What Memory Means to Me

After her husband's stroke and severe memory loss, Allison Pataki reevaluates what it means to remember.

Beauty in the Broken Places

My friends and family members have always teased me for having “the memory of an elephant.” We’ll be talking about a specific day or moment, and I’ll come out with some random detail like, “Oh, yeah! That was the day you were wearing your new purple shirt” or “Remember we were late because we waited forever to grab coffee beforehand?” Usually the response is something akin to, “Huh? No, I hadn’t remembered that, actually. But now that you mention it, I guess.”

When I remember something, I see an entire scene; I remember who was there, how I felt. I remember what I heard and what was said and what it felt like to be in that moment in every sense of the word. Perhaps that’s why I love being a writer so much—my job is to basically describe how it feels and looks to be in a scene or a conversation or a particular moment, page after page.

And perhaps, too, that was part of what made it so excruciatingly difficult when my husband—the man with whom I had made so many of life’s most important memories—lost his own ability to remember.

When Dave woke up from his near-fatal stroke, age 30, beautiful, seemingly strong and outwardly intact, he could not carry memories from hour to hour, much less from one day to the next. He could remember my name and that I was his wife, but only sometimes. His memory of the fact that I was pregnant and we were expecting our first baby together, a girl, was patchy at best. He couldn’t remember the date, the name of the president, the fact that we lived in Chicago, or what the correct word was for “pen.”

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Dave was awake, yes. He was alive, and for that we were immeasurably grateful. But it wasn’t really Dave who woke up. Not the Dave I had known and loved. The Dave I knew was out of reach. This man lying helpless in the hospital bed was locked in a state of terrifying amnesia; I knew very little of what life with him would actually look like going forward.

A few weeks after the stroke, once Dave was strong enough to walk (with a walker) and eat some solid foods (with help wielding the fork), his rehabilitation therapists ran a mental orientation test on him. A healthy, functional adult scores anywhere between 80 and 100 on this test. To qualify as being out of a state of amnesia, an individual must score higher than a 79 for multiple consecutive days. Dave scored an eight.

Because of the nature of his highly unlikely and rare stroke, Dave’s impairments and lingering deficits were not of a predominantly physical nature; he could walk pretty quickly after he woke, and he didn’t have paralysis on one side or difficulty speaking, as one might expect when hearing of stroke survivors. Dave’s deficits were primarily cognitive and mental—so many of them had to do with his wiped-out memory.

Dave’s friends rallied together and sent a digital picture frame to his hospital room that they loaded up with photos of his former life. Photos of Dave playing lacrosse in college, hanging out with family, graduating medical school, traveling through Central America. All of this was part of our efforts to help Dave remember—remember who he had been, the life he had lived, the future we had hoped for. At night, Dave would fall asleep in his hospital room after a long day of therapy by about 7 p.m. I’d sit beside his cot, watching this digital picture frame click through image after image of my one-time husband and our one-time life, a life that suddenly felt gloriously idyllic and irreparably gone.

I won’t get into the year of intensive therapy and rehabilitation that followed. I won’t go into the endless details of the experience of regrowing a man’s brain from infancy level, or about the processes of neuronal plasticity, wherein an individual can actually change the make-up of his or her brain, well into adulthood. I won’t lay all that out here, though you’ll find it in my memoir.

What I will say is this: one of the best things that ever came out of Dave’s stroke was how it changed the way we, as a family, see and think about memory. These days, whenever I sit beside Dave, I can’t help but think about the fact that memory has so much to do with the past, yes, but also with the present. We can and must “remember” in the active, present tense of the word. We can remember to always say “I love you” when leaving through the front door, and to say “I love you” when walking back in through that door.

Dave’s and my home is lined with photographs—bright spots of joy we remember from the past. Moments that seem to us, now, to come from a different life. The life before June 9, our life before the stroke. But there will be new moments, too. We’ll fill new picture frames with new memories—experiences we’ll imbue with love and joy and meaning. And we’ll look at them so gratefully, with an appreciation made that much deeper because we know how hard we had to fight in order to live them. We know how close we came to never having those moments at all.

May we always remember to begin the day being grateful for life, however difficult that life may appear. To show up for our loved ones. To listen, to allow them to weep when they need to weep. To cook them dinners when they need us. To be God’s angels on this earth just like the angels who showed up for us along our journey through pain.

May we always remember to lavish our baby with kisses. To give thanks that she is here and she is healthy and she is ours—and to give thanks for the fact that we are here to love her and know her.

May we always remember that—even though I spend my days writing about women and their love stories—that ours, the fragile, imperfect, precious story we are writing day in, day out, is the most important one, and we can choose each day to write it with love and joy and gratitude and faith.


Featured Image: Getty Images/Kei Uesugi; Author Photo: Beatrice Copland

ALLISON PATAKI is the New York Times bestselling author of The Traitor’s Wife and The Accidental Empress. The daughter of former New York State governor George E. Pataki, she was inspired to write about Sisi by her family’s deep roots in the former Habsburg empire of Austria-Hungary. Pataki is the co-founder of the nonprofit organization ReConnect Hungary, regularly contributes to The Huffington Post and FoxNews.com, and is a member of the Historical Novel Society. She lives in Chicago with her husband and their daughter.

About ALLISON PATAKI

Allison Pataki
ALLISON PATAKI is the New York Times bestselling author of The Traitor’s Wife and The Accidental Empress. The daughter of former New York State governor George E. Pataki, she was inspired to write about Sisi by her family’s deep roots in the former Habsburg empire of Austria-Hungary. Pataki is the co-founder of the nonprofit organization ReConnect Hungary, regularly contributes to The Huffington Post and FoxNews.com, and is a member of the Historical Novel Society. She lives in Chicago with her husband and their daughter.
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