answered. "Do you need some money?"

"I guess I'm the one who has to find a job," I said in a low voice.

"You want to work? What at?"

I decided quickly. "I'm going to see if I can get a job at the hospital."

"Okay." Jim turned back to the television.

Since the first accident I had met a lot of doctors and medical workers. I thought if I could get a job as an orderly or a nurses' aide, maybe I could study part‑time and eventually become a nurse or a technician. So I did the rounds of the local hospitals, and got a clerical job in the admissions office of a large clinic close by. I volunteered for the night shift, which left me a lot of free time to help out the medical staff. I enrolled in the nearby junior college, concentrating on biology and other science courses. After paying for my classes, I earned just enough to support the two of us.

Jim kept getting more and more detached. I worried about him. I met some of the psychiatric staff at the hospital where I worked, and I asked questions of them whenever I could. I gradually began to form an idea about what bothered my brother.

I approached him one day. "Jim, tell me about the wreck."

He looked up at me. "Our wreck? I've told you, Beth. I started up without looking, and you got whacked."

"But you got hurt, too, right?"

"No, I was all right."

That statement startled me. Didn't he remember he had been badly hurt, too?

"Jim, we're both all right, now. You have to quit thinking about it."

"What else is there to think about, Sis? Besides, you brought this up, you know. I ruined your life, and mine's gone down the drain, too."

"Look at me," I told him. “Here I am holding down a good job and going to school. I can walk and talk and see and hear. So can you. I'm all right, and so are you!"

"No, Beth, you're not all right. You lost your eye and a whole year of school. What can I get for you?" He started to get up from his chair.

"I don't need a thing!" Exasperated, I left him and went upstairs to my room.

I tried to go back in time and remember the details of the wreck. We left the house in a happy mood. Jim was teasing me and laughing and I was giggling, happy to be alone with my big brother. We started down the street. We came to a corner, and then another corner, where we turned onto Broad Avenue, the thoroughfare leading to the hamburger restaurant. Jim stopped carefully at each corner. Before we turned onto Broad Avenue, he came to a full stop and looked both ways before turning right. Then what? Where was the four‑way stop? There were no traffic lights or stop signs between our turn and the restaurant. Where were we when we were hit?

Now I wasn't remembering; I was reconstructing. What I knew, from what Jim always told us, was that there was a four‑way‑stop intersection. Where? This was too much of a puzzle right now, after my talk with Jim. I pulled out my books and tried to read my lessons for the next day, but I soon gave up and went to bed, tossing and turning through the night.

Thoughts about our conversation kept going through my mind during the next few days. What did I remember, and what did I only remember Jim telling us? It all jumbled together in my mind. I finally decided I remembered little. I remembered darkness. Only that.

All the rest of it, Jim had told us.

I tried again.

"Jim," I said, "tell me again about the accident. What do you remember?"

He turned toward me. "I remember you got whacked."

“No. Would you turn off the TV for a few minutes? Tell me where we were when we got hit."

His brow furrowed. "We were at a four‑way stop."

"Where, Jim, what street?"

"Before we got to Broad."

I sighed. "There are no four‑way stops between our house and Broad."

"Yes, there is one. Or maybe they changed it."

"I don't think so, Jim. Tell me, what do you really remember?"

"Oh, Beth, I just know you got whacked and it's my fault."

I went to him and put my arms around him. "Jim, no. I don't believe it was your fault. I think you've forgotten. Do you truly remember?"

"Of course!" Uncharacteristically, he pushed my arms away. "Of course I remember! You got hurt, bad, and it's my fault!"

Tears came into my eyes. I couldn't stand more. I clenched my fists and escaped to my room.

During the next week I found time to talk with one of the psychologists I had come to know at the hospital. I explained to him what was happening to Jim and asked him what I should do. Dr. Hess advised me to open up to Jim, to tell him I worried about him, and to make an appointment for him with Dr. Hess or anyone else he cared to see. He agreed with me that it sounded like Jim needed help.

Gradually, over several weeks, I convinced Jim to see Dr. Hess.

I also looked through all our papers to see if I could find any record of the accident. I found nothing. I then applied at the police station for a copy of the accident report. After a week, I got back a sketchy report. Apparently the police arrived late at the scene, after the ambulance took us away. The driver of the van gave his version of the accident, but Jim made no statement, and of course, I could say nothing.

But one thing was clear. The accident happened on Broad Avenue, at an intersection protected by a stop sign. Not a four‑way stop, just a stop sign on a side street. The police report did not state who was responsible, but did say the van came from the side street. The driver either did not stop at the stop sign or did not see us when he pulled out onto Broad Avenue.

I brought this information to Dr. Hess. After talking to Jim, Dr. Hess spoke to me.

"Beth, I can't give you details of my session with Jim; that would be unethical. But I can tell you I think you were right in pointing out the origin of his problem. And the police report is going to be helpful. You know, I don't think he remembers anything. He only remembers remembering. That happens a lot. If you don't retain the original memory of an event, but just remember that you remembered it, the facts as you understand them can change considerably."

"What do you think, Dr. Hess? Can you bring Jim back to life?"

"I hope I can, Beth. With your help at home, and with the information you've given me, I think we've got a good chance."

Because I was an employee of the clinic, Dr. Hess arranged minimal consultation fees for Jim, and the hospital authorized a loan to assist with the payments.

But after a few more sessions with Dr. Hess, Jim told me one day, "Beth, I don't want to go back to the doctor. He doesn't know what happened to you. He doesn't even think I should take care of you anymore!"

That shocked me. Who took care of whom?

"Please, Jim," I managed to say, "Give it some more time. He'll understand pretty soon. I think he's doing you some good. At least you're getting out of the house twice a week!"

"But that bothers me too, Hon. When I'm not here I can't take care of you."

I had had enough. Before I could stop myself, I cried, "Jim, I'm fine, I don't need taking care of. I'm supporting us! You can't even work! Jim, just keep going back to Dr. Hess--please!"

Jim staggered as if I had struck him. He looked at me with hurting, tearful eyes. Without saying another word, he turned back to the television and blocked me out. He did not go back to Dr. Hess.

A few weeks later, there was another episode of darkness. It was darkness for me, but danger and intense activity for Jim and others. During the night when I was sleeping, there was a short circuit in the wiring inside the wall of my room, and before it was discovered, the smoke overcame me.

Jim woke for some reason. It must have been intuition, because he couldn't have noticed the smoke through the closed door, and his bedroom was downstairs. He came upstairs to check on me, and when he opened the door a crack, the smoke and flames almost overwhelmed him. He fought through the fire and lifted me out of my bed, carrying me down the stairs to the lawn.

Fortunately, the neighbors had seen the smoke by that time and called the fire department. Jim and I both were taken to the hospital. He suffered several bad burns on his hands and arms, and my lungs were damaged by the smoke and heat.

Several days later, I was coherent enough to realize that Jim saved my life. This time, visiting me, he met my eyes and smiled, and when my lungs were in better shape, laughed with me.

By the time I left the hospital, repairs were well underway at the house, although it required a complete paint job to kill the odor of smoke. Jim organized everything! The fire insurance my parents had always insisted on covered most of the cost of repairs.

When things calmed down a bit, Jim finally went back to Dr. Hess. This time I saw the improvement in his attitude after almost every session.

After a couple of months, he announced to me, "You're right, Beth. I need to get a job. Then we can take care of each other."

I hugged him, hard.

Jim found his first job as a waiter in a new restaurant downtown. He was not very good at first, and got busted to busboy a time or two, but his boss liked him and helped him adjust to the work. The income certainly helped our home situation.

Continuing with Dr. Hess, Jim became more and more aware of his surroundings. He decided to go to church one Sunday, and I went with him, although we had not attended since the funeral of our parents. The service pleased us both. We felt we belonged there, so we continued going every Sunday.

And Jim started making friends. First at work, among the other waiters, he found a couple of fellows who would go to the movies with him and maybe have a game of pool afterwards. Then he became interested in one of the girls who attended our church. He began to invite her out.

One day, his girlfriend Carol joined us for Sunday dinner. During the meal he turned to her.

He said, "Beth and I take care of each other. I used to take care of her, then she took care of me for a long time. Now we have a mutual assistance society!"

Carol smiled and said, "We'll just continue paying dues in that society!"

I loved her for that. "You bet we will," I said, beaming.

After she left, Jim came to me.

"Beth, I've come to realize what happened. I was so disturbed by you being hurt that I took blame on myself. Maybe I'm to blame, but maybe not. Dr. Hess has helped me to see that. And, of course, the fire made me wake up. Anyway, there was no four‑way stop. My crazy mind made me think I remembered it. I don't even remember anything about the accident. I only remember a memory."

Jim will never be rich. But he now has a rich life. He married Carol soon after, and I left the house and took an apartment close by. He and his wife are paying me, little by little, for my share of the house. They have a new baby, Elizabeth, whom I adore.

I still have a busy life, with my job and my studies. With Dr. Hess' help, I am working to try to remember something besides darkness.




Maryetta Ackenbom


I've been writing stories since high school, about sixty years ago, and much more frequently since retirement from the United States Foreign Service. My two novels are available at amazon.com: "Georgia's Hope" and "Hope Abides." A number of my short stories have been published, with Clever Magazine, Our Day's Encounter, Adelaide, Chantwood, and Brilliant Flash Fiction among others. My French Poodle and I share a home in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico.

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1 Comments

  1. work with heart is much needed right now without sounding too socially concerned.

    ReplyDelete